Confronting Offensive Comedy on Campus and Beyond

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This past weekend Beyond Therapy, Kenyon’s sketch comedy troupe put on a show. They performed on Friday and Saturday night. The Friday night show opened to an engaged audience who laughed steadily throughout the show and left with mainly positive comments. The Saturday night show was received very differently, a portion of the audience exited the Black Box during the show and those who stayed laughed hesitantly or stayed silent. I was in attendance for the Saturday night show and after the show that night and throughout the day on Sunday I heard a variety of impassioned reactions. The most common response that was relayed to me and that I will admit feeling myself was that the show was unnecessarily offensive. The show joked about issues such as gun violence with adults and small children, sexual promiscuity, abortion, rape, and sexual harassment. I spoke to Mike Jest ’15, co-president of Beyond Therapy and Thrill staffer, and John Foley ’15, member of Beyond Therapy in order to address the issue of offensiveness and boundary crossing in comedy at Kenyon and beyond.

Izzy Sanderson: The Beyond Therapy show took place this weekend and as I state above, it received some mixed feedback. What do you think Beyond Therapy’s reputation at Kenyon is?

Mike Jest: I will acknowledge that we might have a reputation for boundary pushing by Kenyon College standards.

IS: Do you think the undertones of the comedy that took place during last night’s show were different than the comedy portrayed in previous shows?

MJ: Every show is unique. I don’t really think this show was that different than normal shows.

John Foley: It was really eye-opening to come out from backstage after the show on Saturday and see good friends react in strong negative terms to the performance. It shouldn’t have taken those shocked faces and “WTF?!”s to help us figure out that something in the show had gone very wrong, but unfortunately it did. I’ve had a lot of friends come to me and talk about how a lot of different sections really offended and hurt them, and that’s just the worst. My initial reaction is to be defensive and say “Hey! I didn’t necessarily write that!” but I think that as a group we all bear responsibility for the content we put out there, and when we fail to be funny AND hurt people, we all feel that belly flop.

IS: How do you define offensive comedy?

MJ: Personally, I don’t think I have ever been offended by something said in a comedy setting but that is not the norm. Offensiveness is subjective but something that is offensive receives a negative reaction from whoever is receiving it. If an audience member has an adverse reaction to something then that thing is offensive to them. In general, people will accept a joke if it’s funnier than it is offensive to them.

JF: I think that there is a huge range of humor that has the potential to be very offensive. Jokes that take a thoughtless, dismissive or unintelligent attitude towards social problems and which ignore the potential for triggering fit into this category. I think that certain elements of boundary crossing in comedy can be useful, but only ever if the audience is laughing for the right reason, and that’s a very thin like to walk. For example, if a comedy group is telling a joke about the bullying of gay teenagers in high school, that joke needs to be clearly mocking the bully and the ignorant behavior that leads to bullying behavior. It’s never funny to dismiss or make light of someone’s tragedy. If a joke is making the audience laugh in recognition of how fucked up or problematic something is, than it is succeeding; if it’s only fueling arrogance about a social problem and not making an effort to point out the problem itself, than it fails.

IS: What have you heard in terms of reactions after the show?

MJ: I have heard that people were uncomfortable with some of the subject matter, specifically we had some jokes about news stories involving shootings and they were what I thought to be satiric jokes in a sketch but that some people found offensive. Abortion and sexual assault were also mentioned in a sketch and I heard that those jokes made people very uncomfortable.

IS: When you heard those reactions what do you think?

MJ: I look at a show’s reactions, personally just by how funny people find them. It’s hard to laugh when you feel uncomfortable so that is never our goal.

IS: What do you think about offensive or boundary crossing humor in general at Kenyon?

MJ: I don’t think there is much of it. Kenyon seems, as a rule, fairly sensitive to taboo subjects and justly so. People feel strongly about issues so they bring that with them when they see comedy.

IS: What do you think about offensive or boundary crossing comedy in general?

MJ: It can be tricky. I think that a lot of the offensive comedy out there is a result of laziness or bad writing. A lot of people use it as a short cut, like shock humor and I think that is unfortunate in that it gives other comedy that is boundary testing a bad name. If done well, boundary testing humor is valuable…maybe the most valuable. The goal of comedy should be testing boundaries, when done correctly.

IS: How do you think you test boundaries correctly in comedy?

MJ: That is hard to articulate. A  quote that I like states that you don’t make racist jokes, you make jokes about racism. There has to be a point of view behind the comedy not just blindly trying to go for shock value. You have to be thoughtful and have some moral obligation I think, when you want to have a positive message behind what you are doing. It should be boundary testing with the goal of shedding light on issues that people don’t talk about but can be discussed and made more palatable through comedy. It is easier to digest within a comedic framework and that is what a lot of great comedians do, like Richard Pryor and Louis C.K. and George Carlin. They test boundaries very artfully.

IS: Anything else?

JF: Everyone in Beyond Therapy is really, really funny and talented and have all acted in and written some great sketches. We’ve had some golden moments as a group that we should be really proud of.

MJ: What I would say about the news jokes is that by nature of doing jokes about the news, which is a choice we make, then you are going to deal with sensitive topics. I mean if you look at the news as we do when writing that sketch then you will see shootings in the news. The world is a scary place. Stories like that are getting more attention. So it is difficult to do a news segment without mentioning that.

IS: When you are writing, are you thinking about what the reaction is going to be?

MJ: Well, I am trying to make the audience laugh. I mean with jokes about shootings…I would say my intention in those, it is difficult to say that keeping in mind…the jokes aren’t meant to make light of the those stories of how terrible the shootings taking place in this country are, but to point to the fact that they are happening. There is a gun control debate and the news is full of stories about kids and adults alike getting their hands on guns and killing other people either accidentally or on purpose. Presenting that in a comedy show you would hope, my intention would be to point out that those things are happening not to make light of them. I have heard Louis C.K. say that if you take people to a place that they are scared of and make them laugh there then it is a more meaningful experience. Whether we succeeded or not, the goal is to bring those news stories in a forum where they are easier to talk about. The goal is to bring them up in a setting where people won’t shut down. We are trying to make it more accessible to people.

30 responses

  1. yeah please do more reporting like this. This opens up a lot of interesting issues that are often hard to address campus wide, so it’s cool that the Thrill (a widely read blog on campus) is talking about this stuff. Glad this type of discussion/these topics are reaching more people.

  2. “you don’t make racist jokes, you make jokes about racism”–A statement that a lot of Kenyon students should keep in mind

  3. People at Kenyon need to grow a thicker skin and roll with the punches. Comedy is Comedy. No one forced any of these people to sit through the show.

  4. “If a joke is making the audience laugh in recognition of how fucked up or problematic something is, then it is succeeding; if it’s only fueling arrogance about a social problem and not making an effort to point out the problem itself, then it fails.” Well said. I agree completely.

  5. It seems as though Mike Jest is not sorry for participating in an offensive show, he’s sorry that the audience got offended. It’s also not surprising that as a straight, white, upper/middle class male he’s never been offended by anything he’s seen in a comedy setting.

  6. There is no such thing as unoffensive comedy, all comedy will offend one group or another. Good comedy however will win over the masses by exposeing the hidden truths of society’s way of thinking.

    • Careful there. Not all comedy is meant to be lofty and insightful. I think what you’d be better off saying is that all comedy, at heart, derives from pain. The critic Walter Kerr has a fantastic book called Tragedy and Comedy which explored the origins of both genres. He argues that Tragedy has to come first before Comedy can be created. i.e. a funeral must happen before the sickly priest can vomit on the casket during the eulogy. Not a lofty, insightful joke, but the humor in the situation comes from its sharp contrast with the painful situation. So, back to the idea of exposing truths in society with comedy. Sure, this is one wonderful thing comedy can do for us, but it is not the be-all-end-all origin of comedy. Jokes about slavery work because they take an element of an incredibly painful situation and exaggerate it or juxtapose it with something ridiculous. An example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zB7MichlL1k the joke here is not ABOUT slavery. The joke is in the contrast between the language the two slaves are using to articulate their way out of the auction. Pain + intrusion into that pain = comedy. When you write a sketch about something that you’re trying to expose the hidden truths of to society, take a step back, and really examine the joke. What specifically about it makes it funny. Where does the comedy come from and why does the joke have to contain potentially offensive content in order to work? Just something to consider.

  7. The first thrill article I’ve read that I believe has real journalistic worth! Not saying I don’t enjoy the silly stuff, but more like this would be great.

  8. the thing is that you have to be aware of your own privilege when making possibly offensive jokes. and so the above commenter is right when saying that the people making the jokes are white males– that’s something to consider when thinking about what kind of jokes they are making (the power dynamics that is). It doesn’t mean that white males are incapable of being offended or never get discriminated against. It’s just in reality, in our culture, white males have a certain amount of privilege over others, and so when executing jokes that could be offensive, they need to be aware that they have certain liberties/power as a white male and therefore need to consider what does their joke mean, what whole other meaning could it possibly take or imply….what are the implications? those sorts of questions.

  9. I found the two men interviewed non-defensive and very thoughtful in their replies. I ditto the comments cheering The Thrill’s delving into a meaty topic. More please….

  10. I agree that someone is always going to be offended when you make jokes on touchy subjects. Beyond Therapy put on a free comedy show. If you felt offended, you felt offended, and that’s really all there is to it. Beyond Therapy does not “owe” you anything. If you disliked the material, you disliked it, and you shouldn’t attend subsequent shows. It’s easy to blame joke-makers for making you feel a certain way. It’s much harder to face up to the way you feel and then let it go because life is more important than trivial offenses.

    But I will say this: I was at the Saturday show, and while I can’t say that I was “offended” by the material, I was a little taken aback by the low quality and obvious carelessness of some of the jokes surrounding touchy subject matter, which I think was in part what the audience’s overly negative reaction was about.

    As someone who appreciates comedy in all formats, I noticed that there were several incidences in which the jokes were not crafted “to artfully test boundaries,” as Mr. Jest puts it. They were crafted because of their inherent shock value, and were definitely short-cuts for an easy laugh, a style of joke which Jest states “gives other boundary-testing comedy a bad name.”

    Specifically, I’m thinking of the Magic Johnson AIDS joke, which was admittedly tasteless, but its greatest sin was that it had no real comedic point of view other than “ha ha Magic Johnson has AIDS.” Many of the jokes about touchy subjects did not show us an enlightened viewpoint, instead going for an easy laugh based upon the audience’s recognition that the topic was “taboo.”

    I wasn’t offended that Beyond Therapy covered some touchy subject matter. They should be commended for not shying away from controversial subjects. But I was definitely offended as an appreciator of comedy. There’s a quote from Seinfeld that I think illustrates how I feel nicely:

    “Father, I’m pretty sure Tim Whately converted to Judaism just for the jokes!”
    “And this offends you as a Jewish person?”
    “No, it offends me as a comedian!”

    I was disheartened that Beyond Therapy was content with “pushing boundaries” without paying very close attention to WHY they were pushing boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for pushing boundaries in comedy, and do not wish to admonish Beyond Therapy for attempting to do so. But if you’re gonna push boundaries, you better make damn sure you push them gently and skillfully, with a viewpoint that serves to inspire. To push boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries is the epitome of lazy comedy.

    I will also say: Beyond Therapy used to be WAAAY more lazy/blatantly shocking, and they have really cleaned up their act in the past year or so, and the quality of their shows has improved tremendously. But they can’t just stop there. They can’t be satisfied with simply “pushing boundaries.” That’s not good enough.

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