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Comics' Corner – Humanely Hilarious: the Ethics of Comedy

I was recently asked in an interview how comedians can make jokes about tragic or serious things and live with themselves? Tough opening question, but while the late Joan Rivers might have more colourfully responded, “because maybe it’s only a funny joke, you lilly-livered, small-minded, Target-Country dressed schmuck”, it does raise an interesting question – are there off-limit topics comedians should never explore?

By Will Crawford.

My first impulse when people seek to quarantine an entire subject matter from the comic landscape is to try to write a joke about that topic to prove it can be done. My second response is to question the joke’s impact. The litmus test against which I assess material is my golden rule – does the joke/routine make the world a better place?

While victim-bashing and minority- shaming are clearly not cool, well-crafted dark humour has the potential to unearth legitimately cathartic or educative gems amongst the rubble of life’s dramas.

Exhibit A is Sasha Baron-Cohen, who variously explored “racialism’’, sexy times and incest with his characters Ali G, Borat the Dictator and Bruno. While some would argue his humour negatively portrays Anglo-Jamaican gangsters, Austrian gay fashionistas and North African despots, much of Baron-Cohen’s humour is derived from exposing either the outside world’s awkward reaction to the characters’ prejudice or highlighting the absurdity and inappropriateness of the relevant characters’ own prejudices.

Exhibit B is the work of Chris Lilley, which includes his creations Daniel and Nathan Sims, Ja’mie King, Mr G, Jonah Takalua, Ricky Wong and the infamous S Mouse from the 2011 series Angry Boys.

The portrayal of S Mouse has justifiably been criticized as a superficial, unfunny and appallingly insensitive demonstration of blackface. However, the assessment of the character of Jonah from Tonga is more complex. While some in the Tongan community criticised the portrayal for denigrating their culture and reputation, another view is the character Jonah is an endearing depiction of an anti-authoritarian, renegade larrikin that makes for a heroic and ultimately empowering character.

Exhibit C is my favourite Glaswegian comedian, Frankie Boyle. Mr Boyle was banned from BBC television for two years for a rather brutal series of jokes centering on the disabled child of H-list celebrities Peter Andre and Jordan during their divorce. While the jokes in question were technically well crafted and partially aimed at the vacuous and selfish nature of his celebrity parents, the victim of the jokes was ultimately a disabled child who did not ask to be in the spotlight, nor have his disabilities used as the subject of brutal jokes.

From the dark humour that nurses and firies employ to cope with daily horrors, to Bill Hicks’ attacks against the powerful conservative Republican elite in the 80s, or Bill Burr pointing out the hypocrisy of the self-righteous left of today, comedy can achieve many things. What I ask is that people judge each joke by its content and purpose not its theme. 

Will Crawford is an up-and-crawling comic. He moonlights as a land rights lawyer and policy activist. 

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