Defining what is taboo in comedy is the central question of The Last Laugh: What is out of bounds to talk about in comedy? The film features performers who are no strangers to pushing the limits, including Sarah Silverman and Jeffrey Ross (Comedy Central’s “Roastmaster General”). Paul MacInness in the Guardian wrote about comedy taboos, too. Several years ago, Paul MacInness asked in the Guardian, “Can you even define offensive comedy?”
To dive into this topic further, we approached a few comedic performers like Kristina Wong and Kevin Allison for their reflections. We also found some examples of taboo-busting comedy, trying to not go “too far” here ourselves but picking out a few of the more interesting comedians who poked the beast, as it were. Read on for more insight on what comics, and our culture, have considered taboo.
We spoke with Kristina Wong, a comedian and performance artist featured in the New York Times’ Off Color series “highlighting artists of color who use humor to make smart social statements about the sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious ways that race plays out in America today.” She’s been a guest on Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, FXX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and a commentator on PBS and Fusion. Her solo show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest takes on the taboo of mental illness and suicide among Asian American women.
“Many Asian families subscribe to this idea of ‘saving face,'” Wong says. “Depression and suicide are considered shameful indicators that a person’s family had failed them. In my tours, I’ve heard dozens of stories about families hiding the fact they have a child who committed or attempted suicide. This culture of silence and shame is why depression persists. People don’t seek out help because they are embarrassed or believe that it will negatively impact the way they or their families are seen. But at that, paying a therapist to ‘hear all your secrets’ also feels very counter to Asian Americans who don’t have a cultural precedent of handling their problems this way.
“My family escaped Communist China, so telling a stranger a dark secret is something that could potentially get you in a lot of trouble. Stereotypes that Asian Americans are the ‘model minority’ who aren’t susceptible to depression are also very dangerous. They can make Asian Americans who are feeling depression feel further isolated and alone. But it also makes Asian Americans appear to be the group least likely to need outreach from mental health service providers.”
Wong told us that doing Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest also inadvertently led people to worry about her own well-being. “I got a lot of questions of, ‘So is this show really about you?’ and ‘Are you depressed, Kristina?’ Just people knowing what material I was working with implied I was working with autobiographical material, which raised a lot of eyebrows and assumptions about my dirty laundry.”
We asked Kristina what sort of pushback she’s experienced:
“Most pushback comes from people who have not seen the show and only have an idea of what it’s about. I’ve gotten trolls who have messaged me that it’s a ‘white guilt show.’ I’ve had other people tell me I ‘shouldn’t make fun of depressed women’ (I don’t, just myself). I’ve also had some pushback from folks who have seen clips of the show online and shirk at one [specific] section where my character does a Google search of ‘Asian women’ and immediately finds Asian porn star bios. This may not seem like it relates to Asian American mental health, but when Asian American women often find themselves reflected as hypersexualized in pop culture, it can lead to a lot of self-esteem issues.”
Wong told us she also experienced pushback from therapists who take issue with the show’s critique of Western talk therapy. “I don’t think therapy is the holy grail of healing, so I don’t shy away from critiquing it,” she says. “But I’ve had therapists counter me with, ‘It’s not a perfect option, but it is an option and sometimes the only option.’ I get why they must push back because it could be potentially harmful if an audience member leaves the show thinking that therapy is not an option worth trying.
“I also get really invasive questions during Q&As about my family or history of trauma,” Wong adds. “I used to get upset at these but realized they were a litmus for me to understand how different audiences were processing the information and how to make clearer what I was trying to communicate in future performances.”
We also asked Wong about other lines that either she won’t cross, or will cross but nervously:
“I come from a background of performance art more than one of comedy, so most of what I witnessed in my formative art making years was every taboo being blown up. The people in my field give live pap smears, cut themselves onstage, drink spit and urine (not just theirs). Self-immolation is also considered performance art. The goal of performance art isn’t necessary laughter, it’s shocking the sh*t out of an audience to make a greater statement. That’s the world I was into before I decided to [go into] comedy.
A few years ago I would have told you that nothing is off limits and that people need to get over their sensitivities. But seeing as we have a reality TV star in the White House, it’s proof that images are powerful and the there is no distinction anymore between fabricated spectacle and reality. The line I won’t cross now is making work that creates permanent damage to the communities that I see as already facing injustice. But I will make work that challenges oppressive systems.” [Kristina Wong on Facebook]
Kevin Allison Takes RISK!s
Kevin Allison, an actor and comedian who used to be a member of The State, the cult favorite MTV sketch comedy series that aired in the ’90s, also started his own very popular podcast and live show called RISK!, in which actors, writers, and comedians tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public. Among the many who have appeared on RISK! are Michael Ian Black, Janeane Garofalo, R. Ben Garant, Lisa Lampanelli, Kevin Nealon, Margaret Cho, Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Michael Showalter, Maria Bamford, Lili Taylor, Adam McKay, Rachel Dratch, and Joe LoTruglio.
In this video Kevin recorded exclusively for us, he remembers a time someone performing in his show seemed to be crossing a line, but… it all worked out.
Here an excellent sampling of the RISK! show with this Best of RISK! #1 compilation:
Here comedian Larry Wilmore, who hosted Comedy Central’s Nightly Show for a year and a half until it was canceled abruptly in 2016, talks about controversially using a form of the “N” word at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in President Obama’s final year. Context matters, and Wilmore talks about how the subtle differences in phrasing may have been lost on some.
Breaking taboos is a very dangerous thing to do. Making things public that aren’t always public, you know, shining a light on something – you know, I’ve been called that word in my lifetime… the one [ending] in E-R is an attempt by, you know, white people to dehumanize and denigrate and demean black people, to make them less than human. And when we turned it around, it was our way of having camaraderie with each other, of taking the power out of that word, you know, sapping it of its ability to dehumanize. And it isn’t always the easiest thing to translate to people who aren’t in that experience.
Dave Chapelle’s wildly popular and influential sketch comedy show is still quoted today, and had its own share of boundary-pushing moments, but his standup is emblematic of someone willing to push the limit. His recent Netflix specials earned particular criticism for his takes on LGBTQ rights. Paste Magazine reviewer Seth Simons noted:
Gay people, he says, are too angry. He wrings his hands over the “Q” in LGBTQ, whining that it denotes people who are only gay when it’s convenient for them, for instance, when they are in prison. (Yeah.) And in a joke that seems to have been transported straight from 90s network television, he admonishes gay couples for wanting to do away with the terms “husband” and “wife,” suggesting that they just talk it out, and whoever is “gayer” is the wife.
Comedy Is a Serious Business
Comedians can feel the burden of the power of a joke, knowing that what they say can have an impact on everything that is perceived to be wrong in our world. In this extensive piece for Mosaic digging into how a good joke can change our lives, Mary O’Hara talked to performers and writers who say comedy can have a huge impact:
For some comedians, it’s not just about getting laughs – it’s about changing what we think and maybe even what we do. If there’s one comic who really personifies this, it’s Josie Long. A social justice activist and a comedian, Long has a reputation for delightful, optimistic, whimsical humour and nimble storytelling. She’s been doing live comedy since her teens and her latest BBC radio show, Romance and Adventure, has been widely lauded.
However, as her career has evolved, she has consciously put social and political topics at the heart of her act. She believes that comedians have a role to play in articulating and challenging some of the most pressing issues of the day.
“Politics can leave you beleaguered, plagued, miserable,” she says. “It’s that maxim where they say, ‘Satire is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’. That’s why humour was important [to me]. It was a way to be useful for other people.”
Historic Boundary Pushers
CNN’s series The History of Comedy featured an episode focusing on comedians who made America reflect on its own taboos about language and censorship. This includes Redd Foxx, whose 1960s records were full of, let’s just say, “NSFW” language, famous “insult comic” Don Rickles, and George Carlin, whose brilliant routine “The 7 Words You Can Never Say on TV” led to a lawsuit against the station that aired it.
Here’s Carlin’s classic bit, that he revisited for this routine (and needless to say but we’ll say anyway, yes there is language here that is NSFW or family programming):
Sarah Silverman on a Time Chris Rock May Have Crossed the Line
Comedian Silverman, who is featured in The Last Laugh, here defends Chris Rock, who got into some trouble when he hosted Saturday Night Live and made people uncomfortable with jokes about the Boston Marathon bombing, Freedom Tower, and the commercialization of Christmas.
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Are 9/11 jokes off limits? @sarahkatesilverman defends Chris Rock in this outtake from #LastLaughFilm. Tune into @lastlaughfilm, Monday, April 24 at 10/9c on #IndieLensPBS @PBS. [Link in our bio!] . . . . #documentary #documentarystyle #documentaryfilm #documentaryfilms #documentaryfilmmaking #film #filmmaking #filmfare #filmaking #filmshoot #filmmakers #free #freemovie #comedy #funny #comedian #comedians
No one, even to this date, pushed the boundaries more than Lenny Bruce, who spent time in jail for indecency for the things he talked about and the way he talked about them. Influential beyond measure, Bruce’s life was more tragic than funny, and not all his routines will strike modern audiences either as shocking or outrageously funny as they did during his time, but there’s no doubt he took more risks than anyone ever has, and paid the price for it. A good documentary about Bruce is Robert Weide’s Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth.
Kliph Nesteroff’s hugely enjoyable new survey of the history of American standup comedy The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy includes sections on Bruce and other taboo-breaking comedians like Joan Rivers and the Smothers Brothers. A great read.
Here’s an excellent 1997 British radio documentary about Lenny Bruce (which also includes some NSFW language):
This article touches on just a few examples of performers who pushed the envelope, who confront taboo subjects. It is by no means comprehensive, so who are some of your own favorite examples of boundary-breaking comedians? Post in the comments below.