Stand-up comedy is one of the last bastions of free speech -- an industry untouched by the taints of this capitalistic society, which values the dollar over all else. Sometimes, it seems like comics are the only ones fighting for our right to say whatever we want without fear of repercussions.
Except that's not even sort of true. In fact, the very nature of stand-up comedy flies directly in the face of what freedom of speech is supposed to be all about. We talk about that on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comics Dani Fernandez, Josh Denny and Quincy Johnson. I'm talking about it in this column, too, because who in the hell is going to tell me I can't? Oh hey, that makes for a decent segue into the first way stand-up comedy discourages free speech ...
#5. You Can't Talk Back In Comedy Clubs
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I don't know if there is a bigger double-edged sword in comedy than the fact that, in general, the audience is vehemently discouraged from speaking while the comic is performing. I actually talked about it once before in a column about "victims" whom we should stop feeling sorry for, in which I brought up the Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy and pointed out that, had the audience member in question adhered to accepted comedy club etiquette, that incident never would have happened.
I still stand by that, but it's worth noting that in that same column, I made it clear that I thought the joke itself was indeed pretty awful. I'm not alone there -- even Tosh himself apologized eventually, and that's precisely why the controversy didn't destroy his career.
Comics take the stage with an inherent advantage over the audience, in that out of everyone in the room, only the person with the microphone is allowed to speak. It's a rule; talk too much while in the audience, and you run the very real risk of being kicked out.
But here's the thing: That's not a rule intended to uphold free speech. It's meant to ensure that the other people in the crowd who paid money to be there don't have their night ruined by some cackling drunkard. What it's not meant to be is a license for comics to drop all standards of human decency when addressing what, in the big scheme of things, is a minor nuisance. Comics like to use the analogy of a person who inevitably gets attacked by the animal they're taunting at the zoo. You brought it on yourself, you know?
What people leave out of that argument is that, in almost every case, no matter the circumstances, those animals are killed afterwards.
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Easy, tiger. We own you.
Why? Because they can't be trusted to control their natural instincts around humans. Am I saying that unruly comics should be shot in the head? No, but I am saying that if you don't know the difference between handling a heckler like a professional and calling a woman a cunt because she had a few too many drinks before your precious comedy show, then maybe you deserve whatever happens next.
Think of it like this: What if you were talking in a movie theater, and instead of politely asking you to turn it down, the usher said he hoped your mother died of AIDS. Would you complain to a manager, or are all bets off because everyone knows you're not supposed to talk in a movie theater?
"Hey, no cell phones, Hitler!"
Right, having your freedom to tell jokes in peace threatened does not give you an automatic license to stop being a decent human being. A comedy show can be an emotionally charged situation for everyone involved. Things often get out of hand. Sometimes a comic has to apologize for something they said. Thinking that doing so from time to time represents an attack on the integrity of comedy is actually an attack on the overall notion of a person being able to say whatever the fuck they want when the situation calls for it. Yes, it's your job as a comic to shut down an unruly audience member on occasion. But if you can't do it in a way that doesn't make matters worse, then political correctness and free speech aren't the problem. You're just shitty at your job.
#4. Comics Confuse Disagreement For Censorship
Fact: Despite what anyone may say to the contrary, the "PC Police" are not keeping comics from saying the things they want to say. That we as Americans are free to say whatever the fuck we want has been the case for as long as we've been a country. But like so many other splinters of society, comics mistake the inevitable fallout from speaking their minds in a way that offends people as sign that their freedom is being infringed upon. That is just not the case. Give me the name of one comic in this country who was locked away in a labor camp for telling a joke. You can say whatever you want. You get to go on living your life as a free member of society. No one can take that freedom from you.
What people can take from you is your job. Comics have learned that time and time again. One of the most recent cases involved Gilbert Gottfried, who was fired from doing AFLAC commercials after tweeting a series of jokes about the tragic earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.
Read it in your best duck voice!
His jokes were seen as offensive by more than a few people, and as a result, the insurance company that had been paying him severed all ties with the screechy-voiced comic.
Is that how freedom of speech is supposed to work? Yes, that's exactly how it's supposed to work. Again, it's not like he was arrested. People have the right to say what they want, and other people have a right to react to it, provided that reaction doesn't infringe upon your right to be a person who's alive and free. Taking a job is not the same as taking a person's freedom, and equating the two borders on insensitive. There are people legitimately getting beaten and incarcerated for the things they say in some countries. Sorry you're less rich because you can't wait a month to start tweeting about a tragedy, though.
Oh, but what did AFLAC think they were signing up for when they made Gilbert Gottfried their spokesperson? After all, we're talking about a man who made a 9/11 joke on, like, 9/18. In New York City. And when it didn't go well, he launched into one of the most legendarily offensive and disgusting jokes of all time instead.
They had to know something like this would happen at some point.
That's true, and I'd counter that by asking this: What exactly did Gilbert Gottfried think he was signing up for when he agreed to work for AFLAC? Were they supposed to retweet those jokes? They're a fucking corporation. One that sells insurance, no less. That's a thing people sometimes buy in reaction to a tragedy. If you think they're going to staunchly support the voice of their goddamn duck mascot because "it's just comedy," then trust me when I say that AFLAC is not the naive party in this story. Once you sell out, you're expected to behave a certain way. Doing otherwise will have ramifications. That has nothing to do with free speech. It's just business.
Oh, and make no mistake about what I'm saying in that last paragraph ...
#3. Comics' Ultimate Goal Is To Sell Out
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You should be trying to get on television. That's your goal if you're a comic. I mean, it doesn't have to be; it's just that if it's not, people won't consider you a "real" comic. We're talking about an industry in which "making it" means telling jokes for five minutes on a late-night talk show, thus assuring yourself a free pass to do the same in any strip mall comedy club in this great nation for time eternal. There's nothing wrong with that, obviously. A career path is a career path. But you probably don't need me to tell you that no one gets on NBC by way of being a vehement defender of free speech.
No, you tailor what you say to fit what they want. Otherwise, you don't perform on their show. This is the opposite of saying what you want and not worrying if it offends anyone. It is the exact opposite. But if it's not something you're shooting for as a comic, there's barely any point in doing stand-up comedy at all. That's why so many people die on Last Comic Standing every year.
Among the myriad reasons you shouldn't feel sorry for comics who whine about political correctness, this is one of the biggest and most obvious. They don't want everyone to be able to say whatever they want without restriction -- they want to be able to do that, but also sometimes compromise completely, while accepting zero criticism for either.
That's why it sincerely bothers me to hear someone like Jerry Seinfeld crying about political correctness.
For starters, has it really been that long since I've seen Seinfeld tell jokes? Because I don't remember him ever saying shit to offend anyone. He was one of the main creative forces behind one of the longest-running sitcoms in network television history. Now that he's made a sufficient amount of money from playing that game, though, political correctness is ruining comedy.
Unfortunately, like so many other things, getting away with this kind of parallel living has become increasingly difficult, thanks to the Internet. That's probably why ...