OPINION: Slow-adapting comedians in the PC age

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Iconic, funny people like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld are loudly speaking out against political correctness in today’s age, saying that it’s severely damaging comedy.

Seinfeld told late night host Seth Meyers that “there’s a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me,” while Rock has complained about the issue on college campuses and “their social views and their willingness to not offend anybody.”

There have been many other comedians who have joined them in their anti-PC message including Jim Norton, John Cleese, Patton Oswalt, Gilbert Gottfried and Lisa Lampanelli. Part of their argument is that people of our society are much more inclined to be offended nowadays and offer such restrictive pushback on what they deem “offensive” that it is hurting comedians.

Big-name comics like Trevor Noah and Louis C.K. have had to deal with public backlash over jokes on Jews and Saturday Night Live routines on pedophilia, respectively (although it’s easy to argue that these particular jokes were just plain unfunny). Who’s to tell how many young aspiring comedians have seen their aspirations handed back to them after offending some of their audience?

One of the problems with these complaints, however, is that this “age of PC,” which these comedians and strange bedfellows like Donald Trump like to rail against, is in all actuality a revolutionary age of free speech under the law. Followers of comedy, or even constitutional amendments I suppose, should well know the very different story in the age of Lenny Bruce and, later, George Carlin, both of whom were arrested, not un-followed on Twitter, for offensive jokes.

So let me offer this: maybe if you get an overwhelmingly bad reaction to a joke, the joke wasn’t funny enough to deserve otherwise. While you who whine about the challenges of modern comedians in today’s environment fail to keep up with the sensibilities of your audience, other funny people are making it work.

There are two major tracks of comedy emerging out of the supposed out-of-control PC age: one turning inward, and one turning into the skid.

Comedians are finding wild success in confessional comedy – an inward look into personal vulnerability – and you need to look no further than people like C.K., Tig Notaro, Katherine Ryan or Mark Maron.

C.K. explores shame, Maron famously deals in cards of anxiety or self-defeatism, and Notaro exploded in fame when she bravely set forth into her now-revered Largo stand-up set by beginning with, “Hello, I have cancer.”

And, if deeply confessional comedy isn’t your thing (which we shouldn’t expect from comedians), there are other comics thriving, not suffocating, on offensiveness and whatever political correctness out there provides hot air.

In the New York Times article, “Political Correctness Isn’t Ruining Comedy. It’s Helping,” Jason Zinoman describes offensive success out there, including famously stinging comedian Anthony Jeselnik. If you’re willing to wade through social media backlash, you can still be rewarded.

“I don’t tell dark jokes because I’m a comedian, I am a comedian because I tell dark jokes,” Jeselnik was quoted as saying by New York Times.

Success can still be earned in comedy, and the complaints we’re hearing now seem to be nothing more than a cranky wish for humor not to change – an odd and futile wish if I’ve ever heard one.

Sarah Silverman, in an interview with Vanity Fair, seemed to fall on the same note.

“It’s not hard to change with the times, and I think it’s important,” Silverman said. “And when you have new information and when you become more aware of the world around you, you can change.”

If you’re not making as many people laugh anymore, adapt for goodness’ sake, don’t just get stuck in your ways and complain as the sensibilities of modern audiences pass you by. What’s the point of complaining? A comedian’s finest work is exploring new insights and new paradigms that surprise us and enthrall us and make us laugh, not trying to pull us back to convince us that what you said was, in fact, funny.

Comedians have long been an engine of societal self-awareness and change, but now some seem to be falling behind instead of leading. You don’t have to be PC or not PC necessarily – just make sure to be funny.

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Jonathan Greig
Hi, I’m Jonathan. I graduate this December, majoring in Anthropology, with minors in Creative Writing and Political Science. After that … we’ll see. Maybe graduate school in environmental anthropology. Maybe I’ll finally pursue my old childhood dream of becoming an infomercial host. It’s up in the air. Some of my interests and hobbies include devout sports fanaticism, religious study, and composing country songs that serve to explain the unearthly amount of disdain I have for country music. My band’s called Catfish Hurricane, you should check us out. Well, actually, you shouldn’t. I love writing, which is how I accidentally stumbled into this job. This stumbling into good things is my plan for life in general.