In recent years, much has been made of stand-up comedians taking their routines too far, perhaps offending for the sheer sake of offending rather than to make people laugh. This has occurred on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean with two of comedy’s big names, Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais and their specials on Netflix.
Concerning his most recent Netflix comedy special SuperNature, Gervais was the subject of much criticism when he appeared to make “anti-trans” statements. One segment described a hypothetical conversation with a trans woman, in which Gervais mocked the hypothetical woman in question for having a penis.
Last year, Dave Chappelle was called out under similar circumstances on the other side of the pond. In his comedy special The Closer, Chappelle also made jokes about the trans community and, like Gervais, paid particular attention to their genitalia. In a previous special, Sticks and Stones, Chappelle had also referred to trans people as “confusing”.
Gervais and Chappelle subsequently received a barrage of complaints from the public, both from within and outside the LGBTQ+ community. While these complaints are understandable because people had been deeply hurt – they appeared to bring to the fore the very concept and nature of comedy.
Chappelle responded, appearing to counter the argument by noting that isolated jokes sounded worse than they were. The context was to play a big part in the overall understanding of the routine. He said: “First of all, you cannot come if you have not watched my special from beginning to end. You must come to a place of my choosing, at a time of my choosing”.
Even writing this article, I am somewhat trepidatious at appearing “anti-woke”. That is not my intention in the slightest; I would merely like to examine the nature of comedy, theatre and the stage from an objective viewpoint rather than to express any subjective views – none of which should be given any weight. However, I believe that my cautious approach only goes to showcase the pressure, not only on comedians and journalists, but on pretty much every single member of the public since the advent of woke culture in the past ten years or so.
That is not to say that attitudes of social liberty are anything new. In the 1970s, for example, French philosopher Michel Foucault began examining the emergence of sexuality as a discursive object. The first popularised instances of feminism took place back in the late 19th century, while rightful attacks on racist attitudes had most likely been occurring since the advent of slavery, perhaps as far back as Ancient civilisations.
However, let’s get back to the present day. Perhaps one part of the problem lies in the fact that these comedy specials were once solely live performances, not available to the millions of viewers worldwide from the comfort of their living rooms. As such, if you were to go and watch Dave Chappelle or Ricky Gervais in a live setting, chances are you would know what was coming, meaning you would most likely know, given their reputations, that offensive and rude words and notions would be coming from the stage and into your ears.
The critical point is that, as a viewer of stand-up comedy, you are entering into the realm where things aren’t real. A joke is often a made-up scenario in which an object can be derided for the audience’s pleasure, as shown by Gervais’ hypothetical conversation with the trans-woman. But hang on a minute, something deeper is going on here, and it goes way back to Ancient Greece.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was so fond of drama and the theatre because it enabled society to place its norms and values under the microscope; to see what did and did not work; what should be kept, and what should be changed. The ancient poetic form was a statement on the best way to teach ethics. Dramatic poets were often those who could answer moral questions about the correct ways to live. For example, it was during the staging of Greek tragic drama that the values of the community were being examined and communicated in critical reflection.
In many ways, this is echoed today in the role of stand-up comedy, where essentially, the performances are one-person shows that explore the beliefs, the values, and both the tragic and the comic instances of contemporary society. It is somewhat jarring that people know what comedy is and yet take great offence to it.
After all, Gervais and Chappelle are not remotely similar to the ‘Four Bastards of British Comedy’ – Jim Davidson, Roy’ Chubby’ Brown, Bernard Manning and Jethro – whose ‘work’ actually sought to hurt. It was offensive and only offensive, targeting specific groups, most notably non-white races and women.
In the case of Gervais and Chappelle, the ‘joke’ has become the reaction to the joke rather than the joke itself. For that is the facet of contemporary society that ought to be examined, namely, the fact that overt offence to the realm of comedy exists in the first place.
Chappelle had explored controversial topics such as racism in his comedy routines since the mid-1990s. Particularly in his 2000s sketch show Chappelle’s Show, in which he often subverts racism by having it undertaken by black people and targeted at whites. In doing so, he transcended racism altogether, exposing its futility. Again, ‘what ought to be changed, what ought to be kept the same’. And who better to perform the task than a black man who grew up in 1970s America?
As for Gervais, he approached the topic from an utterly British stance. During The Office, David Brent regularly delves into casual racism, but Gervais and Stephen Merchant did not write that into the script because ‘racism is OK’. If anything, it shows a man who is so utterly obsessed with appearing morally perfect in front of the documentary cameras that his inner prejudices blindside him. Once again, the refinement of morality: don’t reify the self because it will make you less aware of the plight of other people.
What’s more is that, astonishingly, the roles of comedians and politicians have seemingly switched. While Donald Trump was in the presidential office, his whole charade of being a world leader was some absurdist comedy with a tanned clown at its forefront, saying whatever he liked to whoever he wanted. But Donald Trump was not a comedian; he was the President of the United States. Meanwhile, comedians have since been running for office, most notably the former funnyman and actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who became the Ukrainian president in 2019. Suddenly, the politicians were lying, creating false scenarios, and vying for the public’s attention, while the comedians were exposing their lies and trying to move forward into a brighter, globally political future.
Somewhere the lines have been blurred. Perhaps it is best expressed by the writing of the late social theorist Mark Fisher. In a widely lauded/condemned online article entitled ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’, Fisher criticises the current state of leftist politics. He argues that the left has been reduced to a lynch mob that goes after any remotely offensive isolated target – primarily on social media – and who, essentially, “make people feel bad”. The article poses to the new left the question, “how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim?” and claims that “a left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group”.
This liberal pressure group comprises individuals who are offended even from within the realms of comedy. When it boils down to it, people have the right to be offended, and they should be offended, for that is how we as a society incite change. Yet many of those people are too quick to pull the trigger on a form of art that attempts to examine the values and beliefs of society instead of calling out their friends and families and shaming them publicly.
Comedy has historically proven to be a vital cog in the wheel of humanity; it relieves pressure from our everyday lives and reminds us not to take things too seriously. As expressed above, it allows us to closely investigate the things in our society that work and those that don’t. However, the future of comedy is at risk if we cannot give it the room to breathe and understand that it ought to be able to serve as a vehicle for social commentary.
It should be stressed that it is utterly clear when things are downright unacceptable – even in comedy, as mentioned above with the Four Apocalyptic Bastards of British Comedy – and when things are just about on the border, merely there to give a prod, to ask, ‘what do you think?’ But that border is absolutely essential; it defines good and bad, right and wrong, and without it, things may just begin to descend into chaos.