Currently, comedian Dave Chapelle’s new Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, has a critic score of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, marking the lowest score the comedian has ever received on the site for a comedy special. Chapelle has received severe backlash with many outlets, including The Atlantic, referring to the special as “hostile” or offensive for his jokes regarding the LGBTQ community and the #MeToo movement. Although Chapelle has built his career off of inflammatory, and oftentimes, incisive language, his most recent special failed to resonate with many critics.
While an in-depth review of Chapelle’s special is warranted, that is not the purpose of this article. Chapelle, along many other comedians, has argued that modern audiences are far more sensitive and prone to outrage than audiences of the past. Concurrently, with the increasing influence of social media, such outrage can have devastating effects on a comedian’s career. Such a change in the public ethos can be witnessed in the almost daily social media campaigns to “cancel” a celebrity for his or her comments or jokes. This shift in public perception begs the question — should comedians have complete freedom in their performances?
Comedians coming under fire for their bits is not a new concept. In the 1950s, comedian Lenny Bruce began to lay the foundation for modern stand-up comedy. Bruce’s comedy was revolutionary, as it moved away from day-to-day observational humor and toward biting social and political satire. With gems such as, “take away the right to say ‘f**k,’ and you take away the right to say ‘f**k the government.’” Bruce was not afraid to tackle any topic. However, he was not able to do so with impunity. During his career, Bruce was arrested several times for his use of obscene language, or blue comedy, and was constantly maligned by social groups. Despite this, Bruce persisted with his ribaldry and became an idol for many, including the legendary George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
While Chapelle and other modern comedians no longer face legal action for their jokes, they face the court of public opinion. Recently, it appears that the court of public opinion has been functioning less as a jury of peers and more as an autocratic judge, dolling out punishments without due process. If a vocal group views a performer’s routine as offensive, that performer is condemned without allowing the artist a chance to explain the intent behind a performance or commentary. Often, there is no malintent behind a comedian’s witticisms or comments, and they are simply delivered for the sole purpose of comedy. These inflammatory quips may not even reflect the actual views of the performer, but instead, are used for comedic impact and social commentary.
In his Netflix special Dark, Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss elucidates the divide between artistic intent and audience perception. Sloss speaks about the hypocrisy of audience outrage stating, “[T]hat’s how people get offended, isn’t it? [They say,] ‘I love that joke, that was hilarious, ’cause I’ve never experienced that, but my uncle had that disease, so you’re a d**k’.” While every audience member is entitled to their own opinions on jokes, they should not determine the delineation between what comedy is acceptable and what is intolerable based on their own views and opinions. In short, either every controversial topic should be fair game as fodder for comedians or none should be explored.
The modern champion of egalitarian comedy is the television show South Park. South Park, created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, has been airing since 1997 and over its 22-year run, it has explored nearly every topic imaginable. From the seemingly banal, like video games, to the highly controversial, such as Caitlyn Jenner, Stone and Parker appear to be able to address any topic with impunity. The reason for such liberty, Parker states, is that “[their] ethos has always been: if it’s funny, it’s funny . . . everything should be made fun of if you do it in the right way.” South Park has always functioned under a flag of non-discriminatory lampooning and, as such, has operated with freedom and without much controversy.
Finally, to quote Sloss again, “[A]rt is subjective, and art is open to interpretation, but just because you interpret an artist’s art in one way does not necessarily mean that that was the way they intended it to be interpreted.” Comedy has often served as a much-needed reflection of society, displaying a culture with its warts and all. If a line is drawn between what topics can be covered and what topics cannot, any reflection loses its clarity and import, the First Amendment takes a direct hit and, ironically, then the joke is on all of us.