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Comedy and ‘the line’

Source: Persian Dutch Network

By Georgina Heaton

In the wake of a number of scandals relating to comedy and its ability to sometimes go ‘too far’ many people find themselves questioning. What do we define as ‘too far’? Some groups seem to think that this is the result of the latest ‘snowflake generation’ being unable to take a joke as it is intended. The term ‘snowflake’ has been thrown about so much in media over past years that the Guardian Newspaper labeled it the most ‘defining insult of 2016’.  Comedy is often subject to controversy as in recent years especially its material has been driven by political and social topics. According to John Fugelsang, a New York-based actor, comedian and writer the recent surge of comedic material relating to politics’ is one of the most fascinating aspects of the role of humor in US entertainment. 

This being said comedians do have the ability to overstep their bounds in regards to political material. Jo Brand recently came under fire for a comment made on a BBC Radio 4 show that ‘went beyond what was appropriate’ saying ‘I’m thinking, why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid’. Nigel Farage later criticized the comment, which was made about protesters who threw milkshakes at politicians in the wake of Brexit, as ‘inciting violence’. Understandable as Farage was among those who had milkshakes thrown at them, although someone is yet to throw battery acid at the politician. Later in the same show Brand also described the protesters throwing the milkshakes as ‘pathetic’ and mentioned that her comment was ‘purely a fantasy’.

This opens up the debate, should comedians be limited in their material? In this instance no injury was caused and there was no intent behind the comment. However, the BBC still apologized and deemed it inappropriate. Josie Long a social justice activist and comedian defines the role of satire as ‘to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’. Despite the outward appearance of the comment being neither of these, comedy is often seen as a way of processing  information and many deal with their anger as a result of the political climate of today by engaging in the fantasies presented to them by comedians. 

It is important to note however, that offensive jokes are not limited to the comedy circuit and can often be found in entirely inappropriate contexts, such as the workplace. One of the most famous cases of this happening comes from the Australian senate, due to a video going viral on Facebook. The comment made in November 2018 by LNP senator Barry O’Sullivan was made about Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, saying that the senator has a ‘bit of Nick Xenophon in her’. Immediately the comment was met with hostility by Federal Greens leader Richard Di Natale who was later suspended for his response that O’Sullivan was ‘a pig’. The comment was later withdrawn by senator O’Sullivan as there was ‘no offence intended’. However, the senator had already been accused of throwing ‘sexist filth’ at colleagues and his ‘joke’ is ever intended to be a ‘joke’ had certainly missed its mark.

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