The first recorded piece of comedy is a 4,000-year-old Sumerian fart joke.
The ancient Greeks loved comedic plays that were highly obscene, featuring gags about genitals, scatological zingers, and horny dancing satyrs with huge phalluses. They routinely roasted politicians, the nobility, and even the gods themselves.
But not everyone of the era was a fan. Plato despised comedy, saying it was “a destruction to the self.” He believed that comedy should be fiercely controlled if you wanted to achieve the ideal society. These days it seems there are many who would agree with Plato’s sentiment. Dull busybodies feel the need to protest, dogpile, and “cancel” (that is, reenact the ancient Athenian ritual of ostracism, banning from society those that have offended the thought leaders, each individual denunciatory tweet an ostracon) comedians who they feel have transgressed with jokes that pushed the boundaries too far.
This was as apparent as ever last week when Ricky Gervais’ hilarious Golden Globes monologue polarized the Twitter-verse. Gervais mocked the hypocrisy of privileged Hollywood stars using their platform to lecture the lower classes on how to behave. From the irony of Hollywood waving the #metoo flag while many of them turned a blind eye to Harvey Weinstein’s’ crimes, to stars claiming wokeness when they work for companies like Apple, Amazon, and Disney.
Although it was arguably Ricky’s least offensive Golden Globes monologue to date, the backlash was still predictably swift as the usual self-entitled protectors of public decency descended on Twitter, wielding their keyboards, hashtags, and their sanctimony. To many, Gervais’ comedy had gone too far. He was a right-winger, a Trump supporter, a misogynist, a transphobe, and to some he was even a Nazi.
What they failed to perceive was that Ricky was also mocking himself. Gervais is about as rich, woke, and liberal as they come — Lord knows you don’t get to host the Globes unless you’re part of the elite — and has long used his platform to fight for animal rights, being fiercely opposed to animal abuse. Not understanding the concept of ironic humor, many simply put this down to Gervais being a hypocrite. They wanted Gervais cancelled, to be muzzled and silenced. He was, gasp, too mean.
This is nothing new of course. From Louis CK to the animated film Sausage Party, being outraged about comedy has long been a way for blogs to mine clicks. To a faction of journalists, all humor they deem to be offensive should be banned. In a recent Jezebel article, Esther Wang called for things to go a step further, to not only cancel “offensive” humor but also to cancel any comedian who dare to speak out about cancel culture.
We have recently seen a diverse cadre of entertainers — including but not limited to Kevin Hart, James Gunn, Trevor Noah, Eddie Murphy, Pete Davidson, Amy Schumer, Chris Cuomo, Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin, and even punk provocateurs NOFX — apologize and self-flagellate in front of the world for their comedic crimes, some still being fired for their inappropriate humor. Whether or not you agree they went too far isn’t the point (I would say, though, that Kathy Griffin holding Trump’s decapitated head was her funniest gag in years). You shouldn’t have to apologize every time someone is offended by a joke. To me, there is a clear delineation between someone stating their own offensive point of view and something being said for the sake of comedy. If we continue down this path, the very concept of humor itself is under threat of being restricted and throttled to the point where it is worthless.
I grew up with a dark and absurd sense of humor. To me, being able to laugh at the fragility and tragedy of the human condition is the only way I could cope with life. In the mid-2000s, I lost a close family member to suicide and fell into a deep spiral of depression that almost consumed me. I managed to claw myself out of the darkness by binge-watching shows like Wonder Showzen, Drawn Together, Tim & Eric, The Tom Green Show, The Mighty Boosh, Ricky Gervais’ The Office, and Extras, movies like Crank and Team America. I’m drawn toward comedy that is weird, over-the-top, silly, violent, and outrageously offensive. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine some of these shows even being green-lit these days. Producers and studios are super-sensitive to outrage culture and less inclined to take a chance on something that may upset the social-media scolds, who are poised and ready to be offended by anything in Twitter’s trending section.
When I started making my own films, I tried to inject into them the same type of comedy that helped me cope. Whether or not I succeeded is debatable. But for me, receiving hundreds of messages from people saying that DEATHGASM helped get them out of a depressive funk or simply made them laugh is one of the proudest achievements of my life. On the flip side, I received other messages from people highly offended by the film, calling it homophobic for showing a male character simulating sex with a sword, sexist for having a female character’s breasts exposed, racist for not having enough POC in lead roles (James Blake, who played Zakk is actually part Maori, but apparently he was too light-skinned to matter). As someone who has always identified as liberal in the true sense of the word, I was initially hurt by these accusations. But now, myself and many others are becoming increasingly tired of being told they are despicable and terrible people because they enjoy provocative humor.
I recently came across this thread from Rachel McCartney, a self-described mentally ill lesbian who endured abuse and even death threats for a joke she posted.
Her dark gag offended many, as woke people dog-piled on her for insulting gay people and making light of self-harm. What went over their heads was that Rachel was making a self-deprecating jab about her own experiences. That the trolls missed this point is very telling. Since they had lived more privileged lives, they couldn’t empathize with a dark time in Rachel’s life and misguidedly decided to get offended on the behalf of others.
And of course, people still didn’t get it:
I have friends from the fire service, police, and military. One thing they always talk about is the need for “gallows humor,” humor that “treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way, and is used in response to incidents that elicit an emotional response from firefighters or would elicit an emotional response from the average bystander.” Although it may seem wildly inappropriate to some, gallows humor is often used by people who have to work in environments where death and human tragedy are commonplace. It plays an important role in helping people cope with trauma. For many, it lets them process and remove themselves mentally from the emotional element and proceed with the work they need to do. If you can joke about death, it doesn’t hold its cold, depressive grip over you.
I think that can also apply to many of us trying to make our way through this confusing and often tragic life. Yes, humor is subjective, and yes, there is a time and a place for some jokes. But movies, television, and comedy shows aimed at adults need to be free of puritanical restrictions.
Those wanting to censor humor need to instead work on finding empathy for others. Maybe you didn’t like the joke. Maybe you thought it was crass. Maybe you got offended on behalf of another part of society. But take a moment and consider that, possibly, someone out there found it relatable, someone out there who was struggling and really needed a laugh to get them through the day. In trying to deny people comedy that you don’t personally find funny, you are making the world a harder place for others to live in. Like Ricky Gervais said: "They're just jokes, and we're all going to die soon. And there is no sequel."