How Important Is Free Speech In Comedy?

I decided to give the latest Ricky Gervais stand up show on Netflix a try. I quite like his TV shows but had never really watched his stand up. It’s a good show. Not unlike some of his characters, Ricky is quite outspoken and doesn’t shy away from hard-hitting comedy.

Bad taste?

From the off, he covers subjects that may have you squirming in your seat. He talks about the online backlash against his material and this centres largely around a joke he made at the expense of Kaitlyn Jenner. Gervais pokes fun at the situation and then proceeds to make fun of the criticism he received afterwards. If you don’t mind your comedy close to the mark then this will have you rolling in the aisles. If you are easily offended I would give it a miss.

“rape isn’t funny, but jokes about it are”

He later goes on to give more anecdotes about the criticisms he receives on Twitter. Talking about the back and forth he took part in with somebody who was offended because of jokes he told about peanut allergies. He then wades into the minefield of making rape jokes. He is quick to point out that rape isn’t funny, but jokes about rape are. His point is that jokes have a context and laughing at a joke means that you think the joke is funny, not the subject of the joke. But is he right?

If you are offended don’t watch

He makes the point that he has millions of followers on Twitter and that he often gets criticised for the things he says. He suggests if they don’t like what he has to say then they could just not follow him. This is a fair point, but of course, it isn’t quite as black and white as that! In the era of social media his material probably gets shared and therefore put in the view of people that did not choose to read his thoughts, and yet they show up in their feed.

Freedom of speech

If you watch comedy made 10 years ago you may stand aghast at some of the topics covered. Let’s take Little Britain as a for instance. This featured a character that vomited every time they discovered they had been exposed to anything from a foreign culture. It also featured a disabled character that was only pretending to be disabled and a transgender lady who was blatantly a pointed dig at the transgender community. To say it wasn’t very PC is an understatement. It was of the time.

Comedians agree

While in the case of Little Britain David Walliams has said he wouldn’t make little Britain in the modern world. Some comedians like Gervais and the likes of Tom Walker (AK Jonathan Pie) think that comedians should be able to make controversial jokes. After all, they are just jokes.

In both cases, the argument is that finding humour in the blackest of places is a positive. They defend freedom of speech and argue that you can choose not to watch a particular comedian if what they produce makes you feel uncomfortable. And this is true, however, it becomes more of a complex issue when you have comedians hosting award ceremonies. Ironically this is where Gervais has probably taken the most criticism.

Black comedy has always existed and for some, they like their humour as close to the mark as possible. However what is more important: somebodies rights to be entertained without being offended or an “artists” rights to free speech? It’s a highly charged debate but one that seems to be going against stand up artists over the last few years.

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