On Controversial Comedy

One of the common topics around stand-up is the issue of controversial comedy. Proponents often cite freedom of speech, and fighting the censorship of an overly sensitive generation. Personally, I think this argument is bullshit.

As I’ve written about before, free speech doesn’t mean there are no consequences to your words. In the UK and the US comedians do not face censorship, what they might face is people complaining about the jokes they make. These are not the same thing, and conflating the two massively misframes the issue. You are free to make whatever joke you want to, the question is should you?


Should you make jokes which perpetuate harmful stereotypes? Should you get laughs at the expense of people who are already disenfranchised or oppressed by society? As a stand-up comedian myself I always try to ask myself why I think a joke is funny, who am I laughing at and why is it making me laugh. I don’t buy the defence that “it’s just a joke”, comedy is one of the many ways we normalise behaviour and communicate what attitudes are acceptable. A good joke can stick in the memory for years, and whether you know it or not, can influence the way you see the world.


So does this mean there are topics you can’t make jokes about? Perhaps, it certainly means there are some areas you should be careful about. There’s a big difference between making a joke which ridicules sexism, and making a joke which reinforces sexist ideas. People who are outside of oppressed groups also need to recognise that they can’t make the same jokes as people whose personal experience is shaped by prejudice and oppression. As a queer person I am comfortable with queer comedians making jokes about their experience which I wouldn’t be comfortable with straight people making. I’m also white, I love comedians like Nish Kumar who talk about issues around race, but I recognise it would be wrong for me to make the same jokes.


So there was my long ramble about controversial comedy, hope this was of interest to some of you 🙂

3 thoughts on “On Controversial Comedy

  1. Yes, it was of interest. I’ve been thinking a ton about political correctness, and about how (among other things) people criticize us for being the “PC police” when we note that a joke is bigoted in some way. But sometimes, the PC thing to do is, you know, the correct thing to do.

    1. I think a lot of the people I see saying “oh everything’s too PC now” are actually saying “I can no longer get away with lazy jokes which rely on racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia”. Which is a completely correct assessment, I just view that as a positive thing xD

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