In memory of Mitzi Shore: Crossing the line – Political Correctness in Comedy

A few days ago the matriarch of comedy died. Chances are you probably won’t know her name – she wasn’t a standup or an actress or motivated to have her name in lights. Instead, she was the owner of perhaps the greatest breeding ground of influential comedy talent – The Comedy Store in Los Angeles.

Mitzi Shore opened The Comedy Store on The Sunset Strip in 1972 and this establishment would become an incubator of speech devoid of political correctness with rapid fire laughs from the likes of Richard Pryor, Gary Shandling, Robin Williams, Roseanne Barr, Sam Kinison, David Letterman, Whitney Cummings, Chevy Chase, Jay Leno and Chris Rock, to name just a few. You wouldn’t get barred for offensive material, only bad material that failed.

The legendary comics of The Comedy Store in the 70s performed alongside cultural movements of strict religious opposition, feminism and gay rights and were free to discuss topics of homosexuality, sex, drugs and race. There are advantages to crossing the line in the realm of comedy, and the audience is well aware of when comedy stops and hate speech begins. If that is the case, is there even a line to cross? It’s a common debate – does political correctness have a place in comedy?

In the ’70s, standup comedy was in its infancy and on the heels of slam poetry yet attempted to do similar commentary fueled by social observations and annoyances. Just as it was for poets, language was a tool for comedians.

In the domain of satire, political correctness is a social language reform that threatens the commentative, spotlighting and curing aid-process that occurs when issues are being satirized. Censorship is the ultimate control of language and cultural hegemony demands that some words, expressions and ideas be decent, and others that are indecent, are censored for the fear of language becoming weaponry. It is a common thought between educators and philosophers “language control = thought control = reality control”[i] since the key argument for political correctness and restraint in satire is that removal of certain language will make us forget about it and influence the behaviour and our thoughts.[ii]

It speaks of an active sense of control heavily influenced by societal demands, where language is changed or not used in the hope of avoiding causing offense. The staged antagonism of issues that evolves from satire eases tensions and reduces social distance through the remedial “experience of public joking, shared laughter and celebration of agreement on what deserves ridicule and affirmation fosters community and furthers a sense of mutual support for common belief and behaviour”[iii]. Vulgarity serves up life in its most raunchy, pure and raw form.

In an interview with us in 2015, American comedian Artie Lange commented how rising urges to silence his subject matter makes him fight back harder:

Political correctness generates a lot of anger and my bits come from anger. I hate when it gets misinterpreted that a bit I’m doing is anti-gay or racist, it’s not. It’s anti the people that get mad for them. I get so mad at these uppity white liberals … who get mad for black people. That’s worse than racism, that’s patronising.

Chris Rock has previously said that he no longer plays college campuses because they’re “too conservative” and concerned with trying “not to offend anybody.” Jerry Seinfeld complemented this growing predicament on The Herd with Colin Cowherd radio program. He noted, “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC” before continuing, “They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudice.”

The biggest argument for some sort of language control/restraint is the anxiety concerning whether audiences are able to discern comedic speech from racism/hate speech/bigotry; and if they can’t, will it become accepted and applauded. In Michael Richards‘ 2006 appearance at The Laugh Factory, despite being a comedian in a comedy club and on a comedy stage, the moment Richards responded to a heckler with racial insults and slurs the change in direction and tone was immediately recognised by the audience as racial hate-speech and not satire, and the nation-wide disgust that followed (and naturally lead to an apology live on Letterman) proves the audience is sensitive to the difference.

In another instance at the Friars Club roast of Whoopi Goldberg in 1993, Ted Danson (who was in a relationship with Goldberg at the time) stunned as he entered the New York Hilton Hotel ballroom wearing blackface with huge white lips and reciting a monologue that repeatedly used the n-word in the midst of making jokes about their sex life. It wasn’t taken as absurdly funny like he intended. The mayor of New York at the time David N. Dinkins was noted as saying the joke was “way, way over the line” and for the first time in their history, the Friars Club issued an apology over comedic material following a media storm that The New York Times called “the talk of the nation”.

Satirists and comedians have the consistent role of being cultural and social analysers and mediators. Jokes reorder, distort, tear down and misrepresent the traditional patterns of communication and observation. With the Ted Danson example, intent isn’t enough to dispel negative reactions. Perhaps even contending the remedial aspects of satirical language which help ease public tensions and create a sense of community is alternatively acknowledgment to the power of such language and maybe weakening its presence could assist in issues like race. Even Sarah Silverman, the notoriously rogue and absurd comedian changed her tune in 2015:

“Racial jokes that were just kind of being absurd have less charm in a world where we’re all very aware that white cops are killing black teenagers on a daily basis… In the context of the world as it is now, it would be less absurdist. It’s important to change with the times.”

In the name of comedy, do we cross the line, avoid it or walk it?

References

[i] Bernstein, C. (1979, October).  The Dollar Value of Poetry. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, (9), 9.

[ii] Hardin, C. (1993). The Influence of Language on Thought, (11), 3.

[iii] Mintz, L. (1985). Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation. American Quarterly, 37(1), 71.