The seemingly never-ending war on political correctness has felt particularly salient these past few years. For every self-righteous person on Twitter who is slightly too quick to label a relatively innocuous piece of media as problematic, there is another person out there making unambiguously offensive statements and then defensively claiming, “no one can take a joke anymore!” For every social justice warrior who boycotted The Martian because they were unwilling to forgive Matt Damon for inadvertently “whitesplaining” the meaning of diversity on Project Greenlight, there is some Ben Carson-type angrily lamenting political correctness as if it is final remaining obstacle preventing humanity from achieving true equity and enlightenment. Shockingly, even with all this, um, civilized debate, it doesn’t seem like society is getting any closer to reaching a broad consensus on the issue. If you’re like me, you’ll likely find yourself trapped in the middle at some point, trying to decide whether a specific instance of cultural exchange is a respectful celebration or a harmful appropriation.
The most vocal of the decidedly anti-PC demographic (right on par with right-wing politicians and radical atheists) are – speaking generally, of course – standup comedians. During the most recent Golden Globes ceremony, the evening’s host, Ricky Gervais pre-emptively expressed his dissatisfaction with the outrage he was certain he would spark by posting the following tweet:
A Twitter search for Gervais’s name shortly thereafter revealed that he’d made an accurate prediction. Comment sections all over the internet were filled with a healthy debate between people who, much like Gervais himself, were incredibly impressed by Ricky Gervais’s ability to push the comedic envelope, and people who found his transphobic jokes to be unfunny and unnecessary, especially considering the wealth of material available to him.
Gervais’s monologue from the Golden Globes was just the latest reference point in a long-running societal debate about the impact of political correctness on comedy. The conversation reached a boiling point this past summer when many of the world’s most successful comedians publicly stated that they no longer enjoy performing in front of college audiences, believing the students today to be too sensitive. Even Jerry Seinfeld – whose act is widely considered to be among the least offensive in all of comedy – weighed in on the issue, expressing his passionate disapproval of PC culture. Having seen him perform live just a few months before this, his ardent stance on the issue puzzled me. The most provocative joke in his entire set was a brief non sequitur about bucket lists where he suggested changing the ‘b’ to an ‘f.’ True, college campuses today do place greater emphasis on fostering inclusive spaces, but I think even the world’s most delicate campus would be okay with Seinfeld’s “edgy” bucket list wordplay.
Considering all these complaints which compare the threat political correctness poses to comedy with some sort of extinction-level event, it seems rather counterintuitive that there is somewhat of a comedy renaissance going on. Allegations like “no one can take a joke anymore,” seem directly at odds with quantitative evidence like increased ticket sales for live comedy events, more successful sketch comedy shows on television than ever before, and a seemingly never-ending stream of comedy podcasts cultivating distinct audiences. Each time a comedian complains that audiences today are too sensitive, they should be forced to also mention that Jeff Dunham and his racist puppets made $19 million last year.
Yet, for as often as this debate has resurfaced these past few years, it is certainly not a new one. It always seems to be lingering slightly below the surface, waiting for its opportunity to pop back up and spark a national conversation about how many layers of irony make it okay to dress in blackface (hint: as a general rule, assume that there is no number high enough). The conversation seems to resurface in waves, perpetually ebbing and flowing to align with the predominant attitudes within society. Each time there’s a shift in consciousness, comedians manage to get themselves into a frenzy, convincing one another that their entire livelihood is being threatened. I imagine that the first comedian who bombed during a previously reliable portion of his act where he pulled back his eyes and yelled “ching chong, ching chong,” acted as if his civil rights had been violated.
Nevertheless, the comedy community’s weariness of PC culture isn’t completely unwarranted. I’d be the last person to defend Bill Maher’s right to use the guise of standup comedy as a platform to spew bigoted generalizations about Muslims, but I can also appreciate the potential harm of following this sort of thinking through to its most extreme conclusion. Making people laugh at delicate subject matter is difficult, jokes can be easily misunderstood, and offense is completely subjective. Even if 98% of people agree that a particular routine strikes the perfect balance between thought-provoking and funny, there are bound to be some people who misunderstand the underlying message and take to the internet to voice their misguided concerns. I often find myself wondering how much better off we’d all be if we could mobilize even a fraction of this same ire towards systemic injustices.
Broadly speaking, there has to exist some middle ground between these two disparate points of view. Whereas a comedian might argue that political correctness is ruining comedy because they have less leeway to try out potentially ground-breaking material, it’s important to note that comedic boundaries aren’t exactly being policed with an iron fist. For every comedian who tiptoes gingerly around sensitive topics like gender, race, and oppression, there is another comedian out there – an Anthony Jeselnik type – who relishes in their ability to offend as many marginalized groups as possible. Some of these comics are admittedly talented, but a vast majority of them traffic exclusively in boring tropes and shock value. If the enduring legacy of political correctness is that we have to suffer through fewer trite observations about the differences between men and women, then perhaps we should all consider declaring political correctness our new God.
Of course, social media – as it does with everything – tends to sensationalize the debate to an irritating degree. There is no reason why a comedian should be publicly vilified on Twitter for a joke that is quite obviously not a reflection of their true feelings. Luckily, the majority of these witch hunts tend to fizzle out over time. The great comedians who are placed under the microscope – the Trevor Noahs and the Amy Schumers of the world – have a body of work that speaks for itself. They are able to ride the wave of outrage and emerge relatively unfazed. Occasionally, comedians end up like Daniel Tosh – still largely successful – but relegated to playing to audiences filled with frat boys and the Donald Trump voter base. I can certainly think of worse fates. If mildly excessive political correctness is the lingering byproduct of a general increase in social awareness, maybe we all just need to shut up and take the good with the bad.
Hershal Pandya is a writer based in Toronto whose writing has appeared on popular websites like Pigeons & Planes and Pacific Standard. He’s typically less confident in his opinions than this article might make it appear.