Earlier this month, Spike TV censored a joke delivered by Clint Eastwood during its Guys’ Choice Awards. While presenting an award to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Eastwood compared Johnson to other athletes-turned-actors and referenced Caitlyn Jenner. Now, I don’t think Clint Eastwood’s joke was particularly funny, but it wasn’t in any way offensive either. Yes, Jenner’s name was mentioned, but it was mentioned in a way that should draw groans, not outrage – and certainly not censorship.
What’s driving this heightened level of sensitivity? According to comedian Bill Maher, it’s college-aged Millennials. And I agree. On his weekly show Real Time, Maher called out Spike TV for pandering to an oversensitive generation before tearing into the college student who authored “An Open Letter to Jerry Seinfeld from a ‘Politically Correct’ College Student.” Maher’s rant wasn’t the first time he entered into a spat with the college generation. In December of last year, Maher spoke at Berkeley’s commencement ceremony, but this was after students tried to petition that he be replaced due to comments he made on his show during a lively argument with Ben Affleck over Islam. The petition failed and Bill remained the commencement speaker, but the petition generated a whopping 6,000 supporters.
I get why college students are quick to slam what they perceive as old or unfair stereotypes. But if college students are serious about improving society and the world, they first need to learn how to take a joke. Maher pointed out that Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Larry the Cable Guy all won’t play colleges because those audiences are too easily offended. Let that sink in. If those three all agree on something, then there’s probably some truth to their assessment.
Context is King
Context is the most important factor in this discussion, but our media hungry generation has little time for context. Millennials are communicating in 140 characters or less, and they want everything in quick, easily digestible sound bites. We need to understand that making a joke about race or gender doesn’t automatically make it racist or sexist. Similarly, mentioning Caitlyn Jenner’s name doesn’t necessarily make a joke transphobic. The context of a joke reveals its nature and intent. Furthermore, if Jenner, a former Olympic hero, is able to smile and laugh about her own situation, she doesn’t need Spike TV or the PC police protecting her from a lame, insignificant joke.
Edgy Comedy is Nothing New
Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin are two of the best examples of America’s long history of provocative humor. Both men were known for unleashing their sharp, and at times dirty sense of humors. Franklin even wrote a book called Fart Proudly. If young adults of that time were as fickle as they are today, some of these men’s work may have never made it past the printing press. In recent years, the “n-word” has been censored out of Twain’s work. I’m obviously not in favor of proliferating the use of that wretched word, but removing it is an act of censorship that dilutes the work of a great American novel. In reality, the word was used throughout this book to expose the wickedness of racism. As Twain himself said, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak because a baby can’t chew it.” When it comes to comedy, it’s time we quit pandering to the babies of our generation.
Seriously, Just Laugh
I’d rather be offended from time to time than allow the most outspoken, overly sensitive members of our generation to dilute contemporary comedy. Censorship is dangerous, especially in a Digital Age where we depend on free and open communication. It’s a two-way street. We all have free speech in this country, but nobody has the right to not be offended.
With all the tension in the world – racial, religious, political and so forth – we need comedians now more than ever. Laugher should be a key ingredient to easing that tension and elevating the level of modern discourse. Comedy will always be a vital part of the human experience, and we shouldn’t let a mob of humorless young people temper it with their radical brand of sensitivity.