Comedy Under AttackPolitical Correctness

For all its overbearing influence in our present-day society, political correctness was not always a part of our society’s social conversation. Actually, political correctness is a relatively recent phenomenon with roots in the turbulent 1960s and the overall rise of liberal thinking and anti-establishment activism. Back then, political correctness’s main concern was merely to promote some degree of civility in social conversation ─ to provide a sense of inclusion and comfort to persons and groups that were perceived to be outside the mainstream, such as women and racial minorities. 

Today, the concerns of political correctness have vastly expanded beyond its original boundaries and now include pretty much anything that its leading champions─the left wing media and liberal activists─ feel should be included in it. Now its ambitious goals include anything from the messaging on the war on terrorism to global warming.

In this current form, many critics worry that political correctness may be morphing into a new orthodoxy regarding “free speech,” one that extends beyond the boundaries set by even the First Amendment. Statements or remarks that may well be “kosher” under the First Amendment might not pass the litmus test of political correctness.

At its core, political correctness creates a climate of fear and the threat of blackmail for any would-be offenders. Thanks to the phenomenon, we have now arrived at a stage of morbid hypersensitivity in our society where no one appears to have the capacity to take a joke anymore. In America today, comedians are increasingly finding themselves under attack by the defenders of this new species of people’s right. Two recent controversies involving some famous comedians, Ricky Gervais and George Lopez, demonstrate the way in which the newly minted “right not to be offended” is being enforced…

Joke Stealing

Joke stealing has always been a fact of life in the comedy world, except that the character of the beast has changed over time. … Now more than ever, losing a joke is not that different from having money stolen from a comedian’s pocket.

Comedy superstar Louis CK couldn’t have made this point any clearer: “Every new generation of material I create is my income, it’s like a farmer’s annual crop.”

Joke stealing today in comedy is no longer the harmless and perhaps fun thing it may have once been. It’s a big deal now, and the sheer weight of that problem is not lost on anyone in the industry. “You have a better chance of stopping a serial killer than a serial thief in comedy. . . . If we could protect our jokes, I’d be a retired billionaire in Europe somewhere─and what I just said is original.” –David Brenner

Corporate America in the Business of Comedy

In its relationship with comedy, corporate America has its own modus operandi, which is mostly about serving its bottom line. In this regard, its actions are less concerned with promoting the best comedy possible than with getting the most out of comedy. In a 2008 interview with the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Brenner said that comedy today was being run less like an art form and more like a business.

Take the case of Dave Chappelle of Comedy Central’s The Chappelle Show. This is one of the better known examples of surging corporate profits torpedoing any chances of accommodating the comedian’s desire for changes in a show’s direction or to be true to his own comedic voice…

Few incidents in the recent period demonstrate just how corporate America’s relationship with comedy may be dictated by interests outside the world of comedy than perhaps the Gilbert Gottfried affair. [AFLAC] The history and outcome of that incident is a lesson in the priorities of corporate America….And on any occasion where the public backlash directly causes corporate America either to lose money or even fear that it might lose money, the transgressor’s chances of survival seem to diminish quite dramatically. Take Bill Maher, the current host of the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. [Formerly host of ABC’s Politically Incorrect.]…

Aside from the corporations, there are other business interests influencing the direction of the comedy industry today. Chief among these interests are the comedy clubs. For all the impact of TV and the Internet, comedy clubs remain the most traditional venue for comedians and the place where they feel most at home. . . . In New York City, in 2012, for instance, there were more than a dozen genuine comedy clubs, a far cry from just three in the 1970s. There are countless other venues in the city which are not “comedy clubs” but where people perform comedy as well. . . . Today’s rookies do not have an easier time getting trained than the rookies of the 1970s, and they still are not getting paid either. A “pay-to-play” business model that was not in existence a generation ago, now holds sway at the comedy clubs.