Why comedy needs to be offensive

21:13, Apr 07 2014
Gimp Fight
LIGHT NIGHT GIMP FIGHT: Offensive? Yes. Funny? Also yes.

Does swearing offend you? Do you stay away from most acts at the comedy festival because there's too much bad language and rude topics?

Australian comedian Dean Watson believes comedians are too rude and swear too much, as he laid out in this opinion piece on the joys of 'clean comedy'.

"Clean comedy is what most audiences want," Watson argued. "Comics owe it to their audience to clean up their act and get funnier in the process."

"A lot of hungry comedians complain that there's no money in comedy. Why not try being funny clean? Your potential audience just increased by a couple of billion."

Watson's claim that clean comedy is what audiences want is debatable, but even if we take that as a fact, so what? Tailoring your work to appeal to the majority is no way to create quality work. Most audiences want McDonalds for dinner and Two and Half Men on TV. Does the fact that these things are popular make them better than less mainstream choices? Of course not.

Appealing to this audience might help a comedian make money, but does it advance the art form? F%&$ no.


Comedy sometimes needs to be offensive, it needs to be transgressive, it needs to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in society.

In many ways, stand-up can be at the vanguard of change. Comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor have pushed the boundaries of what the mainstream considered acceptable (at the time).

In Australia, comedians have been at the forefront of helping promote gay rights and, more recently, promoting better treatment of refugees (albeit with little success on the latter).

What's that got to do with swearing, you may ask? Well, everything. Comedians need to be willing to take risks, they need to be OK with potentially offending some of their audience. Pushing the envelope of what's acceptable can make a difference. Comedians can help change people's minds.

Can they do this without swearing? Sure, but audiences who are going to be offended by swearing are equally likely to be offended by other parts of an edgy comedian's performance, whether that's talking about taboos or issues such as sex, racism or politics. If you're curtailing your performance for fear of offending someone, it's likely you're not going to rail against anything that might considered against the norm.

That's not to say that transgressive comedy always needs to have a subtext or political point to make. At this year's festival British lads Late Night Gimp Fight are extremely low-brow, with filthy sketches featuring plenty of bodily functions and jokes about paedophilia, necrophilia and bestiality. Nothing thought-provoking here, but is it funny? Yes.

Sometimes being offensive is the point of the joke (even if some people cannot grasp this concept), and provided the joke is funny enough, a great offensive joke can make you laugh even as you gasp from shock.

I think Watson believes that some comedians use swearing to cover up the weakness of their material. If that's the case, ditching the swearing isn't going to help them get a bigger audience. The F-word has become so common now it's not going to get a laugh from anyone but the least sophisticated audience member.

But that doesn't mean it's harder to not swear or that avoiding bad language makes you a better comedian. Jerry Seinfeld recently did an interview with The Guardian where he discussed how he achieves being funny without resorting to swearing and sex in his material. 

"Keeping his act sex- and swear-free, the way he sees it, is part of this athletic challenge, since it denies him the easiest laughs: 'A person who can defend themselves with a gun is just not very interesting. But a person who defends themselves through aikido or tai chi? Very interesting.'" the article quotes.

But it's a little disingenuous for Seinfeld to claim this. Sure, his stand-up may not have featured much sex, but the TV show that made him a star was full of it (including some of the funniest episodes - "The Contest", "Mulva", "sponge worthy", "the move" ... the list goes on). Many of these episodes pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on US network sitcoms at the time.

And Seinfeld's stand-up was always the least funny part of the show (to the point where it went from being an integral part of the show to being excised completely in later seasons). And I'm sure if Seinfeld had been on HBO, they wouldn't have shied away from swearing either - just look at co-creator Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is chock-a-block with swearing. It even features entire episodes based around obscenities ("Beloved Aunt" "The Grand Opening"). 

Wil Anderson swears a lot, but as he said on Twitter in response to Watson's piece, that's part of his personality - he swears a lot off stage and wouldn't be true to himself if he didn't do the same during shows. And effective stand-up is often so dependent on the honesty of the performer (and some performers can be brutally honest).

@LastLaughBlog @dean197 The way I see it, & the way @Wil_Anderson has described it; swearing is vocal punctuation.

Perhaps more than any other art form, stand-up comedy is an expression of an individual's personality (which can help explain why many comedians are so sensitive to even mild criticism), so if a performer is not being honest with his or herself, chances are the audience will be able to tell. If that means swearing when they wouldn't normally, then sure, maybe they should stop. But the reverse is also true (and I don't think I've ever met a comedian that didn't swear in really life).

This is not to say that EVERY comedian needs to swear or take on taboo topics. Probably my favourite show of the festival so far is The Boy With Tape on His Face, which has no swearing (no talking at all, in fact) and almost nothing rude in it (one dick joke). I also enjoyed Tim Vine, who is completely focused on puns and clever wordplay that the whole family can enjoy.

And of course there is a need for shows that you can comfortably take your parents and/or children to. But be realistic about it - there are some shows you shouldn't be taking kids to. I heard a bunch of young teenage girls attended the show of one particularly outspoken and foul-mouthed comedian. They walked out after the first few minutes. And apparently people have been taking babies - babies! - to Dave Hughes show. Yes, they won't understand the content, but they also won't know that crying is inappropriate behaviour at a comedy show and off-putting for the performer.

But I digress. There's room for these types of family-friendly shows, but I don't think any young comedians starting out should shy away from being controversial, avoid using bad language or taking on taboo topics because they're concerned they might offend someone, or do so in an attempt to appeal to bigger audiences.

I'm fearful for the future of comedy, given modern media's constant need for controversy and fodder to feed the 24-hour news cycle. We've already reached a point where comedians can be sued for defamation over a joke, albeit on television. As 11-year-old Stella declares in the very funny satirical character comedy Edge!, "controversy is when very old or very boring people get angry about something".

If this sort of hysterical reaction spreads to live comedy, as it has in the UK and has begun to hear, we may see young comedians avoid bad language and controversial topics for fear it will damage their careers.

That's a path to bland, middle-of-the-road comedy and there's never going to be a shortage of that.

Do you think there's too much swearing in live comedy?

*The International Comedy Festival runs from 24 April to 18 May. More info at www.comedyfestival.co.nz