Does Stand-Up Comedy Still Have The 'Right To Offend?'

A new A&E docuseries examines uncompromising Black comics throughout history, and compels us to consider how they and others like them fit into today's culture.
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

Stand-up comedy seems to be in a precarious place right now. That’s not to say that there aren’t specials popping up on streaming services like Netflix all the time. In fact, Cristela Alonzo’s “Middle Classy” dropped just this week, to probably end up being couched between myriad others like Joel Kim Booster’s “Psychosexual” and Katt Williams’ “World War III.”

But as reliable as those specials all are, riskier stand-up comedy that more directly challenges popular opinion is nearly extinct in today’s cultural zeitgeist. It makes you wonder: Can we still appreciate stand-up comedy that offends?

This question, and its particular use of the word “offend,” comes to mind after watching A&E’s new docuseries, “Right to Offend: The Black Comedy Revolution.” In it, directors Jessica Sherif and Mario Diaz examine the long and meaningful history of Black comedians — from Moms Mabley and Dick Gregory to Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock — challenging popular thought, in spite of whatever backlash they would face.

Featuring interviews with comics and historians, “The Right to Offend” traces how, for instance, Goldberg confronted prevalent pro-life opinion in the early ’80s with an unapologetically incisive and hilarious act about having a DIY abortion. And she did it while affecting a white woman’s voice and mannerisms — in front of a largely white audience.

Similarly, the series looks back at Richard Pryor’s signature comedy that “changed the game,” as interviewee Steve Harvey describes it. Because despite club producers’ many efforts to convince Pryor to make his humor palatable to more conservative white audiences, the comedian made a decision early in his career to include his experiences with addiction, racism and sex in his act.

The two-part docuseries serves as a necessary reminder of comedy’s most critical objective: to disrupt societal conversation and what is accepted.

Whoopi Goldberg and photographer Roger Ressmeyer are reflected in the bathroom mirror of her home near San Francisco.
Whoopi Goldberg and photographer Roger Ressmeyer are reflected in the bathroom mirror of her home near San Francisco.
Roger Ressmeyer via Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

For Sherif, it’s “really looking at this lineage of Black comedians, specifically, and how much pushing boundaries and pushing against the power structure was so inherent to their work,” she told HuffPost. “Because of the very nature of who they are.”

It’s true. As the series documents, the fact that Black comedians even took the stage at all was considered an affront to many white audiences who frequented minstrel acts and rallied with the KKK. So, for Black comedians to confront, and even make light of, those same sensibilities and systems of oppression was considered controversial.

If you really think about it, though, Black comedians’ acts were as profoundly unsettling as their white counterparts’, but for entirely different reasons. Yet, Black comedians, dating back to Gregory and on, were the ones white audiences thought were more dangerous for it.

“There’s always been the societal constraints for comedians dating back to, well, slavery but [also] minstrelsy,” Diaz said. “If you go back to the vaudeville era, the audiences were white and this is what popular culture was: ‘Let’s go see these people with cork on their faces act a fool.’”

Never mind that that was offensive. For their audiences, it was also hysterical. But toeing the line between what society largely considered unacceptable material and what genuinely cracked up many audiences was ultimately the space Black comedians sat in.

“So, you have the two things,” Diaz added. “You have society restrictions and then you have the audience who may have been a little bit more liberal, but they were still pretty much also constrained by what society dictated. And I think that happens even today.”

Very much so. Comedians are still feeling pressure to negotiate their comedic provocations for today’s most popular and powerful societal mindsets. But that’s no longer exclusive to the power structures that enable racism or restrict women’s rights. It’s that plus a multitude of other issues that, when fomented, could potentially upset audiences across the identity spectrum who have greater platforms today than ever.

So, that means that comics today have to recalibrate the lines they want to cross and why and the role they ultimately want their comedy to play.

After tripling down on his transphobic remarks, the once widely beloved provocateur Dave Chappelle, like many other comedians, is now in a space where his comedy is considered a relic, and he’s been compelled to evolve.

What does that say about him and other comedians who have the ability to be acute observers of society? “I think that they are struggling to articulate what the differences in today’s world are,” said Tiffany E. Barber, assistant professor of Africana studies and art history at the University of Delaware.

“I think there’s this old model of comedy that hasn’t changed, such as the roast,” she said. “Or, there’s these tropes like, ‘Oh, I’m going to pick on somebody in the crowd’ or ‘I’m going to poke fun at political correctness.’ That has always been a part of the comedy toolkit.”

But Barber says that some comedians haven’t shown enough interest in reevaluating how their comedy can reconnect with today’s world.

Dave Chappelle in Netflix's "The Closer."
Dave Chappelle in Netflix's "The Closer."
Courtesy of Mathieu Bitton

“I think that society has shifted, even though there are all these isms that persist — racism, sexism, misogyny,” she continued. “But there’s a vocabulary that I think everyday folks are able to access and marshal, even if they misuse it, that is causing the disconnect.”

But how should today’s more mindful audience impact contemporary stand-up comedy? Even with their detractors, comedians like the late Paul Mooney, D.L. Hughley and Keenen Ivory Wayans’ entire vision for “In Living Color” were decidedly uncompromised.

The latter two are interviewed in “Right To Offend,” in which one comedian says, “If you’re comfortable, we’re not doing our jobs.”

“I think there are [comedians] who just don’t care, and I think that’s great,” Diaz said. “I think that ultimately they are sort of the heroes of the story, aren’t they?”

Certainly in many instances, yes. Ali Wong, for another example, railed against an aspect of modern feminism from Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” advice that encourages women to step up in the workplace. “Well, I don’t want to lean in, OK?” Wong says in her 2016 special, “Baby Cobra.” “I want to lie down. I think feminism is the worst thing that ever happened to women.”

Similarly, when conservative censors sought to limit the late George Carlin’s use of the words “s**t,” “piss,” “f**k,” “c**t,” “c**ksucker,” “motherf**ker” and “tits” in his act, he said them anyway — and all at once in 1972.

George Carlin's comedy legacy is examined in the recent docuseries "George Carlin's American Dream."
George Carlin's comedy legacy is examined in the recent docuseries "George Carlin's American Dream."
Courtesy of George Carlin's Estate/HBO

Like so many others before and since him, Carlin was exercising his right to rattle societal norms in a way he thought was necessary, even at the risk of repercussion. That’s the same impetus as many of the Black comics explored in “Right to Offend.”

“That’s not new,” Sherif agrees. “Keenen Wayans talks about how ‘In Living Color’ executives were like, ‘Let’s remove all what are still the iconic sketches and see if we build an audience.’ And he just went for all or nothing.”

That’s even with the fate of “In Living Color,” which ultimately became a groundbreaking sketch comedy series, in his hands. “He says, ‘If they cancel me after one episode…’ then at least it was authentically what he wanted to do,” Sherif added. “And it made me think of what’s the lashing out going to be if you completely commit to your voice?”

That’s a valid point. And, to be fair, many comedians like Wayans have managed this terrain quite well. Mooney and many others are even still revered today.

“The right to offend was his total thing,” Barber said about Mooney. “His brand of comedy was leaning into the discomfort or even going to the extreme point to alienate his audience. Like, ‘I’m going to talk about these issues. You can get on board or not.’”

It’s a bold statement when you think about it through today’s lens in the age of social media. Harvey admits that he approaches his comedy with a lot more hesitation than he did in the past with specials like “Kings of Comedy,” in which he excoriates the critics who called him “a piss-poor example for your kids.”

Still, his concern about today’s social audience is a common one. It’s relatively new terrain for comics who didn’t come up with Twitter or Instagram, whose users now have the power to bring the offenses directly to those like Netflix who distribute these specials.

Comedian and social activist Dick Gregory speaks at the Village Gate, New York, New York, May 22, 1966.
Comedian and social activist Dick Gregory speaks at the Village Gate, New York, New York, May 22, 1966.
Fred W. McDarrah via Getty Images

While those like Goldberg, Pryor and Gregory were certainly targets of rampant racist and sexist detractors not only in their audiences but media at large, social media has added another layer. A comedian’s words today, as Barber notes, carry such a weight that people feel compelled to more assertively police their language as we see with both Rock, who’s also interviewed in “Right to Offend,” and Chappelle.

“I think that that’s one of the key differences that people are reacting to when they’re either physically assaulting someone or wanting to shut down Dave Chappelle for his jokes against trans people,” Barber said.

As disturbing as that is to witness in an era when clips like that go viral, Barber added that as a society and consumers of culture, we’re in a “transition period” where audiences are grappling to decide what is and isn’t appropriate.

“Because the things that Dave Chappelle tripled down on, even if intellectually as a thought experiment make sense, the real-life consequence is that somebody could get hurt,” she continued. “He could potentially be inciting someone to transgress upon someone.”

She thinks about that before adding: “On the other hand, I also think that we have to give audiences more credit to be like, ‘We can discern between a joke and an invitation to violence.’ I don’t know. It’s complex.”

That it is. And so is the trend of social media users resurfacing comedians’ old content — like Rock’s “Black People vs. N****z” joke from his 1996 HBO special, “Bring the Pain” — to criticize it with today’s context.

Comedian Steve Harvey performs at Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam on June 10, 1993 in New York City.
Comedian Steve Harvey performs at Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam on June 10, 1993 in New York City.
Al Pereira via Getty Images

As part of their effort to show the jokes that absolutely killed during their eras, Sherif and Diaz included Rock’s now notorious joke in their series. But they do this thoughtfully.

“If you’re looking at it through today’s lens, there’s a lot of minefields, political correctness,” Diaz said. “Certainly ‘Def Comedy Jam’ — sexism. From a documentary filmmaker’s perspective, some of the jokes don’t connect. They’re a little flat.”

Diaz even points to one of the most revered comics of all time.

“Some of Dick Gregory’s jokes are not as fresh because the circumstances were specific to their time,” he said. “Can we let go of all those things that are problematic? I mean, the circumstances were different. It’s not for me to judge. It’s just for me to present.”

It’s a very nuanced conversation, Sherif adds. “If we’re talking about one joke that kills [in] every screening, which is Dick Gregory talks about the Ku Klux Klan and it’s ‘free to hate me,’” she said. “That still kills. But that isn’t offending anyone else who’s been othered to.”

That’s a critical difference, especially as there’s been more effort to elevate marginalized voices that have been disempowered for so long. Should a comedian’s jokes punch down today, they would and should be censured.

“Because the comedian today lives in this context [and] should know better,” Sherif continued.

“I think it’s when looking back and attacking that, or even trying to suppress, that does us a disservice because we can only learn from our past. I think, as documentarians, that’s what we set out to do. It’s not our job to erase that.”

Comics like Gregory, Diaz said, were still able to tell their truth and “thread the needle,” without alienating their audience. “There’s a way to do it where you’re still challenging social norms and you’re not pushing people away, and there are some people who do that very well,” he said. “I think Wanda Sykes is somebody who does.”

The mention of Sykes brings to mind another question inside of this conversation: Where do women fit into the right to offend? So much of it, especially today, seems more self-effacing and confined to their own lives. Sykes is one example, as is Wong, and certainly Amy Schumer.

It illustrates the type of constraints applied to women that aren’t considered for male comics. “I think that the demands on women comics are different than they are for men,” Barber said. “I don’t think that audiences would take too kindly to women comics doing offensive bits in the same ways that men are allowed to do them.”

The "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" featuring guest Jackie 'Moms' Mabley.
The "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" featuring guest Jackie 'Moms' Mabley.
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

That goes back to the days of Mabley and Goldberg, who were constantly subjected to disdain that was quite gendered. “Right to Offend” devotes entire segments to both, and rightly so.

“They didn’t even have the platform to be able to be offensive,” Sherif said. “In the research that we’d done, I think someone like Moms was allowed to be offensive, but she had to do so under the banner of a character. So, they’re always half a step behind, no matter what they do.”

Mabley talks about taboo topics, like sex, while wearing an old woman’s costume.

“So, while Dick Gregory was standing flat-footed and being himself — so was Godfrey Cambridge, so was everyone at her time — she was still in character,” Sherif said. Goldberg was as well, and she talks about the meaning behind her characters in the series. “Whoopi Goldberg says it so eloquently how her characters are her way of being able to say things.”

Just as that was a smart way for women to combat the frustratingly stricter parameters women faced, and still face, maybe it’s time for their mostly male counterparts today that encounter scrutiny to think of ways that they can reconfigure their own art for today’s world.

“As our so-called social sensitivity increases, so does the potential for productive social tension and the opportunity to write better jokes,” Barber offered. “So, it’s really an opportunity for comedians to develop new, more engaging material that keeps pace with how conversations about identity, representation and culture are evolving.”

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