15 Comedians Who Were Fired, Went To Jail Or Worse For Telling Jokes
How far are you willing to go for a joke? Some of these comedians are willing to lay down their jobs, freedom, or even lives for the sake of a free exchange of ideas. Here are 15 comedians who have been arrested, fired or worse for joke telling.
George Carlin performed his famous “Seven dirty words you can’t say on television” bit at Summerfest in 1972 when opening for Arlo Guthrie. He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The charges were dismissed however, when the judge determined the language was indecent but fell within free speech and didn't lead to a disturbance at the show.
Shady Abu Zaid
Egyptian comedian Shady Abu Zaid was abducted in 2018 by the Egyptian government due to his appearances on a satirical political show. The government charged him with joining an outlawed group, and disseminating false news. Abu Zaid was jailed for 2 years without parole, then sent to prison for 6 months where he was eventually released in 2020.
In July of 2021 TikTok comedian Nazar Mohammad, better known as Khasha Zwan, was abducted and murdered for his jokes about the Taliban on his Tiktok. The Taliban claimed to be a kinder, gentler Taliban, and Zwan mocked them for it. A video surfaced of Zwan’s abduction, showing him making fun of his abductors up until the very end.
Lenny Bruce. You knew he’d be here. Bruce was a trailblazer for free speech in comedy, as he was arrested several times over the years for obscene language. Bruce was arrested in San Francisco in 1961, arrested again in Chicago the next year for the same reason, deported from the UK the next year, and arrested twice in New York the year after that.
Ablikim Kalkun, a popular comedian and singer in Xinjiang China, was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the Chinese government for his disseminating his radical ideas of “separatism, religious extremism, and discriminating against national education.”
When did China get so strict?
Political comedian Zarganar, meaning “tweezers,” has been dogging on the oppressive government of Myanmar for so many years that he is forbidden from performing comedy of any form in the country. Because of this, he has moved more toward straight politics, but has still been arrested numerous times, with the most recent being during a 2021 protest against the military coup earlier that year.
The Mustache Brothers were a political vaudeville act that toured in Myanmar for decades. The trio would go from village to village telling their jokes about the tyrannical government eventually resulting in their sentence of “5 years of hard labor.” They said the sentence consisted of breaking rocks, and fellow prisoners being shot in the head. The three are “free” now, but only allowed to perform in their own home for tourists.
Many Russian Comedians During The Soviet Union
Yakov Smirnoff told the Chicago Tribune that countless comedians had been arrested for joke-telling in Russia. The process of censorship was first you would write out your material for the year, then mail it to the Russian censors to be approved. “You can't improvise or do anything like that. You write out your material and mail it to them, and they send it back to you with corrections. After that, you stay with it for a year,” said Smirnoff.
Russian comedian, Idrak Mirzalizade, was arrested for 10 days in Russia for a joke about the state of “Russian hotel rooms.” The government charged him with “humiliating a group of persons singled out on a national basis.” After his release, he was sentenced to leave the country and never return.
Whew, tough crowd.
On April 19, 1927, Mae West was charged with obscenity and behavior designed to corrupt the morals of youth and was sentenced to ten days in a workhouse. The charges came in response to her play “Sex” which was more of a critique on the relationships between men and women. West said that she enjoyed her time in prison, but the only thing that bothered her was the “cotton underwear.”
Brazilian comedian Danilo Gentili is a conservative comedian who was arrested for making jokes about liberal Congresswoman Maria do Rosário on Twitter. A notice was sent to Gentili by the Brazilian congress asking him to remove his defamatory statements, but he instead filmed himself shoving the notice down his pants.
Munawar Iqbal Faruqui
The Muslim minority in India has been discriminated against for years, with a long rise in Hindu nationalism in the nation. Indian and Muslim comedian Munawar Iqbal Faruqui often used the controversy of his ancestry for fuel on stage. He said on stage “TikTok is the second most hated community in this country, you know which the first one is."
For insinuating that India was racist, Faruqui faces 4 years in prison for “hate speech.”
The Smothers Brothers
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour featured great writers like Steve Martin and Bob Einstein but was canceled by CBS for too many anti-Vietnam war jokes. The channel claimed the series ended due to a failure to meet deadlines, but it’s hard to believe when the network wouldn’t even allow Joan Baez to perform due to her political ties.
The late Gilbert Gottfried was removed as the voice of the Aflac duck after the comedian made a joke about the victims of the 2013 Tsunami in Japan. Gottfried said “Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”
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Top Image: HBO