OPINION | Freedom of Speech, of the Press…and of Comedy?


In the upcoming fall television season, South Africa native Trevor Noah[1] will take the stage to replace Jon Stewart as the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

If he survives trial-by-Twitter that is.

Right after his promotion to the gloried ranks of “hosthood” were announced, the Internet exploded with criticism over tweets[2] he had sent which some called misogynistic and anti-Semitic.

In comedy, this seems like a fairly common occurrence. We have all heard jokes that fall on deaf ears and sweep the collective air out of a room. Usually, these pass and are quickly forgotten, but with Twitter, they are permanently embedded into the unrelenting, irrevocable public world of the web.

“With the Internet, comedians can only be hated or praised. It is polarized,” Molly Pease, a senior theater and public relations major from Marietta, said. “Twitter is basically a rough draft, and you don’t know if it is going to hit or not. People put stuff up without thinking twice about it.”

Pease helps lead rehearsals for the women’s comedy group on campus, Lady Parts Improv, and said that tone can be hard to read on a screen whereas in person you get immediate feedback from an audience based on their laughter.

Even if Twitter may be a hard space for comedians to successfully deliver jokes in, it is still important to recognize that there are certain lines that humor cannot adequately cross, regardless of the medium.

To name a few: rape, 9/11, and genocide are areas about which humor cannot do justice. These topics require a different kind of dialogue out of respect for their gravity, and we cannot shed light on them, even with attempted laughs.

While it is fair to debate whether Noah’s jokes were distasteful, he did not quite step into the no-fly zone of humor; he may just need a little more practice time on the stage and a little less time tweeting.

Determining exactly what that line is between distaste and insult is a slippery slope though. Like any art form, what may be inspiring to one person could be insulting to the next. With comedy, we are all familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of being the one person in a room not to understand a joke.

As an avid teller of puns and viewer of shows like Saturday Night Live, it seems logical to divide humor into two categories.

First, there are laughs that come from the silly, the unexpected, the naïve and the over-the-top. These are the America’s Funniest Home Videos and Candid Cameras of our lives. We laugh here for the sake of laughing.

Then, there are the jokes that make us laugh at ourselves and at our society. These are our political cartoons and, often, our late night comedy shows. These show us the truth and when we see it, we cannot help but laugh at our own absurdity.

This second category is also the more dangerous one for a comedian. Not all individuals have the same tolerance for humorous critique of the world, and without hearing tone, it can be easy for a joke to be pulled out of context. What may sound comical behind a stand-up microphone would be considered an affront if said to someone face-to-face or if left alone on a Twitter feed.

Whether we should accept humor that can be harmful to some while shedding light on the foibles of others is a question without a simple answer. In the United States, we defend the right to insult because we value speech so strongly.

Other countries and people may disagree, as the founder of the French publication Charlie Hebdo illustrated both in life and posthumously with his recently published book.

Returning to the appropriateness of jokes though, at least in an American context, who is telling a joke can be essential in understanding its meaning.

“If you are making a joke as an oppressor about the oppressed, that is different than a minority making fun of the majority,” Pease explained.

To her, any topic can be discussed if it is done the right way, it just depends on whether you are encouraging stereotypes or breaking them.

Sean Smith, the co-president of Improv Athens, said he is confident Trevor Noah will come into his own in establishing the right lines with his humor and that he is a worthy replacement for Stewart.

He said that being a comedian comes with a certain level of responsibility, but that audiences have to be understanding as well.

“I think at the end of the day you have to remember that we as comedians just want to make you guys laugh, and sometimes we mess up, but that is just because we are human,” said Smith, who is a sophomore theater and mass media arts major from Johns Creek.

After all, when successful, comedy still serves as a way of breaking barriers – even off the national broadcast stage and back on college campuses.

Pease said Lady Parts Improv was started at UGA to give women a safe place to try comedy. In order to make comedy relatable to women, she said it is important to have them telling their story on stage. A phenomenon, she said, is true for all different groups of people.

“Comedy draws all of us together, and when you have a diverse group of people who can all laugh at the same joke and connect at that moment – that is what I love,” she said.

Today, Lady Parts also works to break social stereotypes.

“In our sketches, the couple can be lesbian but the joke has nothing to do with them being lesbian,” she said as an example.

To her, comedy is like any other art form in that what makes it good is when it is human and relatable.

The jury is out on whether Trevor Noah will be able to strike that comedic balance without insulting potential viewers, but regardless, he has immense shoes to fill.

Featured Image is “Microphone on Stage” by Zach Den Adel, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

[1] http://www.trevornoah.com/about/

[2] http://time.com/3764913/trevor-noah-twitter-backlash/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/17/world/europe/book-by-slain-charlie-hebdo-editor-argues-islam-is-not-exempt-from-ridicule.html?_r=0

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