Comedians have always had one simple guiding rule: Be funny. That is, some critics say, until now.
We're now witnessing a debate about whether there's a place for political correctness in comedy — that profession that profits from poking fun at others, playing with taboo and pushing the proverbial envelope. From Dennis Miller to Jim Norton to Daniel Lawrence Whitney (a.k.a. Larry the Cable Guy), comics are bemoaning the infringement on their freedom of speech wrought by overly-sensitive listeners.
Even Jerry Seinfeld, famous for his harmless observational patter, took to the Late Night with Seth Meyers to voice his objections to what he sees as "a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me." As an example, he refers to a joke in which he dons a stereotypical gay male affect. It hasn't been going over too well, he says, but he explains that it's only because audiences are too afraid to laugh for fear of seeming bigoted.
Fans are starting to push back against comics they perceive as expressing homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic or misogynistic world views. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, Instagram and other social media have emboldened the audience, with spectators brazenly unleashing cavalcades of criticism, like that lobbed at Daniel Tosh after he joked about a female audience member being gang-raped or the "Daily Show's" Trevor Noah for his handful of anti-Semitic and sexist tweets.
But these voices aren't stifling free speech — that bludgeon so often used by incorrectness defenders — they're creating more conversations about how we portray and treat historically disenfranchised groups.
Does some of the outrage go too far? Yes. Will fear of backlash lead to some performers self-censoring their material? Perhaps. But it's a false presumption that being more mindful when it comes to producing humor will somehow create comedy that's less funny. If anything, mindfulness makes comedy smarter.
As an Internet culture of sharing combines with a culture open to hearing from diverse comics, we're seeing a flourishing of humor that previously had a hard time finding opportunities to break through. There's Hari Kondabolu, who recently dropped a critically-acclaimed digital album joking about waiting for 2042, the predicted year when whites will be the minority in America. There are Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, who co-host 2 Dope Queens, a widely successful podcast that features the pair chatting it up between stand-up sets by guest comics (who usually aren't one of the #sooomanywhiteguys they often complain about). And of course there's Tig Notaro, who in 2012 walked on stage and launched into her now legendary viral set — "Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?" —and proceeded to fill in the details of a rough year that included the surprise death of her mother, a break-up with her girlfriend, a C. difficile infection and a diagnosis of Stage 2 cancer in both breasts.
Now, it seems, we're entering an era where societal shifts in what we consider funny and who gets to be funny are making more space for all sorts of new voices. These are comics that are tackling the taboo — making provocative observations on race, sex, death, money, politics. But they're doing it from the perspective of those who typically were the punch lines, not the comedians on stage telling the jokes.
At their noblest essence, comedians have always been cultural soothsayers. They levy critiques that let them be voices for the voiceless, prophets of public ills, conduits of catharsis. Despite all the challenges to the status quo in comedy, none of this core has gone away. The changes we're seeing aren't killing comedy; they're just letting more people in on the jokes.
Rebecca Krefting (Twitter: @ beckrefting) is an assistant professor of American Studies at Skidmore College. Her book, "All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), delves into the politics and history of stand-up comedy advocating social justice. This essay is part of a Zócalo Public Square series considering the question: What's so unfunny about political correctness?