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The power of comedy and why censorship does not belong in it

The power of comedy and why censorship does not belong in it

The power of comedy and why censorship does not belong in it
September 17
12:00 2021

Content warning: this article contains language and content related to suicide. Reader discretion is advised.

Comedy comes from dark places.

At least, that’s the case for many comedians. Richard Pryor grew up in a brothel with a prostitute and a pimp for parents. Eddie Murphy’s father was murdered when he was 8 years old. Trevor Noah’s mother was shot in front of him. Hannah Gadsby, Jim Carrey and Tiffany Haddish were all homeless. John Belushi, Mitch Hedberg and Chris Farley lost their lives to drugs. Robin Williams took his own life. The list goes on.

Although not all comedians experience such degrees of trauma, adversity or bad childhoods, the link between comedy and tragedy is undeniable and well-documented. Humor often becomes a strength for deeply wounded people.

Take Pete Davidson for example, who lost his father in the Sept. 11 attacks when he was 7 years old. In his stand-up special “SMD,” he tells the audience that after his father died he was gifted a PlayStation 2. He then follows up with a joke about how pushing his mother down the stairs might get him a PlayStation 3.

“That’s my new life,” Davidson quips. “Murder and toys.”

Regardless of how you feel about the joke, it’s admirable that Davidson managed to take a personal tragedy and turn it into something positive that people can laugh about, himself included. Instead of attempting to ignore or suppress the pain of losing his father, he deals with it directly and tries to find the humor in it.

Taken at face value, it sounds insane. How can someone possibly find humor in the death of their father, especially when it happened as the result of a national tragedy?

When you try to ignore something that bothers you, whether it’s an intrusive thought, character flaw or negative experience, it chips away at the back of your mind. No matter what you do, it never goes away. When you purposely acknowledge that thing, point it out and laugh at it, it removes all the power and control it has over you. To quote Charlie Chaplin: “In order to truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”

It’s a concept that can be difficult for some people to grasp, but for Davidson and like-minded comedians, it’s how they heal themselves and their audiences. When therapy and medication fail to do their jobs, humor becomes a coping mechanism.

As much as comedy helps performers and listeners, some feel that it goes too far in the subject matter. Comedy has historically pushed boundaries and poked fun at sensitive topics, which has led a lot of groups and activists to demand censorship across the medium. If comedy was censored, anything considered potentially offensive would be off-limits to joke about (like Davidson’s 9/11 joke).

Because comedy functions as an art form, censoring it would set a dangerous precedent. Comedy is in the same category as music, film, painting or literature. Everyone has their own taste, style and preference.

For example, I think country music is one of the worst things that’s ever happened to our planet. The fact that bands like Florida Georgia Line are successful makes me question the existence of a God. Almost every song uses the same basic melodies and is about drinking, driving or drinking while driving. At some point in the song, the main character gets hammered, goes for a cruise and ends up near a body of water surrounded by women. The phrases “raisin’ hell,” “good stuff” and “step up in the truck” are said for what it feels like hundreds of times.

As much as I’d like to see Florida Georgia Line get catapulted into space, there are millions of people who find enjoyment in their music. It’s the same concept with comedy. A comedian, late-night host or entertainer you think is terrible might bring joy to someone else. We all have different opinions on what’s good, what’s bad, acceptable and funny.

Also, as with all forms of art, comedy tends to come from a personal place that’s deep, emotionally raw and unfiltered. Any attempt to censor that is a bad idea. Passing comedy through a filter is like shaking up a Dr. Pepper and drinking it after it’s flat. Sure, it’s still Dr. Pepper, but all of the flavor is gone.

Humor comes from real-life experiences and you can’t censor reality. The comedians I mentioned in the beginning all used comedy to deal with their adversity. Humor was the only thing that helped mend their pain and allow them to tell their stories, which allows other people to heal and tell their own stories.

Comedy can be just as healing to the people who tell it as it is to the people who hear it. For those people, laughter isn’t just the best medicine — it’s the only medicine.

Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles

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Jake Reynolds

Jake Reynolds

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