Sticks and Stones - on Offence in Comedy.

Updated: Jul 30, 2019

‘Only joking’ is a phrase used to plead innocence from moral wrongdoing, the problem with this phrase is that it is open to tyranny as the person saying it might be lying. From that starting point it is important to consider the issue of offence and to offer a position that can provide guidance to performers, students and audience members alike. To begin with we must lay out our terms, offence is defined as ‘a perceived insult or disregard to the person’. People may be offended because they feel that instead of laughing with you, they are being laughed at, especially if they personally identify as the butt of the joke.

There are 2 primary arguments relating to offence held in comedy which we will address.

Firstly, some people take the ‘meaninglessness’ position of unlimited permissibility and claim that as ‘just jokes’ it is your individual responsibility to recognise the fiction, and ‘only an idiot’ would take them seriously. This is the ‘aesthetic’ position where ‘if it was funny, then it was clearly a joke’. It is an argument from ‘ethical egoism’ as what we do on stage should be considered ‘good’ if an audience judges us to have been good, and ‘bad’ if an audience judges us to have been bad. It is based on the assumption that upon laughing people accept that a joke is fiction, and as fiction it has an ethical get out of jail free card. This is different to the claim ‘only joking’ as the moral goodness is determined by the audience and not the performer. This is problematic when thinking about offence because we can imagine examples where we can find examples of comedians who are being intentionally offensive but the audience still laughs.

Secondly, ‘Punching up, not down’ or ‘speaking truth to power’ is a position of limited permissibility where it is considered that some groups of people deserve to be offended, and it is morally justified to attack them as it has a levelling effect. This is a ‘rights’ based argument, which comes from the social justice movement and affords certain privileges to members of some groups, which are not afforded to members of other groups ie the right to offend. The problem with this is it requires a mutually agreed hierarchical list of every group, including how to manage membership of multiple groups as a starting point. This is problematic because we are forced to allocate individuals into groups they might not identify with, then decide their individual goodness or badness depending on the groups ranking. Stereotypes are always problematic as they impose a caricature onto members of a group to represent a universal truth. It is by definition an intentional ‘disregard for the person’, and it is also simply bad improv as performers should be paying attention to the individual(s) in front of them, not thinking about putting them into boxes or playing pre-existing stereotypes.

In the case of both of these arguments we cannot merely disregard the experience of the person making the claim, but we have to consider that there may be an objective way to determine the validity of a claim without the reliance of a self-appointed authority. It is also apparent that despite these rules and the fact that most comedy is written, screened and given warning labels before it is performed, many people do still get offended watching comedy.

Now that we have opened pandoras box we will continue to look inside and explore its contents:

Next, we will consider that the words we use are separate from the individuals using them. A deontological argument would ask us to write a list of all of the ‘bad’ words which could have the potential to offend, and then imposing a rule which banned everyone from using them and made them universally impermissible. Starting off with such a list would disregard people’s individual experiences of offence and fail to address the issue. To fairly consider everyone’s diverse personal circumstances, we could allow late entry of words to the list, however such a list might then perceivably eventually grow to include every word. Some people happen to be allergic to water, but banning water for everyone would do more harm than good. It is not possible to define words as good or bad independent of the person speaking or listening, for instance some people are offended by swearing and some people are not. Television has attempted to censor the content of shows with watersheds, age restrictions and content warnings – and these should be observed.

What is the role of comedy?

Comedy is an artform and is too valuable to censor needlessly.

By noticing and ridiculing our own individual mistakes, drawing out these bad ideas and playing them in situations which we know will lead to absurdity, we can see comedy as socially corrective which helps us to negotiate our problems in the same way that children use play. It can be used to build tolerance and acceptance if performers are brave enough to show humility and vulnerability. Comedy can also make a positive contribution to society as it can trigger debate and encourage individual autonomy. Challenging bad ideas benefits everyone.


-If you feel offended, tell us.

-Your behaviour reflects on everyone in our community.

-No words are banned, but consider your audience.

-Try your very best to avoid stereotypes, people are individuals.

-Be prepared to apologise if something goes wrong.

When you are on stage or in workshops you do not speak on behalf of everyone in our community, but you are representing our community. You are of course allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them, and we will stand behind anyone who has made a mistake or has attempted to follow our guidance. Do your best not to be offensive by treating people as individuals.

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