Mel Brooks: ‘the death of comedy is coming’

Just kidding: Brooks describes himself as the “king of vulgarity”. © Tangerine Entertainment

Should we be free to make jokes about anything? According to Mel Brooks, “political correctness” is killing comedy. But some think it is right to crack down on harmful humour.

Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman satirist Horace wrote that there is nothing to stop a man “telling truth as he laughs”. Comedians have been taking his advice ever since. But sometimes, the truth hurts.

Comedian Lenny Bruce found this out the hard way. In 1964 two undercover policemen came to his show. They sat in the front row and secretly recorded his set. The next day Bruce was arrested. He was charged with obscenity and “the corruption of the morals of youth”. His jokes about sex, infidelity, and religion exposed the raw reality simmering under the surface of everyday life. But he was too offensive for the authorities.

This year Rolling Stone ranked Bruce as the 3rd greatest comedian ever, celebrating how he “pushed past fear and pursued his truth”.

However, this 2,000 year old tradition of using comedy to expose hard truths could be finished, as yesterday Mel Brooks declared “the death of comedy”. According to Brooks, his 1974 film Blazing Saddles would be too offensive to be made today.

Why? Political correctness. And whilst Brooks said it is fine “not to hurt the feelings” of certain groups, he claimed that comedians must be able to tell “the truth about human behaviour”. For him, this means that jokes about “everything” apart from the holocaust are OK.

Not everyone agrees. Comedians are regularly criticised for joking about certain topics. Sarah Silverman was condemned for saying that she could include more rape jokes in her routine because “traditionally” rape victims do not complain.

And those who think that sexist jokes are harmful could be right. In 2007 researchers found that men who find sexist jokes funny are less likely to view rape as a serious crime.

But comedy also does good. A study found that some black comics use satire as “resistance” against racism. In the 1970s, black comedian Richard Pryor shocked audiences with his frequent use of the N-word. However, his routines highlighted, in Pryor’s own words, “the black man’s larger struggle for dignity, equality and justice”.

But can we really joke about anything?

Knock Knock…

“Even the most offensive jokes benefit society,” argue some. Culture progresses by breaking taboos and conventions. And citizens and comedians must be free to test the boundary of what is acceptable. Moreover, free speech is a basic principle of democracy. If we start censoring jokes, what comes next?

“Some topics are off limits,” say others. Saying “It is just a joke,” is not an excuse. Racist and sexist jokes can lead to worse abuse. And why should society tolerate comedy that can cause serious harm? What is more, there are some experiences in life that are so traumatic it is simply wrong to make light of them.

You Decide

  1. Should jokes about some subjects be banned?
  2. What is the point of comedy?

Activities

  1. Try to think of a joke. You could make one up, or remember the last one you were told. One at a time, share your joke with the class. Which one was the funniest?
  2. Do some research and find a joke from before the year 1900. You could find it in a novel, a newspaper, or a play. Is the joke still funny? Why? Or why not?

Some People Say...

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”

Peter Ustinov

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The UK Crown Prosecution Service classifies offensive jokes as “hate incidents”, when they are motivated by prejudice based on disability, race, religion, transgender identity, and sexual orientation. If the incident is serious enough it can be classed as a “hate crime”, and the perpetrator can be prosecuted.
What do we not know?
There are no set standards which determine how offensive a joke must be for it to be determined a “hate crime”. As humour is subjective, it is impossible to know for sure if Blazing Saddles is funny or not.

Word Watch

Horace
Roman poet, regarded as one of the earliest writers of satire and other genres of poetry (65BC-8BC).
Lenny Bruce
American comedian (1925-1966). He died from a drug overdose two years after his obscenity conviction in 1964.
Mel Brooks
American actor, writer, director and comedian. His most famous films include The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein.
Holocaust
Genocide in which over six million Jews were murdered by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
Researchers
Led by Dr Manuela Thomae, senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Winchester.
Study
By Simon Weaver, lecturer in Media and Communications at Brunel University.
Richard Pryor
American Comedian (1940-2005). Actor and comedian Jerry Seinfeld called Pryor “the Picasso of our profession”.