Did you hear the one about the comedian who made a button-pushing joke and got everyone riled up? If you’ve been on the Internet in the last month, then, yes, you’ve most certainly heard that one. After Daniel Tosh‘s rape joke firestorm and Dane Cook‘s backfired crack about the Aurora, Colo. shootings, Comedy Central Roast veteran Jeffrey Ross is igniting the comedy debate yet again this summer after he, too, attempted to make a joke about the tragic massacre that took place during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20.
During the taping for Roseanne Barr’s Comedy Central Roast in Hollywood Saturday night, Ross — who made it clear he was there to toe the line when he arrived dressed as the late, disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, accompanied by two young men dressed only in towels and football helmets — joked to fellow roaster Seth Green, “Congratulations. This is actually a really big night for you. You haven’t gotten this much attention since you shot all those people in Aurora.”
Ross continued, “I’m kidding!” You’re not like James Holmes. At least he’s doing something in a movie theater that people remember.” The joke, which reportedly received a mostly negative reaction at the typically game-for-anything Roast, won’t be heard by anyone outside of that room. Comedy Central announced on Monday that the network would remove Ross’ remarks from the final broadcast. If the question of “Too soon?” was still lingering in the air Comedy Central just answered it.
Still, the issue at hand in the comedy debate here isn’t really a matter of “too soon.” It’s not simply about poor timing, but tact. The unforgiving, yet utterly brilliant South Park wasted even less time than Ross getting around to the Paterno scandal with their 2011 episode “The Poor Kid.” While the controversial episode (which, ironically enough, made fun of someone trying to make light of the horrors of sexual abuse) was met with cries of “too soon” and “too far,” the show is still widely regarded as one of the best pieces of modern satire.
And let’s not forget that groundbreaking comedians like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce — who have been name-checked as a defense for Tosh and Cook following their respective scandals — were held in the highest esteem because of their willingness to broach controversial topics like religion and politics. (Take, for instance, Carlin’s famous takedown of pro-life conservatives: “Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers.”) Would Carlin have been too afraid to go near something like the Aurora tragedy? Probably not, because Carlin wasn’t afraid of anything. But Carlin would have likely given a rousing, whip-fast, hit-the-nail-on-the-head dissection of how f**ked up gun violence is in this country. Carlin may have been “shocking,” but he certainly never went for shock value just for the hell of it. But also, are we really putting these guys in the same sentence as Carlin and Bruce? That is shocking.
Still, there’s something to be said about the current climate of unrest in our nation and the reaction to the arguably insensitive jokes made by Tosh, Cook, and Ross. The beauty of great comedy is when it works as a unifier, be it through pointing out the absurdities of life to making light of something that is too heavy for us all to bear. But judging by foul cries of censorship and “too soon” criticism following Ross’ joke, we’re hardly unified. Are we as a people simply becoming too sensitive? Maybe. But our sensitivity is also a defense mechanism, since we also now live in a world where we can’t go to the movies or our place of prayer. We live in a world where women do legitimately have to fear they will be sexually assaulted or raped.
Unlike Tosh and Cook, it’s difficult to imagine Ross will make an apology on Twitter for the hot water he’s found himself in. Not just because Ross is a more “daring” comedian than those two, but because it feels like a line is being drawn in the comedy sand. With Comedy Central’s decision to edit out Ross’ joke comes the fear of censorship or the concern that every off-color joke won’t be followed by a rimshot, but an apology to overly sensitive crowds. Take away a comedian’s freedom of speech and the ability to get under someone’s skin at one time or another, and you’ve pretty much robbed them of what makes them them.
But the problem here isn’t that these comedians are making jokes about these terrible things. That’s their job. It’s that it feels like they’re laughing in our face, not in the face of these horrors. There will always be certain taboo topics in comedy that can really only be handled by the most gifted talents in the business. But, hell, even the best of the best get it wrong sometimes.
Take The Onion: The satire newspaper recently used the image of a plane crashing into a tower as a sight gag, which was met with a variety of upset and angry reactions on the Internet. While some argued that the gag — even 11 years after the fact — was “too soon,” the problem wasn’t that someone was offended (someone will always be offended), it was how the comedy was handled. Can a 9/11 joke be funny? Like any controversial topic, only if and when it’s done right. But the unshakable, terrifying image of a plane going into a tower? That likely never will be.
It’s true that great comedy is a high wire act of making an audience step out of their comfort zones while getting lost in the blissful escapism of laughter. But when you’re met with an overwhelming response of groans, it’s not the audience that’s doing something wrong, it’s you. Comedy shouldn’t be pretty, but lately it’s just felt too damn ugly.
[Photo credit: WENN.com]