Several of the most famous and well-respected comedians in history have spoken out in defense of “political correctness”.
George Carlin. Jerry Seinfeld. Eddie Murphy. Anthony Jeselnik. Marc Maron.
As much as Louis C.K., Bill Burr, and many right wing politicians and pundits love to lament over-sensitivity and “snowflakes”, these four heavyweight comedians see it differently, and have explained why it’s important to punch UP, and not down.
“Punching up” refers to criticizing people or targets who have power over you, such as authority figures.
“Punching down” is the inverse — criticizing people or targets whom you have power over or the authority figure of.
George Carlin is one of the most respected comedians of all time, and all the way back in 1999 he was explaining why jokes about women, gay people, and immigrants weren’t the best things:
In the clip, Carlin criticizes fellow stand-up Andrew Dice Clay for his bits that punch down.
“Comedy has traditionally picked on people in power, people who abuse their power,” he says. “Women and gays and immigrants, to my way of thinking, are underdogs.”
“I think [Clay’s] core audience is young white males who are threatened by these groups,” he continues. “I think a lot of these guys aren’t sure of their manhood, I think that’s often a problem when you’re going through adolescence… and the women who assert themselves and that are competent are a threat to these men, and so are immigrants in terms of jobs.”
“I think that’s what is at the core of that experience that takes place in those arenas. A sharing of anger and rage at these targets.”
Eddie Murphy, another highly revered comedian, has more recently stated that his most famous special “Raw” now makes him uncomfortable:
Just a few days before the Carlin clip made its rounds on the internet, Eddie Murphy confessed in an interview with New York Times journalist Jason Zinoman that the stand-up specials most revered by comedians who want to go back to a simpler time of offense make him cringe when he stumbles upon them on television.
“I was a young guy processing a broken heart, you know, kind of an asshole,” Murphy says in the interview of his 1987 special, Raw.
In the interview, he shifts into an impression of himself watching the special these days. “That’s a bit much, my goodness,” he says.
He also clarifies that the good old days of comedy that straight male comedians long for today never really existed: even back then he was picketed for some of his jokes, and that he not only apologized (sincerely) for some of his jokes about the AIDS epidemic and his use of homophobic slurs, but that he showed it with a significant donation to the AIDS Foundation.
The apology, which happened 15 years after the special, acknowledges that times and attitudes change, as well as that his comedy spread misinformation that was actually harmful to society as a whole.
In other words, two things are clear: comedy was never a place where you could say whatever you wanted without consequences to your career, and that with age and experience, Murphy is more than ready, with his coming return to comedy, to make us all laugh without punching down.
Jerry Seinfeld, who is credited as being the originator of the “I won’t do comedy at colleges anymore, the crowds are too uptight” stance, came around:
In the first clip, Seinfeld and [Ricky] Gervais are at odds over whether comedians need to justify comedy. Seinfeld said no. “If something is funny, it’s funny,” he said. “Comedy is like gold,” he said likening joke writing to mining for gold. “Nobody cares what rock it was in, or how it was found, it’s just gold.”
Gervais disagreed, feeling that he does need to justify his comedy, expressing frustration about the need for comedians to worry all the time about how a joke will be perceived.
“We’ve always done that,” Jerry countered saying that comics always had to be careful about what they said going all the way back to the time of the court jester. [Ron] Bennington agreed that in medieval times the jester had to choose carefully how much he could make fun of the king. He also gave a more modern example, saying that even a kid making jokes in a schoolyard would have to choose carefully what jokes he could get away with.”You learn on the streets when you’re a kid. You can tease the bigger kid,” he said. “He would laugh at some jokes…but you couldn’t laugh at his weaknesses.”
What it comes down to, Seinfeld said, is mental agility. “The mental agility that is required to execute this job, is an essential part of this,” arguing that comedians should stop being upset about people who are offended. “Comedians need to stop complaining that they can’t do certain jokes because it might offend people. That’s right. You can’t,” Seinfeld said. “So do another joke. Find another way around it. Use a different word. It’s like slalom skiing. You have to make the gates.”
Anthony Jeselnik has a reputation as one of the most offensive modern comedians, he has had jokes in his act about rape and dead babies. He also had a show titled “The Jeselnik Offensive”).
He says he “loves political correctness, every piece of it”:
You took out a joke about hate crimes pretty late in the process. How would you then describe your personal line and how it’s evolved?
I’m 40 years old now. I’m not the same person I was when I started comedy at 23. Stephen Colbert had a quote, like, when you’re young and edgy, everything is funny, and then the horrible things you’re joking about start to happen to people that you love. My dad suffers from psoriasis. If someone made a joke about psoriasis, I wouldn’t laugh, but I wouldn’t be upset. But as I get older and more mature, I think of things differently. Also, I’ve already done it. It’s like, Why do you not make rape jokes anymore? Because I had a fucking special where I did five of them, and then I read the [Jon Krakauer] book Missoula. And I was like, I don’t think I think this is as funny as I did back then. Is there a line in comedy? I used to say no. And now I say there are a million of them. Everybody’s got one. I don’t give a fuck about yours. It’s my line that I worry about.
You push back on people who are like, “Political correctness is killing comedy.”
I wouldn’t have anything to do. It’s like saying, “Is the football ruining the NFL?” No, you need the fucking thing to play the game. You need to have it. I love political correctness. I love it. I support every piece of it.
When people get upset about political correctness in comedy, they’re like, “I’m being the devil’s advocate. I’m starting a conversation.” I hate that. I’m not the devil’s advocate; I am the devil. I’m not trying to start a conversation; I’m ending it. Everyone else who is bitching about it is just bitching. Why complain about this? Either do your job and make them laugh, or shut the fuck up. I can’t stand this, like, “PC’s ruining comedy.” Get your shit together. Go put on a show. Fuck all of you.
And lastly, even Marc Maron has weighed in on the matter, specifically after appearing in Todd Phillips’ “Joker” film, a movie that Phillips said he made specifically because you “can’t make comedies anymore”.
Maron strongly disagreed:
‘There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore,’ [Phillips] said. I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, “Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.”
Speaking on his WTF podcast, comic [Marc] Maron — who plays a TV producer on Joker — called Phillips’s stance ‘tired’ and said there was more scope for jokes than ever before, even if a certain style of offensive comedy had fallen out of favour.
Maron said: ‘There’s plenty of people being funny right now. If you like to ride a line, you can still ride a line. If you want to take chances, you can still take chances.
‘Really, the only thing that’s off the table, culturally, at this juncture –and not even entirely — is shamelessly punching down for the sheer joy of hurting people. For the sheer excitement and laughter that some people get from causing people pain, from making people uncomfortable, from making people feel excluded.’
‘If you’re too intimidated to try to do comedy that is deep or provocative, or even a little controversial, without hurting people, then you’re not good at what you do. Or maybe you’re just insensitive.
‘Bottom line is no one is saying you can’t say things or do things. It’s just that it’s going to be received a certain way by certain people and you’re gonna have to shoulder that.’
Besides “political correctness”, lots of people these days are bemoaning “Cancel Culture”, which is also misunderstood and overblown. From “Political Correctness isn’t hurting comedy, it’s helping”:
The power of online outrage is highly overrated. Trevor Noah didn’t lose his job over idiotic tweets and Stephen Colbert wasn’t canceled over an Asian joke. Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham survived criticism of racial and ethnic jokes. Even comics without star power who have set off furors, like Sam Morril and Kurt Metzger, are doing fine.
Does fear of backlash make some comics self-censor? Probably, but if the possibility of blowback makes artists think twice before delivering a rape joke, that’s a good thing. Comedians have never been able to joke about provocative subjects without repercussions, and what’s often overlooked is how, during the past few decades, the ability of comics to push the line of good taste for a national audience has actually dramatically increased.
So the next time you encounter someone online who makes the weak claim that “nothing is funny anymore”, I recommend sharing this article with them. It’s a lot harder for Joe Random on facebook or twitter (or elsewhere) to argue with history’s comedy heavyweights than it is for him to argue with a non-comedian.