Comedy Sport Always Had Its Perils: Still Does

Violence, righteousness, and comedy coexist in the world.

Discussions are ongoing this morning, two days after the Academy Awards 2022.

No matter what we as individuals may think about a given topic, and no matter how politically correct we aim to be, we cannot escape the realities of life entitled above. We rely on our righteousness, our sense of humor, and sometimes violence, as means to ends. Any of us are capable of acting in each of these realities, under particular circumstances. But the aim of late has been to avoid violence of any kind.

Few of us are professional comedians, while the rest of us merely practice occasional comedy to get through our days. In this manner of thought, we’re all in the same world where we often use comedy as a mechanism of coping and, too, communication.

Just a half-year ago, some of us made judgements that controversial statements made by professional comedian Dave Chappelle during his Netflix comedy feature The Closer could lead to violence against trans community members. More, it is debated whether Chappelle’s spoken positioning on trans topics have power to diminish life experiences of trans people during a time when that population should expect political progress. Ultimately, Chappelle wanted to communicate his position and did so.

Today, we’re talking about an event of physical violence that took place during a comedic presentation given at the 2022 Oscars, during which Chris Rock made statements directed at Jada Pinkett Smith and, after which, Will Smith ascended the occupied stage and apparently physically struck Rock in retaliation.

It is clear: what is said on stage in jest can result in the same direct consequences as if it were said on a school bus or in a bar.

Lately, comedians are under a larger kind of public scrutiny, ironically—and somewhat incorrectly—known as the ‘new’ private censorship. (While censorship by the government is unconstitutional, censorship by private interests remains a powerful force and is nothing new.)

There is righteousness in a world of sentient being, and that valued idea of virtue is a normalizing factor in each of our lives. We’re all closely tied from birth to our own sense of what is right and wrong, and we grow up in largely isolated societies while learning from others what comprises right and wrong under sometimes conflicting ideals. Over time, we find that our own ideas of virtue can actually impede the progress of others, and this is both humbling and regretful.

On the lighter, but-still-impactful, side of things, we may find that individualized . . . or, compartmentally socialized . . . ideas of virtue can offend the sensibilities of others whose experience has been different.

What of free speech, though?

In comedy, as in daily life, our ideas of virtue have different (even opposing) bases. Our subjective viewpoints in an ever-expanding society leads us to these opportunities of exploration relating to the tenability of anything-goes comedy—even in a free-speech society.

We live in a highly-structured system of human organization in which we rely on certain freedoms balanced with other expectations. Ultimately, we all want to live in a non-violent society. At the same time, we seem to want to accept the idea that verbalism is always okay and should never beget physical violence.

So, where does verbalism cross a line, and how should we approach that crossing?

“Can’t we take a joke?!”

It’s an old question. Many of us heard it for the first time as toddlers, at home and under the brunt of family chiding. Many more of us for the first time as first-graders, the brunt of experimental grade-school shenanigans either at school or around the neighborhood.

None of us are strangers to the day-to-day borderline comedic efforts of peers. In most cases, we immunize ourselves as much as possible from manifestations of upset caused by our sensitivities to things said. We tame our own upset under implication of fallout, mostly. Primarily, we don’t want bystanders to think that a jester has gotten the best of us, and also we know that people do press assault charges in many cases. Essentially, in our free speech society, we have learned over our lifetimes that violence is not an acceptable answer to verbal affront.

George Carlin said, “It’s a comedian’s duty to find the line and deliberately cross over it.”

From an early age, we’re taught that sticks and stones may break our bones; yet, words cannot. We are prepared by society for verbal battle by being primed to bear verbal onslaughts without losing our cool and perhaps our freedom in a society that has criminalized physical violence as any advanced society should.

Ultimately, however, we are (over time) psychologically developed by our environment into own our sense of what’s right and wrong, however things turn out.

The progressive idea is that, respectively, free speech is right and physical violence wrong. As such, we’re often line-crossing when it comes to what we say in order to get closer to what we’ve been primed to accept about ourselves and the world around us. We’ve learned, too, that saying nothing leaves us where we’re at, and this may be a place of no good.

Whatever our reaction in a moment—be it a comedic challenge to events or some comic ‘relief’ at the expense of someone’s inherent qualities—are we being a good sport when we cross those lines? Or are we making a misstep that could result in righteous reaction? Just because we can say anything, should we?

If we’re to sympathize with Carlin’s point made on the “job” of comedy—task being to ‘make people think’—then we’d say to ourselves, “Chris Rock was merely shedding light on the struggles of women afflicted with alopecia in a society that expects women to have a full head of hair” (whether he meant to or not).

Of course, the condition is being discussed today: the public is being educated about alopecia as a direct result of the Oscars’ controversy.

We’re also talking about how the Oscars should be . . . and any awards show, all heavily criticized of late mostly because so much is going on in the world, we’re aware of most of it, and have apparently forgotten the value of entertainment in a troubled society.

And that idea of ‘education’, or insight, is along the lines of something Louis C.K. would say . . . has said . . . something about forcing people to think by offending them: “Offending people is a necessary and healthy act.” (But, always? No.)

There’s much more to the idea of shedding light, in any venue, isn’t there? So much more to be considered, in fact, that it makes the simplistic comedy defense practically null. It turns out, there is violence in our righteousness, at times. No matter the law, when people are provoked, the turnout is unpredictable.

If what Carlin said about the “duty” of a comedian is true, is it true all the time?

According to one columnist in 2016, Carlin [and other comedians] “follow in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce, who used comedy to prod, poke and provoke audiences and society into some sort of reaction”.

This belief culture within the world of comedy has always offered a footing in successful performance. During challenging times, this belief system allows the ridicule of the beliefs of others in the face of the alternative: being silenced by them.

But it’s become both passe and yet remains necessary to challenge the beliefs of others. After all, we’ve all come about our beliefs through culture, with the caveat that we are not always acting in the best interests of others however much we might tell ourselves that we are.

Such subjective stances are the bane of humanity.

The idea of ‘freedom to’ scathe in the public interest is definitely leaned upon as a means to excuse such behavior. But wherever the idea does exist in truth as a matter of public good, does that mean that lines crossed must be respected without consequence, as a means to some end?

Traditions of slander

Comedians and other performers have long endured risk of violence, verbal and other, due to perceptions taken at the brunt of verbal offense. In fact, tomatoes and eggs (particularly rotten ones) are known as expendable fodder useful for being flung onto stages occupied by a variety of attention-seeking performances, whether for entertainment or politics.

Today, however, audiences are generally expected to exhibit decorum at performances and other events, ensuring an environment of respect free of seemingly harmless acts of violence (injuries from packed fruit, for example) that often begat more harm.

Even in the face of insult comedy, audiences are culturally expected to grin and bear the attacks. But there are always those times when hecklers attempt their rise (in often comedic ways), and then, too, those times when insult comedy should simply be left behind, in wait for a better day in recognition of a more intentional event. Last night was not the Oscars Roast, after all.

This kind of trouble has been brewing. Turning award events into targeted comedy roasts has been frowned upon by attendees, but then they are seen as non-sporting control freaks only interested in themselves if they make a stand concerning an annual event that traditionally has been meant to honor their work. Sure, laughter is good, but must be handled with utmost care. Still, there will be misses.

Rock’s jokes during his Oscar presentation incorporated a miss or two, as such presentations at these events often do. This is expected, and what a gem for Oscar cams to catch a sincere eye roll at this event where everyone is usually all smiles on camera.

At the same time, his jokes didn’t reveal a hateful regard, as we have seen before. This was a feel-good event, feeling traditional, feeling like a time of honor for an industry—its participants.

Where harm begins, where should it end?

Political correctness is a lofty, respectable ideal. It works to prevent potentially damaging rhetoric designed to put people in certain places, and to prevent utterances and tirades that might otherwise do damage or invite grief. Getting its start in protection of oppressed groups, today’s PC (politically-correct) climate is reminiscent of its origins but also dons new cloth.

Maybe comics should be immune from PC expectation. If so, what about the people laughing?

Political correctness is a shapeshifter that can appear where you least expect it: several comedians have been called out in recent times for targeting certain populations or otherwise offensive comedy.

PC behaviors traditionally work, in part, to relegate damaging—even so-called ‘comic’—comments to the exclusive territories of private homes and public stages, where either in privacy or on exhibition the things that we primarily intend as comic relief still can wield power differently than we expect.

This 2022 Academy Award event was certainly no hidden room of verbal violence, but there was a sporty comedic taunt not well received by its target—about a physical quality. Things could have been left at that and surely the PC police (aka cancel culture) would have taken the comedian to task on behalf of Jada and others who struggle with hairlessness.

Ye Righteous Ego

But righteousness involved itself earlier than expected and violence occurred. We don’t really know why. Any other day could have brought a different result.

There may be more to this story than we’ll ever know, but on the surface it’s as simple as righteousness and offense. Being a good sport was a lost factor on both counts, in my opinion. But only one person in the moment was being had the job to be unexpectedly comic . . . the expectation to be on stage in their way.

When is the last time you went to a major event were allowed to jump stage?

Why would there be no preventive to climbing the stage while others are performing?

Sure, people are sneaky and get through. But, why such presumption of safety at this event? There appeared to be no security present and, more, no expectation that one shouldn’t approach stage for any reason while a performer is at work.

There was an assumption of safety akin to grade-school plays of the 70s, or as if it were a private home performance. Judging by the general inaction of the on-site audience, it would seem that they also expected someone else to handle the outburst at some point.

I find these latter points to be of larger concern than the jokes or spontaneous reactions of the occasion.

Further Reading:

Creating the Good Society, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Hollywood Did Not Appreciate Ricky Gervais Roasting Them With His Golden Globes Monologue, Giedrė Vaičiulaitytė

Free Speech, ACLU


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