beach_and_pier_-_2200x270_-_with_npr_and_cal_lu_1.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

When does comedy cross the line?

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

When does comedy go too far? It's a question comedians themselves are increasingly trying to answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JIM JEFFERIES: Should comedians ever have to apologize for a joke?

SARAH SILVERMAN: I believe you should only apologize if you feel remorse. I think anything else is disingenuous and [expletive].

BILL MAHER: Comedians are the ones testing where the line is. We can't always be perfect.

SETH MEYERS: Comedy is - I do think - is, you know, supposed to push the line, push towards lines, the medium. There are more people now who will let you know if they think you went over the line than ever before.

DAVID REMNICK: Don't I know it.

DEGGANS: The conversation has probably been going on since the first person decided to step on a stage and tell a joke. And in any discussion about where that line is and who gets to decide whether it's been crossed, one name is bound to come up - superstar stand-up comic Dave Chappelle. Now, Chappelle has been heavily criticized for jokes about gay people and the trans community. And recently, he hosted "Saturday Night Live" with an opening monologue that addressed antisemitic remarks made by rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DAVE CHAPELLE: Early in my career, I learned that there are two words in the English language that you should never say together in sequence. And those words are the and Jews.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPELLE: I've never heard someone do good after they said that.

DEGGANS: Chappelle's comments about Ye's remarks landed Chappelle in hot water with some critics, including me, who felt his monologue elevated long-standing prejudice tropes against Jewish people and minimized Ye's antisemitism. Comedians Jon Stewart and Judy Gold, who are both Jewish, weighed in on Chappelle's behalf.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JON STEWART: I don't believe that censorship and penalties are the way to end antisemitism or to not gain understanding. I don't believe in that.

JUDY GOLD: People go to Dave to get his perspective, and that's his perspective.

DEGGANS: Successful comedians are often put on a pedestal. They're praised for their ability to tell uncomfortable truths, expose hypocrisy through satire, and offer crucial social commentary that breaks down stereotypes and prejudice. But at a time when hate crimes have increased in the U.S. and social media platforms seem to be awash in hateful speech, has the comedic line between what's funny and what's unacceptable shifted? Depends on the comedian.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHAPELLE: It shouldn't be this scary to talk about anything. It's made my job incredibly difficult. And to be honest with you, I'm getting sick of talking to a crowd like this.

DEGGANS: That's Dave Chappelle again from his "Saturday Night Live" monologue on how the threat of being canceled has made the job of the comic much harder.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHAPELLE: My first Netflix special, what did I say? I said, I don't want a sneaker deal 'cause the minute I say something that makes those people mad, they're going to take my sneakers away. And the whole crowd was like, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPELLE: Well, now you see Kanye walking around LA barefoot with his chain out.

DEGGANS: I thought the best people to talk about controversial comedy were, well, comedians. I spoke with Roy Wood Jr. and Jenny Hagel. Roy is a stand-up comic who's best known as a correspondent on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," and Jenny is a writer and performer on "Late Night With Seth Meyers" on NBC and the head writer and executive producer for "The Amber Ruffin Show" on Peacock. I started out by asking them about the boundary between an edgy joke and a harmful one.

ROY WOOD JR: I believe that there are a lot of people - and it's not just comedians. It's content creators, it's people who make sketches, it's people who do funny stuff online who I believe want freedom of expression and freedom from criticism. And you cannot separate the two, in my opinion. Where the boundaries lie, I think that's dictated by the public who is receiving the joke. And I think America, as a whole, is at a spot now where the entire country is changing and evolving.

So some people are going, hey, that's not cool. I don't like that. Now, you're a performer. You want to keep saying that? Cool. But just know that some people aren't going to have you on. Some people aren't going to rebook you. And if you're rich enough and you're emboldened enough to stick with that, you know, more power to you. But I don't think that this demand to exist in a space where there is no criticism or accountability, I don't think that's realistic.

JENNY HAGEL: What Roy said really resonates to me, is, like, you have to be honest about the thing you say has an effect on people, and you have to be honest about what that effect is and willing to hear it. I think that sometimes the discussion around what comics can and can't say sometimes has this kind of false cover over it that, like, people will talk about, well, comics should be allowed to push boundaries. 'Cause I think if you are saying something antisemitic or homophobic or racist, I don't know that that's pushing boundaries 'cause that's old. We have all heard that a lot. Like, that's nothing edgy. You're not edgy if you're doing something that someone on a playground in fourth grade is doing.

To me, stuff that pushes boundaries is stuff that introduces a new thought, a new point of view, a new analysis of something that we've all been talking about, but maybe they're making me look at it a different way. To me, that's what is pushing boundaries. And I think good comedy does what - you know, there's that phrase punching up that a lot of people have heard - right? - that, like, good comedy punches up. Like, you - the butt of your jokes are people above you with more social status, more power, more money, more access than you. And I think when you are punching down, to me, at least, that's not comedy. That's just bullying.

DEGGANS: And, you know, what's interesting to me, too, is I get the sense that there's a coterie of people out there that are getting tired of the discussion of being aware of how other people are affected by what they do. And they're looking for an excuse, you know? I see some of these comics, and they're like, you know, oh, I could get canceled for telling this joke. And it's like, you know, you're doing stand-up for thousands of people. You're hosting a national TV show. You have albums out. What do you mean you're going to get canceled?

It's more - particularly, you know, in the wake of George Floyd, we saw a lot of people look at trying to be better about how they talk about issues. And now I feel like we're seeing a little bit of a backlash. And I'm wondering, do any of you see that in your comedy? Do you see people pushing back and - because they're just tired of, you know, some of the things that people have been asking them to do in terms of what you talked about - punching down instead of punching up?

WOOD: Most of the people that are criticizing, they're not performers. So you don't necessarily understand the limitations of television, but you are a consumer of comedy. And I think to some degree, everyone who has an opinion - every opinion isn't necessarily worth listening to, but some of them, if enough people are saying it, let's see if there's a way on this next segment to add a little more - another layer of information on this, because you know when you get it right because then the people say thank you.

What I've also tried to do to a degree is to give grace to the people that are annoyed or upset because, you know, the thing about jokes, you know, they are definitely an attempt. Like, you're always trying. You're not always going to land the joke. Giving grace to the fact that some people that may be offended by something, they may not take your intention into account. And you kind of have to grade that on a curve as well because they've dealt with whatever trauma they've been dealing with for so long that everybody looks the same to them. And you could get something right four days in a week and on the fifth day, accidentally misgender someone or accidentally come at a joke from an entry point that suggests that you have a blind spot to the totality of the issue.

HAGEL: I think Roy's right. I'm always interested to hear how people react to stuff. And I think you just have to consider the source. But I think that, again, like, I don't see any of that as limiting me 'cause there are some times where somebody will educate me and say, hey, you worded this this way, using these pronouns, but a more inclusive way to say that would be this. And I am happy to learn that. That costs me nothing, to word things correctly the next time or in a way that's more inclusive. I'm happy when someone is willing to help me get further along, get to a different place.

I think you used a really important word, though, Roy, which is, like, intent. Like, I think it's important to think - when you're watching comedy or when you're writing comedy - like, what's the person's intention, right? And I think that as long as you are at least trying to, like, write - like you said, like, be honest or be smart about something or offer a point of view - but I think, like, the place where you get into, like, where it doesn't feel good to people and maybe people - or different people use different kinds of language to describe it. But we all know when the intent is wrong or mean or off. You can feel it.

DEGGANS: Amid this ongoing debate, high-profile stars are leaving late-night comedy. Here's "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah announcing his departure earlier this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH")

TREVOR NOAH: I've loved hosting this show. It's been one of my greatest challenges. It's been one of my greatest joys. I have loved trying to figure out how to make people laugh, even when the stories are particularly [expletive] on the worst days. You know, we've laughed together. We've cried together. But after seven years, I feel like it's time.

DEGGANS: Trevor Noah's departure from "The Daily Show" was one of several recent bombshells to hit the late-night comedy world. Desus and Mero, Samantha Bee and James Corden have also recently left the space or, in the case of Corden, host of CBS's "The Late Late Show," announced they're leaving next year. I asked Roy Wood Jr. and Jenny Hagel whether these shifts could signal an end to more diverse and inventive late-night comedy.

WOOD: I think that the economics of television is what has to be solved first. It's probably something that's not discussed in broader strokes, but - and it's not just in a late-night or unscripted capacity. It's scripted capacity, too. Like, budgets have gotten a lot tighter, post-COVID, on what people are willing to shoot, what people are willing to make. And I think that late-night remains one of the most affordable things to produce. But I think that you have to continue to be inventive. I do think that, to a degree, a lot of the people that are out there that are on TikTok and that are on Instagram, that are doing a lot of stuff, they have caught up to the genre. And so I think that you're just going to see a continual creative evolution of everything. You know, what they've done with Amber Ruffin, you know, over at Peacock and NBC - y'all broke the format to a large degree, Jenny. I would - like - and I know this is your interview, Eric, but I'm curious about that type of stuff. Like, how do you...

DEGGANS: I was - that's exactly where I was going to go 'cause...

WOOD: That's what you need. It's got to be weird. It's got to be different. It cannot be the same thing that your - nobody wants to watch the late-night show that their parents grew up watching. I didn't want to watch Johnny Carson. I had Conan O'Brien. So it has to just continue to evolve in some degree.

DEGGANS: The concern that I had, as a fan, is just when it seems like women and people of color are starting to get these hosting jobs and really step up, we're starting to see the genre contract. And that's really worrisome.

WOOD: And that's what I told Trevor. I said, man, you Black. You got to stay. And he was like, no.

(LAUGHTER)

HAGEL: No. There's too many underserved Jimmys out there. No, I think that culturally, you know, we go through swings. And I think right now we're in a swing where people want to hear different points of view.

WOOD: Yeah.

HAGEL: Like, I know I can say that. Like, I want to hear points of view of people from ethnic groups that I am not part of, from socioeconomic groups that I am not part of, from regions of the country where I do not live. I think we are living in an era in America, and have for the last couple years, a realization on the part of some Americans that, like, oh, I don't have the whole picture. I just have the picture from where I am sitting. It's like what Roy said. Like, I don't want to watch a bunch of people who look identical on every channel saying the same thing. Late-night, at the end of the day, is jokes written off of all the same setups, and that is whatever the news of the day is. But if you have a bunch of different hosts coming from different walks of life writing jokes off of those same setups, then you're going to get a bunch of different jokes and different responses to that news. And I think that's what makes it fun and an exciting art form.

WOOD: I think that what has to happen for late-night to remain viable as a place to come and see that person's take about the thing is that it has to be a format that leans into what people want to see and what people are already responding to and not something that is created in the eyes of what a television executive thinks late-night should be. Specificity is the new broad. It's not enough to just be all things. You're better off drilling in for eight minutes in the way that Amber does in her style on the thing to make something that's interesting and specific.

And, you know, I also think that late-night still has a place because when you look at everyone you've named who has stepped away or is stepping away, there was chaos when those announcements came out. So every one of these people is somebody's person. That's your champion. That's my one. That's the one I love. That's the one I root for. And I don't think you can get that through streaming. I don't think you can get that through whomever your favorite internet personality is. The internet is the internet. Social media is social media. But I think late-night and someone having a voice and sitting in that captain's chair, I think it'll always be important. It's just a matter of making sure that what they're doing is specific and that there's a continual creative evolution and not a fight to remain in what has been.

HAGEL: I think that's right. If you're looking at someone's authentic point of view, you're going to have a good time, even if their authentic point of view isn't yours, because you're going to be responding to how passionate they are about it.

DEGGANS: That was Roy Wood Jr. and Jenny Hagel. Roy is a "Daily Show" correspondent, stand-up comic and executive producer of the award-winning documentary "The Neutral Ground." Jenny is a writer and performer at "Late Night With Seth Meyers" and head writer and executive producer of "The Amber Ruffin Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.