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Writing Offensive Comedy

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

Being an organisation run by comedians, we believe Grassroots Comedy has its finger on the pulse when it comes to understanding the nature of the world we live in.

See, back in the 20th century during the industrial age, the predominant, most vocal entity was the straight white dude. They had all the takes. Their perspectives and views on things were the preferred published works. And this was the same in the comedy scene. This wasn't entirely a bad thing. A lot of the content of the past in both the context of serious, satire and humorous was in fact, pretty good. The only thing to be mindful of is there wasn't alot of any other demographic or voice, or perspectives shared on subject matter that was often to do with them.

This has changed. Nowadays, nearly everyone has a voice or a twitter account. We have festivals, months, weeks, days dedicated who whomever you identify as. The variety of civil rights movements of the last century has seen a subsequent increase in social media communication platforms, leading to the accessibility of voices of many. This has led to vocal extremism from various demographics wanting to stand out, or often deciding to self proclaim they represent others.

The world got a whole lot more complex. We have debates of who has the right to cover topics or crack jokes. Do you have to be Indian to make jokes about India? No, I don't believe so. As someone who's of Indian heritage, I still don't dare represent or speak for an entire country of a billion people, nor do I have any authority. But I think everyone has a take.

The question is this:

  1. Is it funny. Is it actually a well crafted joke. Or are you just saying some stupid shit. A lot of inept open micers and even some "professionals" will do this. Just say shit on stage without thought. Shock factor without the clear intention of deriving actual comedy or a valid punchline is just lazy and arrogant.

  2. Without sounding disheartening, if you're wanting to discuss controversial topics, learn to treat these topics with respect. Edgier comedy is about developing the funny in your extensive knowledge of the subject matter, or in the humour of your complete ignorance towards it.

  3. Over time, as you develop your own voice and your style, and you're building your arsenal of gags, you'll be able to find ways to discuss edgier topics. It took Bill Burr 20 years and thousands of shows to be as good as he is on these topics.

It is important to recognise that humour is subjective, and what one person finds funny, another person may find offensive. Therefore, it can be challenging to create an offensive joke that won't offend anyone at all.

However, here are some ideas or bits of advice that may help you to approach offensive humour in a more responsible and thoughtful way:

  1. Know your audience: Before telling an offensive joke, consider the context and the people you are telling it to. Is the joke appropriate for the situation and the audience? A 5PM audience is different to a 10PM audience. We've seen this over and over again with shows such as The Darkest Comedy Hour which Grassroots Comedy produces and delivers, typically at a 10PM slot on a Saturday night. Audiences craving for the offensive, the ridiculous and the darkness. So yes, know your audience. READ THE ROOM.

  2. Are there any sensitivities or issues that you should be aware of? Consider tailoring your jokes to your specific audience to reduce the risk of offending someone. There are countless stories of professional comics doing cancer jokes and later finding out the show was a fundraiser for some kid's chemotherapy. This happens A LOT. Think about the commercial repercussions that others have to bear for what you decide to say on stage. Think about how it effects the industry or community as a whole.

  3. Use irony and satire: Irony and satire can be powerful tools for making offensive jokes without causing harm. By using humour to comment on society or culture, you can highlight the absurdity of certain situations or beliefs and challenge them in a non-threatening way. Be silly with it.

  4. Tread carefully when targeting present-day vulnerable groups or hot topics of political selection: Offensive jokes that target said groups is a tough one. Whenever a group has been given a lot of coverage by media, they're typically transformed into a faceless dehumanised topic, most of the individuals and their uniqueness has been disregarded, and they're used as a political device on both sides of the table. Avoid using these groups as the butt of your jokes, as this can reinforce negative stereotypes and cause harm, or be perceived as dog whistling in the present climate. Back in 2007 when I started, I remember that 9/11 and Terrorism was a very taboo subject. Islam was an absolute no no. Yet, these days, people are regularly cracking jokes about it. Understand the nature of hot topics. Respect the topic. Quite often venues won't book you if you choose to take this path. This doesn't make them a coward, it just makes them mindful of their customer base and prioritising being an entertainer over being lectured.

  5. Beware of "The Lecturer". The wannabe pseudo-intellectuals in the scene aspiring to be "orators of humanity" after watching a couple of Dave Chapelle specials. Delusions of grandeur run deep in comedy, mostly from lazy edgelords on both sides of the political spectrum. Just remember the focus for most shows and customer-orientated room runners is the customer experience. The Lecturers often feel entitled to use these rooms as a platform for their political goading, often without humour, often without knowledge, often just the rambling tales of smug, unemployed miscreants looking to lash out at the world. Comedy gives people a stage, and unfortunately it can get subjected to abuse.

  6. Grassroots Comedy doesn't believe in "cancel culture", but we're very particular about sustainability of rooms and who we work with. Being the largest comedy community in Western Australia doesn't necessarily mean we should police the scene, but we do care about our own events. This is why we believe outliers should do their own thing. And there's never a better opportunity than nowadays, in this current freelancing landscape, anyone can do just about anything if they know how to use google and string a few words together to make a sentence in an email. Our recommendation if you feel like you need be a lecturer rather than an entertainer is to go set up your own shows, draw your own crowds, develop your own brand and work it. The beauty of a world where everyone has a voice, is the segmentation and niche market formations that have occurred enabling every performer to eventually draw in cohorts or people interested in your subject matter. There is something for absolutely everyone. But understand that businesses such as Grassroots Comedy and the Comedy Lounge draw in general viewers and mixed demographics. Comedy Clubs tend to want universal appeal to keep the rooms sustainable. The recommended strategy is to simply have versatility, get better at comedy and have a general versatility in your arsenal of material, and eventually grow into your own patch. Jimmy Carr is a great example.

  7. Be aware of your own biases: We all have biases and blind spots, and these can come out in our humour. Before telling an offensive joke, consider whether you may be reinforcing harmful stereotypes or beliefs, and try to challenge your own assumptions and biases. Truly understand what the structure or joke is about.

  8. Know when to apologise: We've all shot from the hip. Some more than others. If you do tell an offensive joke that causes perceived harm, it is important to take responsibility and apologise. No harm no foul. Comedy is mostly just words, and for the most part, audiences just don't come back to that show, but for some, a lot of complaints get made, and we've seen it backfire on those who try to capitalise on it via the media. Our recommendation is just be willing to listen to feedback and learn from your mistakes, and use this as an opportunity to grow and become a better comedian who tells better jokes.

Ultimately, offensive humour is a tricky area, and it's important to approach it with thoughtfulness and consideration. By being aware of your audience, avoiding harmful stereotypes, and using irony and satire, you can create offensive jokes that challenge the status quo without causing harm.

But most of all ask yourself, throughout the process of developing offensive jokes, regularly ask "am I even competent enough to do it?"

If you haven't at all second-guessed yourself going through the creative process, chances are it's a big no.

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