We’ve all been there before. A loved one just shares a meme in poor taste on Facebook. Cue the shudder and feeling of a full-body ‘ick.’ Are you judging him for finding it funny in the first place? Or is your rub not that he laughed at it, but that he chose to share it?  I’ll admit, I have varying reactions, ranging from knee-jerk to more collected “well, that resonates with them” kind of thoughts.

Comedy has also often made me cringe, which isn’t too surprising since I score high on sensitivity and people pleasing on all personality tests. I never want to see jokes at others’ expense, and isn’t that the crux of comedy afterall? In these undeniably divisive times, should comedy continue on without boundaries? While comics have always tailored their material to popular culture, there is a new wave of expectation around what – and who – should be the butt of a joke. I don’t know if you’ve watched the latest saga with Dave Chapelle, but he’s just one example of comedians who cross lines to make people uncomfortable. His supporters, in a recent example, have used the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech as an argument for his controversial string of edgy, transphobic jokes. But is comedy all that comedic when it belittles someone, much less a group of people?

This question is decades old, but I believe it’s amped up in part due to social media. In the ‘before’ times (aka before MySpace and The Facebook – remember those days, Gen X?), we didn’t have to know that our friends or family found some risque routines funny. It wasn’t front and center in our feed. People would simply laugh alongside their TV dinners and go about their way. But today, with sharing, reposting, and amplifying unvetted voices and opinions, I often question what others find funny and wonder what that says about all of us when we choose to share those things. And, if you follow me on social, I’m sure you might have the same questions about my own humor-rating scale also. 

I think we can tell a lot about a person based on what they share on social, and yet, it’s only a small window of what they want you to see about their own lives. 

Coming back to comedy, we can laugh uncomfortably at Dave Chapelle’s jokes as we watch his latest special or mention it to a friend in passing (I won’t watch it, but that’s my choice. You can make your own choices..) what we find funny isn’t intrinsically wrong or unjust — it’s what we choose to do with that giggle. Do we share it? Do we allow it to lead us down a rabbit hole of other jokes or forums that marginalize people in our world that we’re supposed to protect?

Comedy is murky. It can be a fuck-all. But, like art, it is subjective. I may not let out a belly laugh if human rights and decency are ever obliterated on the mic, but I will always question conversations (on the mic or off) that are separating people as “others.” Discussions, whether for a laugh or a like on social media, that are designed to provoke or stir up controversy. At the end of the day, these conversations seem to come from a place of fear. A fear of scarcity, of a loss of power, of something that isn’t understood. And fear-based conversations go against one of my closely-held values: always stay curious. 

It’s also easy to see why I have this reaction to comedy: it says what we don’t want to say out loud. It allows us to accept and laugh instead of questioning whether what we’re hearing is kind or decent. Maybe that’s why I gravitate more toward any comedians that challenge the status quo, like Tig Notaro or Ali Wong. Those that provide a more nuanced conversation than simply lambasting a group of people for being different. Conversations that point out where we can grow – even if it’s uncomfortable – instead of where we can hold others back. 

Naturally, I have an apprehension of ‘edgy’ humor.’ The best I can offer is that our values are not only rooted in the material we find humorous, but also what we do with it. 

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