Humor is a very complicated issue – what one segment of an audience finds funny, another group or a single person might find deeply offensive. And being offended is as complicated as the content of the show. Does it stem from bias against the performer, is the topic particularly personal to the listener (think disability issues) or is the person just easily offended anyway?
But comedy isn’t just poking fun at the expense of some target, is it?
Comedy is far more than just a pleasant way to pass an evening. Humor is more than amusement.
This week veteran Hollywood comedian Mel Brooks lamented that society’s stupidly politically correct sensibilities will lead to the death of comedy.
His words echo the feelings of other comedians and many of their fans who fear that comedy is bound for safe, humorless, bland banalities when anything said on stage could be interpreted as offensive by some segment of society for whatever reason.
Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Ha! The science of when we laugh and why says humor arises from inner conflict in the brain. It is part of a larger desire to comprehend a complex world.
Increasingly diverse populations bring us in contact with people who differ from us in many respects. Add to that negative stereotypes and prejudices and our world becomes all the more complex.
People everywhere are confronted from all sides with issues that were not on the radar of the previous generation.
What is comedy’s role in this? To complicate matters even more by offending?
No, on the contrary, comedy can provide a counterbalance to bigotry, says Josie Long, a social justice activist and comedian in Britain.
In this way, comedy plays a social function, pointing out social injustice, breaking taboos and holding those in power to account. Comedians have the platform to express what ordinary citizens have to suppress to be politically correct. On stage, comedians can speak of their audience’s political, financial and social anxiety, their despair for the future, their doubt in their leaders.
Comedians can have the awkward and uncomfortable conversations we can’t have with each other.
In a post for the Huffington Post, author and human relationship expert BJ Gallagher writes:
“Here’s the bottom line: How are we ever going to have authentic, meaningful conversations about sensitive issues of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, cultural difference and values if we can’t talk about what’s really on our minds? How can we build bridges of understanding if we can’t speak openly?”
Comedy can be one of those bridges provided that we leave our sensitivities at home. We need to learn to not take everything personally. Why does someone’s truth have to be against yours? Why not allow for a different truth?
Maybe if we can attend comedy shows not just for the laughs, not just for what we find funny, but for what someone else might find funny, we’d learn from the exercise instead of being offended by it.