Opinion

Comedians, your licence to offend has been revoked

Stand-up comics don't get a free pass in the age of 'wokeness'. Reckless commentary - even in jest - can have serious consequences, writes Siphiwe Mpye

02 February 2018 - 00:00
By Siphiwe Mpye
Comedian Dave Chappelle, pictured here at the 2018 GRAMMY Awards, has come under fire for homophobia and transphobia following the release of his trio of Netflix specials.
Image: Theo Wargo/WireImage Comedian Dave Chappelle, pictured here at the 2018 GRAMMY Awards, has come under fire for homophobia and transphobia following the release of his trio of Netflix specials.

The function of comedy, wrote French playwright Molière, is “to correct men's vices … to correct men by amusing them.” In 17th Century France, he believed that wanton ridicule was counter productive, that his task as a writer of comedy and satire, was to “attack the vices of my age by making them ridiculous”.

In our age, the vices are interlocked and in abundance – patriarchy, racism, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, gender-based violence – and in desperate need of destruction through an array of interventions, including ridicule. And yet, if you attend a stand-up comedy show this week, you are most likely to be assaulted by material that rubbishes variously, the victims of these sibling vices.

The function of comedy, according to many contemporary comics, would seem to be offence, what Molière refers to as “indiscriminate mockery”. While many of these comedians, the world over, have for years wore their ability to offend as a badge of honour, more important than their ability to elicit laughs, their time - to use a most timely phrase - is up.

Ordinary citizens, students, rural women, students, the LGBTIQ+ community and civil society are saying no. Enough with the bigotry, enough with the hate, enough with sexual predators, enough with the unchecked casual toxicity. Nobody is and indeed should be safe from our sights, including comedians.

It is a sign of an increasingly conscious society clawing back a semblance of dignity from decades of erosion. But for some, this ‘wokeness’, to use one of the more overused terms of our time, is not welcome in comedy.

“Wokeness, in some form or another,” wrote Yolisa Mkele in a recent issue of the Sunday Times Lifestyle (read his article here), “is the dominant theme of our current cultural milieu and as such everyone is expected to be ‘woke’ to everything, including comedians for some reason.”

Mkele, in his clear nostalgia for wanton offence – tellingly, apart from rabid racism - cites Chris Rock, Richard Prior and Eddie Murphy, as examples of men who “built their careers on being offensive” and that there was a time you could “poke fun at people’s sensitive spots and expect a giggle”.

Peak notoriety for these three comedians came at different times and what earned them giggles reflected it.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

For a very long time I enjoyed Chris Rock and thought him to be the best contemporary stand-up comic. You could count on him to share fresh angles on everyday observations and incisive – and funny – race and class analysis. But some of his material has also espoused self hate, like his insistence on differentiating between ‘Black people and Niggas’, the former falling into the realm of decent folk, while the latter were soaked in every historical stereotype you can imagine. The gag’s humour, it goes without saying, lay in the ridiculing of these ‘Niggas’, not the tiredness of the stereotypes ascribed to them.

I am old enough to remember Eddie Murphy’s heyday and how entertaining his 1987 one man show Raw was, at the time. My recollections of it now however, cannot go past the Afrophobic image of ‘Umfufu’, his imagined African wife with a ‘fucked up Afro and a bone through her nose’ demanding ‘haf Eddie, I want haf’.

Richard Prior’s material, in all his brilliant, pioneering ways, was steeped in similar misogyny and questionable reflections on our lived experience.

Dave Chappelle, with his three, $20-million a pop Netflix specials has taken a lot of stick for homophobia and transphobia. In these shows, as Brian Logan of The Guardian explains, “Chappelle spends substantial time across the two shows joking about gay and transgender people, usually from the perspective of a bemused straight man who finds those other identities inherently amusing”.

Had Chappelle lived in the time of Murphy’s Raw or its predecessor Delirious he may have felt right at home, but we live in an irreversibly different time.

COMEDIANS AS SOCIAL COMMENTATORS

In a moment where black transgender and lesbian women are being raped and murdered in our communities; a time when school principals rape prepubescent girls on camera; where terrified, dehumanised men are shoved into coffins and threatened with a fiery death and juvenile, bigoted and patently unqualified men hold the fate of the world in their hands, reckless commentary, from columnists, artists and comedians cannot be allowed to thrive, no matter how ‘funny’ it is to those who are not the butt of the joke. The stakes are way too high.

An allied point of stand up comedy, any comedy for that matter, should not be the possibility of offence, it should be the guarantee of laughter, not through some ironic bigotry and victim-shaming, but sharp societal analysis and sticking it to the ‘vice’ or perpetrators of whatever injustice.

It is true, as Mkele suggest, that comedians are not our “moral standard bearers”, they are social commentators who have extraordinary power to influence and should not be immune from responsibility and critique.

The artistic goal of a comedian is not simply to get a laugh, because laughter is little more than a reflex. A comedian, like any artist, should be trying to say something, and it matters what that something is
Fan Tyler Foster to Dave Chappelle

Tyler Foster, a fan who wrote Chappelle a letter lamenting his transphobia put it best recently: “The artistic goal of a comedian is not simply to get a laugh, because laughter is little more than a reflex. A comedian, like any artist, should be trying to say something, and it matters what that something is.”

Mkele concludes by suggesting we should allow comedians to “make jokes and if they are funny, don’t laugh or don’t go to the show” lest we are overcome by a ‘fit of self-righteous indignation”.

Quite apart from being a lazy argument, it is a dangerous one. The suggestion here is that ostensibly because we have freedom of speech and comedians are expected to exploit that to the nth degree in search of giggles, we should either take it or leave the room. Offence, for offence’s sake is far too easy to manufacture. Intelligent, thoughtful and humorous material is harder to craft, and should be the benchmark against which comedians hold themselves.

Unless you live in a repressive state hell bent on squeezing the life out of any semblance of civil liberty, we – citizens, talking heads and presidents alike - are free to say pretty much anything, no matter how mundane or reckless.

But as writer Brian Logan pointed out in The Guardian recently, “Reckless speech is everywhere – the only difference is, these days, it’s no longer given a free pass.”

We are the better for it.  

The author of this article, Siphiwe Mpye, is a writer, media consultant and editor of notedman.com