Roy Wood Jr. Brilliantly Boils Down All of the Hand-Wringing About What Comedians Can and Cannot Say to A Single Sentence

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Roy Wood Jr. Brilliantly Boils Down All of the Hand-Wringing About What Comedians Can and Cannot Say to A Single Sentence

It’s one of the most belabored debates in entertainment: “When does comedy go too far?” asked NPR’s Eric Deggans on All Things Considered before playing a montage of musings from Sarah Silverman, Jim Jeffries and, of course, Dave Chappelle about censorship, free speech and the right to offend.

This discussion commonly weaves itself into a circle as some comedians claim the right to speak any and every thought in front of adoring crowds without criticism, then cry censorship over negative reactions to their material. Those points are often opposed by idealists who believe that the process of removing “problematic” phrases and sentiments from media will also eradicate the underlying prejudice of those words from society at large. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Yesterday, Deggans was joined on All Things Considered by late-night writer Jenny Hagel and Daily Show correspondent (and possible future host) Roy Wood Jr., the latter of whom commented on the stances of the Chappelles, Wayanses and Zuckers of the world who believe that making comedy should come with absolute cultural impunity by simply saying, “This demand to exist in a space where there is no criticism or accountability, I don't think that's realistic.”

There we go, conversation over. Everyone, break for lunch.

Obviously, this doesn’t end the discussion of “Where is the line?” because the answer is constantly changing — what was deemed acceptable in 1972 might not be as warmly received half a century later. Said Wood, “Where the boundaries lie, I think that’s dictated by the public who is receiving the joke. And I think America, as a whole, is at a spot now where the entire country is changing and evolving.”

The idea that the role of the comedian is to tiptoe on that line and to push boundaries is one that is commonly accepted without needing elaboration, but Hagel wonders if boundaries are actually being pushed by those comics who rail against “cancel culture.” “I think if you are saying something anti-Semitic or homophobic or racist, I don’t know that that’s pushing boundaries 'cause that’s old,” she argued. “We have all heard that a lot. Like, that’s nothing edgy. You’re not edgy if you’re doing something that someone on a playground in fourth grade is doing. To me, stuff that pushes boundaries is stuff that introduces a new thought, a new point of view, a new analysis of something that we’ve all been talking about.” 

Hagel reinforced the importance of “punching up” and aiming jokes toward the powerful instead of getting laughs at the expense of the powerless.

Wood commented on the pushback he’s received on some of his more sensitive material, saying that, when he gets a negative reaction from a joke, he tries to “give grace to the people that are annoyed or upset because, you know, the thing about jokes, you know, they are definitely an attempt. Like, you’re always trying. You’re not always going to land the joke. … They may not take your intention into account.” 

The Daily Show correspondent doesn’t see these instances where audiences take offense as attacks or censorship, but as opportunities to see the topic from a new angle and improve an incomplete worldview. “You could get something right four days in a week and on the fifth day, accidentally misgender someone or accidentally come at a joke from an entry point that suggests that you have a blind spot to the totality of the issue,” he explained.

While the Western comedy world continues to debate questions of “censorship” and “free speech” as if comics who earn eight-figure sums each time they release a stand-up special are being oppressed, comedians in places like Iran and Russia are being thrown in jail by totalitarian governments who control discourse through force and fear. Censorship isn’t just a vague accusation that American and British comics throw around on Twitter whenever there’s backlash to a bad joke, and freedom of speech has never meant freedom from criticism — in fact, it means that, just as comedians are free to express any idea they have, their audiences are free to express their disapproval as loudly and openly as they wish. 

But that doesn’t mean that all criticism needs to be taken seriously. Or as Wood put it, “Everyone has an opinion — every opinion isn’t necessarily worth listening to.”

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