Offensive Humor and the Thought Police
I grew up with three older brothers, have never been raped, and have been known to be more inclined to tolerate lewd or crude behavior than many of my female friends and associates. So I may not be the best judge of what constitutes offensive humor. But I also served as an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) counselor in a federal agency for two and a half years. My role was to attempt to resolve potential harassment or discrimination issues before they got to the stage of a formal complaint. My boss appointed me on the principle of worst offender; he told me that if someone came to me to complain about a problem, they would have to be serious about it. They came, they were serious.
I learned a lot from “the thought police” during that time, including two things that might be useful for comedians who are trying to up their game from the nightclub circuit to primetime. The first thing I learned is about the “reasonable person” standard. It is used to judge actions when it may be difficult to determine due to unique context whether certain language or behavior is offensive. More recently and in cases relating to sexual harassment, it has been made more specifically the “reasonable woman” standard. It was changed from a “reasonable person” to a “reasonable woman” standard specifically out of recognition that men and women have very real reasons to judge sexually-charged language and behavior differently. The “reasonable woman” standard may be used to evaluate whether language or behavior would be seen as offensive by a “reasonable woman”, other than the recipient of the behavior. It can be useful to isolate other issues from an interaction between people that may establish hostile context.
The second thing I learned is that with respect to language and behavior that may be subject to EEO policies in the federal workplace, if something is offensive to the person receiving the language or behavior, it *is* offensive. Period. It is a difficult standard to meet, precisely because it can be different with every single person and every single context in which language is used or behavior occurs. Because it is completely dependent on individuals and context, in order for someone to have a legitimate complaint about the language or behavior, they have to communicate to the other individual(s) involved that they find it offensive. If you use sexually inappropriate language on the job that I find offensive, and I tell you that I find it offensive, the next time you use it, you are guilty of sexual harassment.
Now, why do I raise these concepts in the context of stand-up comedy? Am I suggesting that comedians should be held to the same standard as employees in the federal workplace, and that we should send in the thought police to clean up the comedy circuit? Oh, hell no! What I will suggest is that, in my experience, the best comedians use principles like these to adapt their material. On the fly. That’s what makes them the very best comedians.
I will use my favorite comedian as my standard: Craig Ferguson. He is spectacularly foul mouthed, and has taken on subjects that range far and wide in the course of his unrelenting, brilliant humor. He makes jokes about all kinds of people – men, women, straight, gay, drunk, drugged, celebrities, royalty, religious, Americans, foreigners, … you name it. I have wondered often over the last many months why I don’t find his humor offensive. My sense is that he has a well-honed sense of the threshold for a “reasonable person” (and “reasonable woman” for that matter) when it comes to delivering his bawdy brand of humor. It’s clear he has an acutely refined sense of when he may have overstepped boundaries into an area that could be offensive to his audience. He has well-practiced mechanisms (“CBS cares” and “I look forward to your letters”) for communicating to the audience that he realizes he may have overstepped. These mechanisms give him a chance to pause, reflect, and redirect – or not. There have been a few – very few – instances in which I think he was treading close to a subject that was either over the top or had a chance to legitimately offend someone. It is fascinating to me to watch him make a course correction on the fly – he drops his head, says something sincere, direct and apologetic – and then changes the subject. Ferguson is a master at listening to his audience and adapting his material when they let him know they find the territory he has wandered into offensive. His response often begins with “Don’t you oooh me!” – but then most often, he launches in a different direction. Ferguson also relies on the team of comedy professionals he works with to ensure that his delivery hits the target – including the person he keeps very busy pixellating his indiscretions and what would seem to be a censor, just off-camera.
For me, there is no comparison between someone like Ferguson and lesser comedians. When a lesser comedian gets a reaction from his audience that his material may not have been as universally funny as he thought it was, he attacks the person who reacted. I’m not interested in seeing a comedian who tries to build his humor out of attacking me or anyone else in audience; but like others, I’d line up for hours to have a chance to participate in Ferguson’s audience, even if I were seated in the celebrated “Lesbian Row” and subject to jokes reserved for the handful of people who get seated there.
I think aspiring comedians have a lot to learn from “the thought police” as represented by federal EEO policy standards – and as practiced in his own way by Ferguson. Aspiring comedians could learn that there is comedy merit in tailoring their material to a “reasonable woman” standard. They might also learn there is a tremendous payoff when they can listen to their audience and be prepared to adapt their material when the audience lets them know it’s offensive. It’s no wonder second rate comedians are fearful of “the thought police” – it would require that they actually try to be intelligent, adaptable and authentically funny.
One last thought. When I googled “Craig Ferguson rape joke” I couldn’t find a single reference to a rape joke told by Ferguson. All I got were references to some second rate comedian named Tosh.