The reaction to a joke tweeted by comedian John Cleese might show that jokes can go “too far,” but some comics think the problem lies with a vocal minority, not the jokes themselves.
Pressure from Twitter followers and the media caused Cleese to apologize for the tweet last week, which poked fun at Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic star charged with the murder of his girlfriend.
This kind of controversy in which comedians face criticism for offensive jokes is becoming a more common occurrence, and 12-year stand-up veteran David Nickerson thinks it’s becoming problematic too.
“I’ve seen the P-C line get closer and closer to where now you can’t say this and now you can’t say that, and it’s a little ridiculous how sensitive comedians need to be to other people’s needs,” Nickerson said.
John Cleese has been added to a growing list of comedians who have faced a public backlash for what were viewed as offensive jokes. For example, Gilbert Gottfried lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck because of tweets he made about the 2011 Japanese tsunami, and Daniel Tosh was pressured to apologize last summer when a blog post that documented rape jokes he made was circulated online.
According to Nickerson, these types of controversies all have a common denominator.
“It’s social networking,” he said. “This social media stuff has unleashed the beast where everyone now thinks their opinion matters because it’s in print right there on internet.”
Even if stories like Cleese’s are an offspring of a more politically correct culture and the internet, a study by the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder found that time also plays a large role in whether or not a joke is taken offensively.
Participants of the study were asked to rate a certain event in their life by severity and then describe whether the event became more or less funny over time. The findings revealed that more severe events became funnier as time passed, suggesting that there can be a joke that is “too soon.”
Even so, the growing number of controversies involving comedians shows that they will continue to make jokes that some will find untimely or offensive, but comedian A.J. Finney says the reactions of a few should not effect a comic’s work.
“People get upset over jokes they don’t understand, but most people understand that it’s a well crafted thing,” he said. “A comedian shouldn’t have their feelings hurt because someone doesn’t understand sarcasm or satire.”