My favourite comedian Bo Burnham said, “Comedy is very strange to me, and I don’t fully understand its purpose or function”. It might sound like an oxymoron, but more often than not, comedy brings in traces of pain and tragedy, weaving in humour and awareness to help cope with a certain situation. However, this fine line between acceptable and offensive leads to an ethical conundrum. People are often left confused trying to understand the topics they should not joke about. French playwright Moliere identified the purpose of comedy as “to correct the vices of men”, and we cannot help but agree. However, humour, when infused with apathy, can often be seen as insensitive, hurtful and downright demeaning to a particular section or community.
In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, as the Ukrainians scramble to take cover in metro stations with darkness and uncertainty looming large over them, some basement hikikomori is having the time of his life making memes about warfare and getting upvotes on Reddit. When their deeds are questioned, they take cover under the guise of humour and associate their memes with dark humour and subsequent coping mechanisms. The idea of using dark humour at a time of crisis seems pretty ridiculous to me.
Similarly, a few weeks back, a clip resurfaced on social media that got the comedian Jimmy Carr “cancelled” due to his atrocious comments on the tragedy of the Holocaust. He was seen making light of the harrowing murders of hundreds and thousands of people during the Second World War while talking about the “positives” of the shocking genocidal event. Would you consider that as a part of dark humour where his malignant stupidity and absolute ignorance disregards the trauma of millions? What is even more disturbing is that his comments generated ripples of laughter from the audience whose mindless compulsion to please their idol, no matter how insensitive he is, shines through.
Another well-known comedian, Dave Chappelle, too, was called out for his derogatory comments against the transgender community in his Netflix special, The Closer. When he defended J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter franchise and well-known transphobic dolt, also went ahead to establish how “gender is a fact”. Making pretty rubbish comments to differentiate between real women and transwomen on the basis of their ability to menstruate or bear children, he said, “It tastes like pussy, but that’s not quite what it is, is it? That’s not blood. That’s beet juice.”
While Chappelle thinks he was being funny, unbeknownst to him, he was aiding the ripple effect theory and supporting the pre-existing prejudices and notions against the trans community that plagues the minds of cis-gendered people, and fuels hate crimes. His comments led to a mass team member walkout at the Netflix headquarters, but the streamer still did not take down the special.
Interestingly, both Chappelle and Carr’s specials- Carr’s special is named His Dark Material– is streaming on Netflix. While the streamer wants to support freedom of thought and expression, it seems like the committee that screens the comedy content is not very well-versed with the idea of mindfulness. Can a person who has not had a certain “lived experience” joke about the same? Is it okay to reduce generational trauma and genocide to shambles just for a few seconds of forced laughter? Is it okay to be totally ignorant of what despicable repercussions one’s comments can have on an individual or a community? Carr and Chappelle’s comedy is pretty dehumanising and offensive.
While one might choose not to pay mind to this and simply move on with their lives, it is important to acknowledge the kind of effect their comments, that are in their opinion made in good faith (I doubt that), has on the targeted individual or community’s mental health. While Netflix has a variety of great comedians and comedy specials adorning its shelves, a few blemishes like these might ruin their reputation once and for all, thus demanding immediate mindfulness and attention on the part of the screening committee.