When done well, comedy is so much more than an entertaining diversion that allows people to take a brief step away from the mundane reality of their daily lives. Though the medium is often perceived this way, comedy is an art form of the highest order and is capable of advancing a cultural moment just as well as — and perhaps better than — any other medium. Those who choose to engage in this art form must understand that it is possible to do comedy a serious disservice by failing to recognize its inherent value, and it is certainly likely to further the notion that comedy is nothing more than a distraction meant only to yield a few cheap laughs.
One of the more common issues encountered by new comedians still struggling to find their voice is determining how to best address divisive issues and polarizing subjects while still maintaining the positive attention of the audience. The difference is quite subtle and is undeniably difficult to understand, as only the best comedians are able to deftly push the limits of comedy without ignoring that imaginary line that crosses over into a territory that most would consider “offensive.”
Of course, comedy is meant to offend many of the sensibilities and accepted beliefs of some of those in the audience, but this is only effective when there is something to be learned from the “offensive” material. Pointing out hypocrisy and inequality are valid goals for a comedian to pursue, and if that means some will be offended, so be it. There is, however, a right way to go about doing this that will help ensure that the comedian’s message is understood in the way it was originally intended.
Relate to the Audience and Bring Them Along With You
In most cases, a comedian has the benefit of a captive audience. They have been warmed up by a host or an opening act and, in the majority of clubs, they understand that there is an unspoken agreement regarding the importance of keeping an open mind to the subject matter that will be discussed by performers. If it is the goal of the comedian to advance a belief or to demonstrate some apparent absurdity, Anne Welsh recommends that a performer first take the time develop a deeper understanding of those in the audience who are most likely to disagree.
According to Welsh, comedians who take the time to relate and understand the rationale behind an opposing position will be far more likely to convince all audience members to at least consider the flip side of the argument. This is because it shows that the comedian is not ignorant of the opposite side of the issue and has taken the time to form an opinion based on all of the information available to them. This earns a measure of respect from the audience and makes it far less likely that they will suddenly turn to heckling, but there is another added benefit: Relating to the opposite side of an argument helps provide the proper context regarding the comedic aspects of the performance.
Avoid Insensitivity For Its Own Sake, But Refuse to Give in to External Pressure
The goal of comedy is not to be as offensive as possible or to shock an audience through the use of unbelievably crude humor. Comedy without a purpose is not comedy at all, says Anne Welsh, so comedians have to avoid tactics that include offending audience members just for the negative attention they are so likely to receive. That being said, there are times when insensitivity is necessary, and it is simply impossible to avoid offending someone at some point in time. The key to a successful career in comedy therefore depends on understanding how to navigate these circumstances when they arise.
So what is the best way to confront those who express moral outrage or are righteously indignant over a comedy routine? All that is necessary is for the comedian to be informed and to be able to express a clear rationale for including material that some may consider insensitive. If the comedian is unable to explain his or her reasoning, they will surely find themselves a victim of the worst kind of censorship. On the other hand, being able to thoroughly and thoughtfully explain a position will ensure that future efforts to undercut “offensive” comedic material will be prevented.