As we’re all very aware, there was a recent incident involving Roseanne Barr tweeting a racist statement in regards to senior adviser of Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett. It ultimately resulted in the cancellation of the very highly rated sitcom, Roseanne, on ABC.
Barr has been known for her controversial statements and has a long history of controversial Twitter behavior trailing back almost a decade, so the fact that this happened isn’t really all that surprising and was really a matter of time before this happened, especially in the age of social media.
Shortly after the Roseanne controversy, another comic (Samantha Bee) came under fire for remarks made about Ivanka Trump. Bee has since apologized; however, word is the White House has called it “vile and vicious.” Some have even compared the two incidents as arguments for free speech.
With all this discussion about free speech, it does make every comedian wonder where exactly do we draw the line in comedy? As comics, we are kind of seen as those who are given somewhat of a pass to say whatever is on our mind. However, as it has been established, that’s clearly not the case especially when you also have to consider things like political correctness (another hot button issue).
So how do we approach this? What does this mean for comics?
Here are my thoughts.
The Roseanne and Samantha Bee incidents are NOT comparable
First and foremost, Samantha Bee and Roseanne Barr are two separate instances where the level of extremity is not at all similar.
Barr made a blatantly racist remark about Valerie Jarrett with rhetoric that dates back hundreds of years ago. Bee was more so a case of vulgar language and at best can be labeled a poor choice of words to describe the character of Ivanka Trump.
The only parallel these events have is they happened close in time to one another. That’s it.
However, with the fiery social climate and political links she was forced to apologize in an effort to save face with her own network. Seems unbalanced, right?
Recognizing the line
The main takeaway from instances like Samantha Bee and Roseanne Barr is there definitely are limits as to what we can push in terms of what we say. These instances are definitely sensationalized but it’s not isolated to just matters of racism or poor use of language.
Even Hannibal Buress was subject to ramifications when he discussed Catholic priests and child molestation at a Loyola Marymount University. A bit of a silly move, seeing that the school is of Catholic orientation.
The tricky thing is that the line differs from medium to medium. As stand-ups, we often don’t recognize the comedy club stage is a different world compared to television, social media, or even the real world. Hell, even I’ve found myself in daily situations going “should I have said that?”
In a club, anything goes. That type of luxury is great for our craft and taking that mentality to larger platforms can be beneficial in many ways, but it can also be a disservice depending on your comedic style, opinions, and so forth.
Depending on what you are trying to achieve and who you are trying to influence that line becomes more or less apparent.
You CAN say what you want...but be aware of the consequences
One notion I believe holds a lot of truth is “you can say what you want...but be aware of the consequences.”
Too many comics view comedy as only an art form rather than seeing it as a business. Business is not creative and you can’t uphold artistic expression as a defense to save your business. Remember that once you see it as a business you are able to understand the concept of constituents.
The Roseanne and Samantha Bee incidents were not just discussions of free speech; they were also discussions of business. Networks have constituents they have to please (the audience is one of them). If they let down the audience they lose credibility. A comic’s lack of discretion only gives reason to cut ties especially if a comic fails to recognize the values of the organizations they are representing and it gets more restrictive to bigger and more noteable you become.
Moral of this article: be aware of your audience and know when to practice discretion. Comics are meant to be adaptable and it definitely is a balancing act of being our authentic selves and keeping in mind other larger elements at play. If you strive to be in the real industry then everything has to be considered.
Got questions or something to add? Comment below and tell us your thoughts!