Cancer isn’t funny. One-liners about the second leading cause of death hit too close to home for just about everyone. Still, Durango comedian Wes Stein, in a moment of arrogance, thought he could pull it off and found out the hard way. He couldn’t.
Stein’s wife has a rare genetic cancer syndrome that isn’t life-threatening. “The fact that she has this disease, I thought, ‘Oh I might be able to do cancer jokes,’ which is never a good thing to do,” he said.
Other than that, nothing is off limits – at least to Stein, who will be perfoming at the Cannabis Crawl comedy showcase on March 31. The 21st-century social media sphere might not think so.
“There has always been friction between society and the comic art, and now there is a flat-out war against it,” Stein said. “The PC war against comedy is just unbelievable.”
The lineThe most recent example of this is British comedian Ricky Gervais’ Netflix special, “Humanity,” which takes offensiveness on as the central theme. Gervais spends the beginning of the show revisiting his 2016 Golden Globe faux paus, in which he called Caitlyn Jenner by her old name. He doubles down on the transgender jokes by saying, “I’m not one of these bigots who think having (transgender surgery) done is science gone too far … In fact, I’ve always identified as a chimp. Well, I am a chimp. If I say I’m a chimp, I am a chimp.”
Gervais was intending to offend people, so the Twitter shitstorm that followed was no surprise. The problem with his special was not the theme, but simply his jokes falling flat. He ended up doing a disservice to his cause by being offensive without the wit.Gervais’ intention may have been to piss people off, but can comics get away with being offensive without inciting a pitchfork-wielding mob?
Gervais aside, one thing is clear: Being an inoffensive comedian is almost impossible. Many of them – even the dancing Degeneres – have been called out as racist, sexist, bigoted, and homophobic.
But offending people often implies comedians are doing their jobs. There has always been an air of rascality and wickedness surrounding humor, and when jokes are too tame or too happy – also known as dad jokes – they are not funny. But when they are too soon or too sharp, they are deemed offensive and condemned by the Web. Comics float over the offensive-sensitive line to find where the best jokes live, but the Internet wants them to toe the sensitive side or be damned. Sure, there are clean comics, but the legends like Carlin, Chapelle, Pryor, Williams and Murphy are far from clean.
“The sign of an experienced, good comic is when they can go right up to the line and dance around it. … Amatures, they don’t see (the line) and they just go barreling past it,” Stein said. “…Bringing offensiveness into comedy is all about perspective.”
Stein is new to stand up, but his lust for the craft is apparent in his knowledge of comedy, and through his thoroughly-planned jokes. He quickly had to learn the painstaking processes of how to get away with an offensive joke. The first step – besides ditching the cancer bit – is being vulnerable and relatable.
“Put yourself in there and show me why it matters to you personally, and then I don’t care what you say,” Stein said. Take, for instance, the Jesus freaks at the Mardi Gras parade holding signs like, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” while screaming homophobic nonsense through megaphones at “degenerate” partiers.
“If you talk to them personally and you might realize they are struggling with their own sexuality – you are still offended – but you kind of feel sorry for the guy,” Stein said.
Adding humanity and creating a personal connection can soften an offensive comedic blow.
Stein says the key to getting away with being offensive is finding a blind spot and making that the target of the joke. There are certain words and slurs that when used in public make respectable people cringe and want to disappear from the conversation. Comics often use those very words successfully.
“If I am doing a bit about a bunch of sullies from Boston, and say, ‘What, are you fuckin’ retaded’ now, I’ve taken the focus off the word, and now I am making fun of people from Boston. …That one little shift is enough to make it not offensive.”
It’s the same reason why tone deaf Dunder Mifflin boss Michael Scott is funny. His inability to recognize his indiscretions, while simultaneously wanting to be loved by the people around him, allows the viewer to laugh at the tactless things he does, such as marking an Asian woman’s arm with a Sharpie at a company Christmas party so he could tell her apart from another Asian woman.
The blind spotBut even when comics manipulate the blind spot, cover their tracks, and do all the things that make a good offensive joke, some topics simply do not fly.
“There are a lot of rules popping up now,” Stein said. “Back in the day, the only rule of comedy was to make people laugh. And now there are no rape jokes.”
He has a joke about going to college in Texas, or as Stein calls it, “The Center for Rape Studies.”
“Am I making fun of rape or am I making fun of how shitty colleges in Texas are?”
Stein has had his fair share of backlash for jokes like this, to which he responds, “Well, I’m sorry it’s not a church revival. It’s a comedy show.”
He has a 16-year-old transitioning transgender kid, and often jokes about how to deal with it as a father.
“Originally she was bisexual, then she was a lesbian, then she told me she was transgender, and I say what’s next? Are you going to be a duckbill platypus?”
When he tells a joke like this, he has to stipulate that he supports the LGBT community, but then has to come up with another punchline to make it funny again. So he says, “It’s just hard to tell my mom what the kids want for Christmas when she calls for the holidays. Chloe has never played with Barbies. Also, he goes by Charlie now. And oh yeah, he’s a forest-dwelling amphibian.”
People from the LGBT community often come up to him after the show because they are appalled by comparing transitioning genders to transitioning into a platypus – similar to Gervais’ chimpanzee joke – although Stein has a personal connection with the topic.
“But they overlook me being a father not knowing how to handle it. For 16 years, I had this beautiful little girl, and suddenly she wants to be a boy,” he said.
For Stein, it’s possible to simultaneously support your child and struggle to let go of the person they once were. That doesn’t make someone transphobic or a bad parent.
But there are good arguments as to why comics should bend to the world’s sensitivities, such as stomping out bigotry and sexism. “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah is a South African immigrant who knows the realities of an intrusive government from growing up mixed-race during apartheid. In an 2017 interview on “The View,” Noah said, “In America I find a lot of the time people conflate freedom of speech as consequence-free, but really freedom of speech means your government will not come after you.”
The social media backlash that now exists may be keeping comics on their toes. Noah said he used to make fat jokes thinking they were edgy, but they were low hanging fruit.
“I’m trying to push the boundaries, and I don’t think you push the boundaries often times when you play in a space that everyone is playing in,” Noah said.
Comedic and cultural shiftsRaunchy Albuquerque comic Caitlin Minton, who likes being offensive and controversial, has been doing stand-up for seven years. She said the content that offends audiences has changed over her career.
“(The crowd) used to not care about racism and cultural appropriation. You could say offensive things in that regard,” she said. “But now you can make more jokes about depression and suicide. It’s more introspective.”
Stein thinks the reason for this shift is because our world view is expanding.
“I think if we are really going to get down to it, a big reason why we are so offended is our connectivity allows us to see the lives of millions of people,” Stein said.
The majority of people Stein grew up with in Texas were racist, and the online world opened their lives to people who are different than them.
“Your world got a little bigger and now you’ve toned it down,” he said. “But with that change comes this social police, where we’re like, ‘Well I know how all the world works. I get to say what’s right.’”
Once comic start kowtowing to people’s sensitivities, Stein said you lose what got you into comedy in the first place. For him, comedy was a tool to diffuse his father’s temper and ease the tension around the house. Comedy was his revenge to being marginalized in his home life.
On a recent “Fresh Air” podcast episode with Terry Gross, Patton Oswalt said comedians are canary in the coal mine of society. They are the alert when things are going wrong.
“It’s so common that girls in Texas are getting raped that I can make a joke about it? That’s an epidemic. We need to do something about it,” Stein said. “It’s like the coal miner is strangling the canary. … We don’t want to go down this road as a society. We don’t want to start censoring ourselves. We don’t want to take the warning system and destroy it because it goes against what we enjoy to hear. It’s there to piss you off. It’s there to frustrate you.”