Emotional Duty of Care

Posted on 05 October 2012

Earlier this year I wrote about the duty of care you must take concerning the physical well-being of your audience. As funny as having an anvil fall on Wile E. Coyote’s head is, cartoon humour does not always safely translate to real life.

Another duty of care you must take has to do with the emotional well-being of your audience. When has a joke crossed the line from funny to unneccessarily hurtful or frightening?

Twice this year I have seen Melbourne Fringe Festival shows where the comedian leaps into the audience and starts grinding his crotch into the face of a male audience member. The second time this happened I sat close enough to the fellow to recognise he genuinely found the comedian’s actions funny. Afterwards I asked him about it and he was fine. Even so alarm bells were going off in my head.

I ran a writers group once where not one but a couple of us had experienced abuse when we were younger. As such we didn’t want to be exposed to certain sorts of literature—not because it was bad or wrong, it’s just that when you are reading you have to call upon your own memories to create scenarios. If your memories are intense and traumatic, bringing them to mind can renew feelings of intense fear. It took me fifteen years to overcome PTSD from my experiences. It’s frightening for everyone to have a family member wake up in the middle of the night with the cold shakes and screaming. We were happy that people have the right to explore difficult subjects. We also felt it neccessary to claim the right to choose what we personally were exposed to. Maybe later we would build the fortitude to take on such challenging stories.

Certain sorts of rough sexual play are seen as a form of bonding, particularly among males. However even among men some find the experience jovial, others find it threatening. Groups such as fraternities, sororities, military groups, athletic teams, etc sometimes take rough play to an extreme for the purposes of “hazing”. Hazing is when harrassment, abuse, and/or humiliation are used to initiate someone into that group. Going through a hazing you are demonstrating how far you are willing to conform to the wishes of your group.

When people are on TV or made the focus of attention during a comedy show, they often accept much worse treatment than they would tolerate any place else. They have a sense of peer-pressure. They don’t want people to think badly of them by ruining their good time. Personally, I think public marriage proposals should be banned. Some of them are very cute, and it is fun to see when both parties are clearly ready to make the leap. But it also puts undue pressure on the person being asked. If they say “yes” just to please an audience, what sort of marriage will they find themselves trapped within later on?

If a comedian wants to take on this sort of “in your face” humour, I would strongly suggest having plants in your audience. Get someone you know in who’s okay with being the butt of a joke. That’s what The Three Stooges were all about: using one another as the foil to their acts of cartoon violence. Some of the people I know who have done this kind of comedy are sweet individuals, who would be mortified if an audience member started freaking out from something innocently meant. That’s why you have people like me telling you, you might want to think this through.

Peace and kindness,


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