Comedy and censorship: are you kidding me?

Sunday 23 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Cinema 2 Contemporary Controversies

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The prosecution of comedian Mike Ward by the Canadian Human Rights Commission for a cruel joke over a young man with Treacher Collins syndrome has provoked more discussion amongst comedians over the politics of offence. Ward, a leading French-Canadian comedian known for bad taste routines, faces potentially ruinous legal costs if found guilty, with some wondering if it could set a precedent for other comedians outside of Canada. Last year comedians Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfield announced they were no longer playing US college gigs for fear of the reaction from contemporary students; in the UK controversy has dogged performers as varied as laddish comedian Dapper Laughs through to a proposed ethnic minority sketch show provisionally entitled Sniggaz. At the same time, free speech campaigners rallied around comedian Jan Bohmermann after the German authorities allowed Turkey to proceed with a prosecution for insulting its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Attitudes towards offence inevitably divide comedians and audiences: for many, a currently booming market for live comedy hardly indicates that offence is ‘killing’ the form; while the sheer number of debates over offensive routines involving sexual violence, paedophilia and race suggest that ‘edgy’ performances are alive and well. Others, including Rock, also suggest technology has created many of the problems: instead of performers interacting directly with the audience in the room, routines inevitably get taken context-free onto social media. Yet, for others, the reaction displayed towards Charlie Hebdo from even fellow cartoonists and writers at English PEN for not ‘punching up’ in its satirical attacks on Islam displays a worrying ambivalence around free speech. Likewise, there are concerns that the trend for protesting offensive comedians could, as it has with theatre and art shows, lead to ‘concealed censorship’ as venues refuse to book controversial acts for fear of incurring legal and policing costs.

Are reactions against offensive comics part of healthy debate over where we draw the line or is there something uniquely censorious in the reaction of audiences and comics alike? Should promoters and venues play a role in deciding what is acceptable, or is that between performers and the public? Has the online age made it easier for comics to find platforms for their work, or contributed to a more toxic atmosphere? Is the fear of offence killing comedy or are comics simply losing their nerve?