Danger Zones

Posted on 21 July 2009

We live in a society that speaks of valuing free expression. For the most part as a comedian you are free to make jokes on any subject you like when performing at a live venue. You must also remember that the audience is free to choose whether or not they wish to spend money for the privilege of listening to what you are selling as humour. The venue is free to choose whether or not they will ask you to return. Some jokes are going to alienate an audience and reduce your following such that you will be unable to make a living as a comedian.

Some people, I have noticed, genuinely do not get when they are causing others to feel hurt or uncomfortable. Their intentions may be  jovial, but the results are they are either tuned out or disliked. So, this article is going to spell out those areas where a comedian should walk lightly.

The base line with all humour is that YOU are fair game for your own jokes, others less so, except perhaps if you perform equal opportunity ribbing.

Where this is most notably used is in relation to race. You can make fun of your own race, but not someone else’s. Woody Allen is famous for his Jewish humour. Lenny Henry will gently mock certain aspects of the African Jamaican community living in London. Not acceptable was the young blond blue-eyed South African comedian I saw telling jokes about the indigenous African peoples. He wasn’t booed off the stage, but he did receive a shocked silence and is unlikely to have people looking foward to his next performance.

Jokes about physical aesthetics should mostly relate to yourself. If you are bald, tell bald jokes. If you are blond, tell dumb blond jokes. Everyone gets to laugh then, and one segement of your audience doesn’t feel picked upon, but rather lifted up by being part of the joke. We enjoy laughing at our own absurdity and humanity within certain contexts. However, we all have feelings and no one should be made to feel less about themselves over superficialities. The one area where audiences don’t mind jokes about physical aesthetics is when they are aimed specifically at individuals in power or in the media. I would be careful about this, since it still speaks of more general judgements.

The issue of weight goes deeper than just aesthetics. We are looking at issues to do with health, parenting, self-esteem, cultural and advertising messages. Our society currently has been pushing outlooks on gratification and body image that are damaging a huge portion of our population. This all needs to be looked at, certain aspects need to be mocked so that people gain awareness of the issues.  However, you must remember that the people who have paid to come see you, many of them are victims of their families and cultures. Yes, they need to take responsibility for themselves. Alienating them is not going to resolve the problem.

I recall one gig where I had the pleasure of sitting next to a lovely young woman who was telling me about how much she enjoyed the comedian we were about to see. He was a skinny bloke and part way through his routine he quoted a statistic that stated half of all Australians are overweight and about a third are obese (and probably three quarters believe they are overweight). I sucked in my breath and started thinking real hard at him, “Look at your audience, look at your audience.” He obviously was not a telepath because he proceeded to tell some demeaning jokes concerning fat kids. I felt the joy sucked out of the woman next to me and the whole audience go cold. The comedian continued to get some polite laughter, but the audience was clearly waiting for him to finish at that point.

Speaking of alienating half an audience, probably the worst examples of this are male comedians who start telling pointedly sexist jokes. Gone is the era when comedy clubs were almost entirely a boy’s club. People often take dates to enjoy a bit of laughter together at a live show.  Insult the female date and you have also alienated the fellow who hoped to impress his companion by bringing her along. You’ve now insulted almost 100% of the audience. Also, young women are claiming the field of comedy as much their own as rock music, so they are frequently turning up  in groups. I have watched more than one show fall to pieces when a comedian starts making snide remarks about “women” and is then affronted when he gets an angry vocal response from that half of the audience. Certainly, plenty of good jokes can be found in the politics of gender. It works best when you tell jokes on YOUR OWN GENDER, or you make equal opportunity jokes on both genders.

Religion is a particularly sticky area, because some people will react out of all proportion to the slightest joke told at their religion’s expense, even when it is the comedian’s own religion. Personally, I would say that religion is fair game for comedy, because it is an institution that wields power and sometimes wields it unfairly. The best ways to approach this are to a) mostly make jokes about your own religion; b) make fun of particular individuals in a religion who are abusing their position, thereby not assuming that everyone in that religion is equally abusive; and c) make fun of specific harmful practices and not simply cultural differences. Part of this will include accepting people’s right to belief and to believe differently than you do.

Crucial to making a variety of humour work is context. This is why telling jokes on yourself is always a safe bet. You come on stage looking confident and happy to be there, then poke a little fun at yourself, that shows you are a strong enough person to take some ribbing. Your taking such a ribbing helps bolster other people’s ability to withstand some of the judgements and put-downs they face in every day life. When Bugs Bunny does something that is potentially harmful to Elmer Fudd, he is doing this within a cartoon world where harm is superficial and temporary, and never aimed at persons so much as their actions. The context keeps the cartoons playful rather than cruel.

Also, with context you can break all the above recommendations if you are portraying a character who is meant to be laughably awful. In essence the comedian is making fun of people who would tell such inappropriate jokes. Sir Les Patterson and Homer Simpson fall within this category. Your audience will just have to be completely clear on your intent.

The final danger zone has to do with your relationship to the audience. Do not insult or turn on your own audience. I have seen comedians, who when their routine dies, start to antagonise the audience for not finding them funnier. People can understand that we all have an off night. Nevertheless, if you insult them, they will never give you a second chance. These are your customers, these are your fans. Treat them with respect and you will find their loyalty will make up for a few lost laughs.

Peace and kindness,


1 Response to Danger Zones

  • Pomke Nohkan says:

    Wonderfully insightful, often in the audience we see a comedian doing their thing and think ‘how are people just naturally this funny’, its interesting to see the ‘craft’ behind comedy as a profession, it helps to appreciate the work that goes in to a great show

    *waves a paw*


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