Should comedy have an expiration date?

In a politically correct society, we look at whether it is right to remove offensive jokes from comedies written before our time.

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A comedian stands on stage holding a microphone. The background is black
Photographer: Staff Sgt. Nathan Bevier, U.S. Air Force

Let’s begin with a few relevant self-plugs. Firstly, I’m a comedian. I’ve performed with the Oxford Imps and Oxford Revue, as well as just on my lonesome with a microphone and a dose of delusional confidence, both nationally and internationally. I am only a baby comedian – I’ve been performing for a miniscule two years – but this is just to illustrate that I am not some she-devil here to ensure no-one ever has fun again. I quite like fun, sometimes I even cause it. Secondly, I will be playing Rosalind in this year’s Oriel Garden play, As You Like It, sassing about in the gender-bent confusion of the Forest of Arden.

Now, why are these two humblebrags about my performance history/future relevant? Let me explain. It is a temperate day in mid-May, and we are reading through the scene in As You Like It we’re about to rehearse. My essay deadlines had haemorrhaged the day before, so I hadn’t had time to go over the scene again before we started; I was basically reading cold. All of a sudden, I find myself saying this:

Why, she defies me, like Turk to Christian: women’s gentle brain Could not drop forth such giant-rude invention, Such Ethiop words, blacker in their effect Than in their countenance.” – Act IV, Scene 3

Everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats. I look up, apologetically, as if I’ve just been briefly possessed by a xenophobic Elizabethan ghost. Our director clears her throat and says “Yeah, sorry guys, that bit will be cut out of the final script”. We carry on, but I can’t stop thinking about it. In one fell swoop, this chunk of text in a supposedly merry comedy has taken aim at “Turks”, women and people of colour. We know instinctively that this is wrong, a relic of a context we can no longer access, something an audience shouldn’t be confronted with during a bright, summery performance on the college lawn. And, yet, there it is. Shakespeare is one of the most, if not the most, famous writers in the world, and we are reminded, strikingly, that as timeless as his works are, they are most certainly of their time.

Now, this is not to say there should be a cull of everything that doesn’t allow an audience to have a happy-go-lucky evening of summertime fun. Some of my favourite plays and performers thrive in the uncomfortable. The Netflix comedy sensation, Nanette, by Hannah Gadsby is both hilarious comedy and scathing, uncomfortable truth-telling about the world we live in. I love comedies about terrible people doing stupid things, I am a fan of art that showcases the world as it is, not as the glossy ideal it ought to be. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri, and a lot of Martin McDonagh, in fact, confuse our alliances, encouraging us root for funny small-town men who also happen to be cruel and racist or misogynistic.

I study English Literature at this fine university and, aside from teaching me a lot about procrastination and how culottes stand up to overheating lecture halls, the syllabus constantly puts me up against brilliant pieces of art that are overtly or covertly problematic. My own play, reviewed last term by this very newspaper, was commended for its brutal treatment of themes like misogyny and domestic violence. Complexity muddies the water, and great characters are born out of complexity. So, how do we square this circle? How do we allow complexity to survive whilst being PC? Well, I think it comes down to how we think about political correctness, ‘wokeness’ and sensitivity.

Many white, straight, cis-gender men I have met, at this university, on the UK comedy/stand-up circuit or in my travels elsewhere, have put me in mind of a meme I saw on Twitter. Twitter user @keithcalder tweeted, “Twenty-Something White Man Heroically Agrees To Take Devil’s Advocate Position On Controversial Issue That Doesn’t Affect Him”. Well-meaning and intentionally damaging people alike defend to the death the right to say anything you want, to ‘push the boundaries’ of what is acceptable, to speak freely.

This always raises the question in my head: what if they protected other people as fervently as they protect jokes about Caitlyn Jenner, gay children, people of colour? The most common argument I’ve heard in favour of offensive, non-PC jokes in comedy shows and theatre is that it’s ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘just a joke’, complainants are told to ‘get a sense of humour’. Again, this always brings to mind the question: what if the people demeaned by that joke were as important to you as your own freedom to enjoy it, or to make a similar joke yourself?

This is not an issue, really, of restricting freedom of speech; it is an issue of responsibility, culpability and an awareness that if a joke doesn’t offend you, perhaps it is not because it is not offensive, but merely because you are in a powerful enough position to let it bounce off of you. From satirical political cartoons to offensive caricatures of people of colour used to sell soap and deodorant, we have long acknowledged that words have power, especially if those words have the power to provoke laughter, ridicule, dehumanisation. ‘Just a joke’ doesn’t really make sense when jokes are considered powerful political and cultural tools.

What can be done, then? Should we do a production of Othello where everyone is very nice and considerate and everyone lives happily ever after? Should A Streetcar Named Desire be purged of domestic violence? Should the upcoming performance of The Roaring Girl, an Elizabethan play (that I, incidentally, love) about cross-dressing, be stripped of all its transphobic or intersex discriminate implications? Should the shocking 15 minute monologue performed at this month’s OUDS showcase from I Punched a Nazi ((( And I liked it ))) be “tidied up”, with all of the references to white supremacist radicalisation left on the cutting room floor? Should Angels in America just stick to the nice bits, instead of depicting angels with multiple vaginas and bombastic homophobes with closeted homosexual tendencies?

The answer, of course, is no. Every thespian and performer that I’ve ever met would agree, and if anyone is telling you different then, well, perhaps they’ve fundamentally misunderstood what’s going on. In an industry where minority groups are massively underrepresented, where Eurocentric beauty standards are promoted and there is low tolerance for disabled, fat, gender non-conforming, non-cisgender etc. bodies, we are merely asking not to be insulted if we manage to make it over all of the hurdles to get through the door. In an industry that thrives on telling complex, rich, difficult stories, we are merely asking that our stories be told and respected as much or more than those of the people that insult and oppress us, whether they are writers, performers (alive or long-dead) or the people your difficult characters represent.

Contextualising difficult and outdated ideas is the key, making a decision about whether a line is going to be cut or boldly kept to say something about the characters on stage, the world we live in or the world it was created in. More key, however, is listening to the ‘offended’ people we are quick to accuse of political correctness gone mad; if you’re all about freedom to speak, why aren’t you listening?

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