At the end of 2019, actor and comedian Eddie Murphy came under fire for his past stand-up routines that contained homophobic language. He eventually came forward, admitting his regret and how when he went on tour again his sets would have different themes. His apology sparked a controversy about comedy and whether or not comedians should be expected to apologize when they are called out. While Eddie Murphy apologized on his own and was not forced to do so, other people have felt they were pressured into redacting certain comments and jokes they have made. This topic has become more common in our generation, as politics and identity have become more ingrained in our culture and society. With jokes around major events such as the Queen of England’s passing and everyday situations such as trauma and discrimination, there have been more people saying the phrase, “You can’t make jokes about that!” But who is to say who can and can’t make jokes about certain topics? And how exactly do we draw the line between comedy and offensive speech?
Breaking down the elements of what makes a joke “edgy” versus uncomfortable or offensive starts with the concept of “punching up versus punching down.” In many cheesy teen movies, there is a general feeling of anger at a bully constantly tormenting a nerdy character. Yet when one reaches the end and the nerd finally stands up for themselves, even making fun of the bully at times, the audience loves it. Even when the bully and the nerd wind up both making fun of each other, people feel worse about what happened to the nerd due to the history of tormenting they experienced. Why is this? Easy: people hate to see someone kicked when they’re already down. The idea of punching up appeals to audiences more than punching down because groups that have always been in positions of power can afford a few knock-downs—most marginalized groups cannot. Groups such as the LGBTQ+ community have experienced discrimination for centuries, so a joke about their existence during a comedy set just adds another blow. Eddie Murphy’s stand up routine about the gay community and AIDS directly targets their identity along with undermining the severity of an issue that has been plaguing them for decades. Making jokes about someone’s identity is usually a no-go, but this comedic concept explains the context of why some jokes are more sensitive to make.
The identity of the person making the joke and their experience also helps to draw this line. You will most likely see people of a certain racial group making jokes about that racial group, or survivors making light of their own trauma. For example, someone like Pete Davidson who frequently makes 9/11 jokes does so because he feels as though it is in his range (which most people agree with). His father was a firefighter who died on that day, making 9/11 an event he can personally relate to. Although his sets about 9/11 can still cause the majority of his audience to cringe, for the most part he does not receive flack and has not folded from pressure to change his routine.
Compare this with the New England Classic who recently published a satirical piece on the anniversary of the terrorist attack where a set of twins celebrated their 21st birthday at the “ground zero” bar, then proceeded to black out and collapse after shots of Fireball. They received several negative comments and eventually had to delete their post and apologize. What was the difference between these two cases? Identity. Pete Davidson attaches his name to his jokes and fully stands behind them, making it clear he is the author who has experienced what he talks about. On the other hand, the NEC publishes every article anonymously, making it unclear who it comes from. As far as the readers knew, it could have been written by someone personally affected, or someone who just thought the idea was funny to write about.
Bottom line: comedy is subjective. There will always be someone who thinks the joke went too far while another will think it didn’t go far enough. But conveying stereotypes through jokes or making light of a serious situation that doesn’t affect you shouldn’t be normalized. Comedians are responsible for the aftermath of their jokes, which is why when they offend a certain group they should apologize and strive to do better. At the end of the day, it’s up to the person making the joke to know who their audience is and gauge the risks of crossing that line.