Comedy has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents, working long and brutal hours in menial jobs in the struggle to raise four children, had every right to be sad, worried, and angry people. Instead, to get through the hard times, they turned to humour. The funniest jokes in our house were rewarded; banter and good-natured teasing were encouraged. Although not formally educated, my parent’s natural intelligence shone through in their quick wit.
Moving through my teenage years, comedy became even more vital. There is almost nothing worse you can be in high school than a fat girl, and everyone moves quickly to make sure you know it. I still very much endured my share of bullying and teasing, but I was able to make friends fast, build defences, and deflect a lot of abuse by using humour. Comedy helped me survive.
In the years since high school, comedy has given me great friendships, the ability to make people want to kiss me, and is responsible for my current career as a writer. But it’s also been the cause of immense pain.
Recently, some ‘comedians’ like Kevin Bloody Wilson and Austen Tayshus came out strongly against the current comedy climate, claiming that the irreverent and larrikin Australian humour they have wielded for decades is dying, being strangled to death by political correctness (Because there’s nothing edgier than whingeing to the Daily Telegraph). Tayshus said, ‘The soft new generation of PC-wary comedians need to grow some balls and not worry about pleasing the audience.’ (Ah yes, pleasing the audience, the worst thing a performer can do.) Comic Vince Sorrenti said: ‘Comedy is a wonderful form of expression, it’s not quite dead but it’s on life support. I’ve made fun of gender, homosexuality, terrorism, paedophilia. It’s not being negative – comedy enables you to deal with the darker things in life and by ignoring them, you create a problem.’
Do you notice anything about this sentence? Sorrenti, a very established and experienced comedian who is concerned about the PC Police ruining comedy, places ‘gender’ and ‘homosexuality’ in the same category as ‘darker things’ like ‘paedophilia’ and ‘terrorism’. This hints towards the actual issue here.
Comedy has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. But it’s also been the cause of immense pain.
I have heaps of great comedy memories, but my first one is vivid for the wrong reasons. It’s a memory of being in the house while my older brothers watched Eddie Murphy’s 1983 special Delirious, the house filled with hysterical laughter at Murphy’s genius, as they watched it over and over. That particular special opens with five minutes of extremely homophobic material. Murphy talks about faggots, being scared of faggots, being scared of getting AIDS, and various other hilarious jokes – mostly about faggots. Murphy has since apologised for the material, but it left a mark on me forever.
A more recent comedy memory involved seeing stand-up comedy a few years ago in Brisbane a few years ago with my then-girlfriend, as the comic on stage launched into a set of homophobic jokes about the movie Brokeback Mountain. First of all, Brokeback Mountain had been out for ages – if you are going to try and be offensive, at least do me the service of being current. I was sitting at a table of queer women, and I have the distinct memory of my stomach dropping, and the tense looks on their faces, while the audience around us all laughed.
Kevin Bloody Wilson’s ‘Poofters’ routine from the 90s about going into a gay bar in London has dated about as well as you might imagine. With lines like ‘I walked into this joint and it’s just top-heavy with these doe-eyed, limp-wristed fucken doughnut punchers,’ it is actually quite confronting to listen to now. But as a gay person, it always would have been confronting for me to listen to. I would not have been one of the audience members roaring with laughter – I would be sitting there, humiliated and scared.
I have the distinct memory of my stomach dropping, and the tense looks on my friends’ faces, while the audience around us all laughed.
These things were undoubtedly of their time. Racist and homophobic jokes, which were always obviously bad, and which always punched down in a gross mimicry of what comedy should be, were more accepted by wider audiences back when these men were at their peak. Thankfully, society has progressed to a point where most audiences no longer find it funny or acceptable for straight men to make jokes about faggots onstage. And yet somehow, even without their genius, comedy in Australia is thriving. Comedy festivals around the country are flourishing, there continues to be new avenues for comedians to get on screen, and comedy podcasts are constantly reaching new heights.
Haha I am sorry pic.twitter.com/Jspknl4CGl
— Marcia Belsky (@MarciaBelsky) May 14, 2018
This shift doesn’t mean that comedians can’t make edgy jokes, or joke about whatever topic they choose. I am of the belief that almost nothing is out of bounds, as long as you tackle it in the right way. But yes, it is true that you can probably no longer walk on stage, talk about how disgusting homosexuals are, and expect the audience to eat it up. But this is not a bad thing. This is not PC Culture censoring you or ruining your life, or making it impossible for you to do comedy. This is society progressing, and you remaining sadly stagnant. These complaints are from comedians who had it easy for a long time, and who are too lazy or untalented to progress their comedy along with society. These are bitter men who refuse to approach comedy in a more clever way, and who would instead prefer to blame their inability to win over the wider public on those groups they are no longer allowed to use as punching bags.
This is not PC Culture making it impossible to do comedy. This is society progressing, and you remaining sadly stagnant.
This is sadly not only an argument put forward by the Kevin Bloody Wilsons of the world. I have had similar arguments with more moderate comedians, those who were able to figure out their comedy chops at university, years before their every move could be scrutinised on social media. Frustratingly, they claim that many young comedians are trying too hard not to offend, and therefore not hard enough to be funny. This is as unfair as it is short-sighted.
Young comedians refusing to take the trodden path should be admired – they are figuring out how to do comedy without the tried and tested way of punching down and making the easy joke. They are being edgy, they are pushing boundaries, and they are being funny under a lot more scrutiny, and they are succeeding. This is not about being overly sensitive, it is simply about growing and adapting to what the audience will accept, and figuring out how to be funny within those parameters. It’s also just about not being a shit person. I’ll happily trade the death of the kind of comedy these men are mourning for the ability to go and watch comedy without feeling like I might become the butt of the joke.