Louis C.K.'s recent set has made headlines, and been excused away with comedy's inherent defense: It's comedy, get over it.
If you were to scroll through the comments of any tweet or Instagram post about Louis C.K.’s recent set—which railed against gender nonconformity, social justice, and, strangely enough, the Parkland survivors—you’d find one overarching rebuttal to anyone’s criticism: It’s comedy, get over it.
Comedy is unique among the arts and entertainment world, in that it has a built-in defense to criticism. “Comedy is meant to offend.” There is no such thing as “too far,” because at its core, we’re told, comedy is meant to push boundaries, and people will be hurt in the process. Get over it.
This sort of a no holds barred nature might be useful and necessary if comedy were strictly done by marginalized people or groups to critique power systems and those who use those systems to subjugate others, all as a means to push for progress. But, instead, this medium which gets so much leeway is wielded, like every other medium, by white men—the ones who have always had the most social power. Who are these rich, cis-gendered, straight men supposed to push against other than those not like them—those without power? There is nowhere to punch but down.
When someone tries to usurp these men and challenge their callous wielding of abusive language, then come the cries for Free Speech. Such arguments never seem to appear when it comes to the rights of queer people and people of color to fight for their right to a space, but instead merely to support the idea of being offensive. The right to be offensive has become the battleground of our generation. For what freedom can we possibly have if we aren’t able to reduce people’s gender identities or very lives (in the case of the Parkland survivors) to hackneyed punchlines delivered by a millionaire with a free platform. For to them, there is no reason to admit wrongdoing, they will still get business, they still have their money. Rather than apologize, they must stick up for their Freedom of Speech, for it is not them that is wrong—they were, afterall, just expressing themselves—but rather the audience, who is too soft, and too “politically correct”—as Kevin Hart cried following the criticism levied towards his past homophobic material. It’s always easier to ignore that such material can strike directly at the targeted—forcing them out of public spaces—or perpetuate discriminatory systems and attitudes that inflict emotional and even physical damage.
In comedy, long histories of racism and discrimination and abuse just… do not apply. Recently, Louis C.K. and Ricky Gervais were discussing with Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld how they as white comics had found the humour in using the N word—because they are just that edgy, and all history and social awareness should be thrown out the window in order to allow them their “freedom of expression.” A slew of progressive, queer, and women comics of diverse heritage are now gaining prominence, but comedy still needs its men who can make jokes at the expense of every other vulnerable group. Shouldn’t stand-up comedy be the last bastion of hope for white men to be able to have unfettered access to their audiences, without the pesky hindrance of “political-correctness” to spoil their abusive, offensive fun? Well, if not, there will always be YouTube.