This was my favorite session I have attended so far at SXSW Interactive: Why Comedians Don’t Give if you are Offended. I loved that I took a chance and it had nothing to do with writing, PR, marketing, or anywhere even close to the field–probably why the session was so fascinating to me. The premise was about free speech in the tech age and if there is really a need to apologize for your material when you do cross the ‘line.’ The presenters included Eddie Pepitone from The Bitter Buddha, Janine Brito from FX, Joe Garden from Thing X and W. Kamau Bell from Totally Biased with W Kamau Bell.
Pepitome feels that censorship is the death of the comedy world. Comedians should be talking about what they are passionate about (for him the ultimate passion joke would be government policy, but he knows that’s not really done yet in the comedic world). But there’s also certain taboo topics that he would never discuss, such as rape. Sarah Silverman made a joke about it recently, and even coming from a women it was taken out of context and people did get extremely offended. He said to be a good comedian you have to be someone who looks at what’s going on and use the world around you for the fodder. Having to apologize is the opposite of the energy that is needed to be a comedian in his opinion.
Bell then explained how a 21st century audience is completely different than it was before the Internet. There’s no more just performing for those that love your work, you must understand, as a comedian, that your work can be picked up by anybody. But, he doesn’t think that comedians are above apology. As, Pepitone mentioned, Bell agreed there was a wave of awkward jokes about rape, then the Holocaust became a punch line. It’s in some regard the job of comedy- you can say whatever you what but if people hear it without the context around you never know you might be offending, but it’s up to the comedian on whether or not that personally bothers them.
Garden feels that comedians that talk about a controversial topic simply for shock value then find that it can lose it’s shock. Comedians, and the public in general, have to be more careful as many have been fired for slightly off-color tweets. There’s got to be a realization that what is done in the social media world isn’t as simple as it should be when you are working for a larger corporation, and the more popular you are the harder it is to get away from that.
The team agreed that social media has completely changed the game. As Bell said, thanks to social media and Twitter people are almost simply waiting at home to be offended and take their self-righteousness into the world to disagree with comedians who do push the line. It can be an almost scary think about comedy as you don’t know what someone is going to do with your joke. Once you tell it, it’s out there and in the world and you can’t help if people use it for the wrong reasons or find it funny for the unintended purpose.
But, Bell made a fantastic point on that account: there is no reason for someone to be offended by something they are seeing live at a comedy show these days as it’s just a matter of doing your research. No one would simply go see a band in a music genre they weren’t a fan of and today anyone can simply look up an act on YouTube and make sure the comedian is on topic with the type of show they were hoping to enjoy.
Brito said she does acknowledge to fans, and complaints, on Twitter. Then she re-emphasized one of the biggest points of the session: context matters. The audience must understand that first and foremost when hearing something not firsthand.