The story is at this point cliched. A comedian makes an offensive joke. The clip circulates online months since its telling. Outraged viewers barrage the offender with vitriol as noxious as the original gag. A sponsor loudly disassociates itself. We move on to the next outrage.
Such an intro could have been written anytime in the last five years. There is a political movement afoot that believes that comedy and other art forms should only be be used to campaign against injustice and improve society. Comedians, in there view, should never ‘punch down’ against weaker groups. I believe these people are wrong.
The latest target of the comedy police is the Australian comic Isaac Butterfield. His joke, like all spoken ones, is better heard with its original timing and structure. But, in short, he said the hardest-hit victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand were those who struggled to find a cabbie that night to take them home.
You may find it funny or not. Some people believe that if something doesn’t amuse them it cannot be classified as a joke, but they are wrong. A joke is merely something said that is intended to cause laughter, whether it lands or not. Christmas cracker jokes are rarely funny, but nobody mistakes them for serious statements.
As it happens many people did find what Butterfield said funny: a whole room of fans watching as he filmed his comedy special Anti Hero, the recent release of which prompted the backlash. The audience gasps turned to laughter and even applause.
It wasn’t a nice joke. The Christchurch shooting was the deadliest terrorist attack in New Zealand’s history, leaving 51 dead and a similar number injured. Its perpetrator was motivated by racist beliefs and its victims were minorities, both religious and ethnic. These people were the butt of Butterfield’s joke (alongside cabbies, who seemingly nobody cares about).
“When people laughed at that joke they had the same reaction that I did when I wrote it,” Butterfield explained in a YouTube video. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh that’s fucking horrible. Oh my god.’ That is the reaction, because everyone knows what happened in Christchurch is horrible. But we laugh about horrible things all the time: it’s how people deal with tragedy.”
Activists have increasingly criticised straight white men – still the majority of prominent Western comedians – for making fun of anyone seen as downtrodden. Almir Colan, the director of the Australian Centre for Islamic Finance and the person who circulated the Butterfield clip, accused the comedian on Twitter of “bullying the most powerless and voiceless amongst us – he is haunting the survivors and victims who only have memories of loved ones left”.
Whether the victims of such attacks care what some comedian says is dubious. But Colan’s attitude has become widespread. Comedy bits such as Butterfield’s which are “not brave or honest or standing up for anything”, but are instead “rude”, “vile”, “low” and played for “a few laughs” are no longer acceptable.
“We as an audience and observers should be above this with our moral and ethics,” Colan said. “If [Butterfield] wants to criticise and fight – and stand up for anything in this stand-up comedy special – it should be to fight and stand up for the voiceless who are suffering.”
The real world effects of such an attitude are clear to see. Butterfield may have played up to being ‘cancelled’ over the joke – indeed, the trailer to Anti Hero alludes to people trying to ban his material – but the VPN provider Surfshark actually suspended its sponsorship deal with him after the controversy.
“We do condemn such comments and believe that such topics should not be used as content for comedy stand-ups,” Surfshark said in a statement. “Tragedy is not a joke, and putting it into ridiculous context adds no value in changing views of the society.” You can only conclude that nobody at the company had previously bothered to sample Butterfield’s material.
While many comedy police are reluctant to criminalise such jokes, they are happy for people’s livelihoods to be destroyed, and many timid companies are willing collaborators. The wider hope of ‘call-out culture’ is that people are punished for such transgressions – and seen to be punished. No hapless minority will feel the sting of a crude joke again. ‘Punching down’ will be replaced by ‘punching up’.
One problem with this aim is that politics entails disagreement about who is ‘up’ at any given time. Those on the left of Western countries might claim that the powerful are straight white men, billionaire businessmen or evangelical Christians. The right’s preferred targets are avocado-eating metropolitan liberals, envious socialists or tech entrepreneurs censoring conservatives. There is a case to be made that all those groups have power, but good counterarguments that none of them have much of it. Who decides what qualifies as an acceptable target?
However, arguing over which alleged powers comedy must aim at concedes the premise of Butterfield’s critics: that comedy must have a political aim. “What is the point of free speech when he is turning all his talent against those who can not answer him?” Colan asks. “What is the purpose of comedy like this?”
The purpose of comedy is to make people laugh – that’s it. A stand-up joke may be answered with laughter or awkward silence. Heckles are also accepted in some countries for poor performances. But if somebody chuckles you’ve succeeded, whatever they’re laughing at.
What Colan seems to want is ‘clapter’: applause for a political point rather than amusement at a good joke. But the form should not be reduced to a political agenda. Reducing the range of jokes to what is politically palatable may make some people more comfortable, but it will exclude much of human experience.
Those that claim that no humour can be gleaned at the expense of disadvantaged groups are simply wrong. Tragedy is never entirely unfunny, whether it is the smallest inconvenience or the most heart-rending misfortune. As the adage goes, the world doesn’t stop being funny when it is serious anymore than it stops being serious when it is funny.
As Butterfield points out, many people use humour as a coping mechanism or an escape. More than that, it’s a means of bridging the often absurd gap between expectations of reality.
Making jokes about everything – from the banal to the tragic – is good for its own sake, irrespective of political effects. If the comedy police have the last laugh, it’s possible we will too.