Comedians say the push for political correctness is no laughing matter

Comedian Mike Ward's fine for making fun of a child with a disability is seen as draconian by some, just by others. But some of the top names in comedy have claimed for a while that political correctness is strangling their art form.

Cleese, Seinfeld bemoaned PC'ness long before Que. comedian fined for mocking disabled singer

Comics in an uproar: Jerry Seinfeld, left, John Cleese, centre, and Adam Carolla have all complained about political correctness stifling their comedy. (Robert Altman/Andy Cropa/Richard Drew/AP Photo)

When the Quebec Human Rights Commission ordered comedian Mike Ward to pay $35,000 to Jérémy Gabriel for making fun of the former child star with a disability, the reactions were fierce and polarized. 

Many felt that making fun of a sick child is crossing the line, even for the guy who is headlining the contingent of the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal called The Nasty Show. Yet others felt that the fine was draconian, and a dangerous precedent.

"I'm worried that we're trying to victimize everyone and trying to frame the freedom of speech," said Gilbert Rozon, the founder of Just For Laughs, in an interview with CBC News in Montreal. "Taste is a very personal thing."

Whichever camp you fall in, it's worth noting that the Ward/Gabriel controversy is not an isolated incident, but the most extreme example of the battle that has been brewing in comedy circles for a while. 

Some of the biggest names in comedy, including John Cleese, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have publicly complained that the climate of political correctness is stifling their art form. 

Can we take a joke?

Yes, Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps the cleanest of comedians in recent memory. In an interview with Seth Meyers, he called the current obsession with political correctness "creepy."

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In the U.K., Monty Python legend John Cleese called what the comedians are facing "an Orwellian nightmare." In a video blog for the website Big Think, Cleese said: "All humour is critical. If you start to say 'Ooh we mustn't criticize or offend them,' then humour's gone."

Chris Rock has said he can't tour university campuses anymore because they are so committed to creating an emotionally safe space that anything he says could be construed as offensive to someone in the audience.

In fact, so many comics subscribe to the belief that they're under unprecedented pressure not to offend anyone that there's a new documentary about it, called Can we take a joke?, starring comedians Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried and Lisa Lampanelli.

Social media scrutiny

Finding the balance between comedy that pushes the envelope and a routine that doesn't offend anyone has been a precarious task for decades.

But many comedians today say that social media has put them under an unprecedented amount of scrutiny. Whereas a comedian's ill-advised or offensive joke would once elicit boos or, at worst, a few cancelled gigs, it now ends up on social media, where it's seen by millions.

Evan Carter, a Toronto comic who's been performing stand-up since the early 1980s, agrees comics today have it harder than when he started in the business.

"There's something that they don't like and they've picked out two minutes of a one-hour show completely out of context, and the next thing you know — boom! — it's on Twitter, it's on Instagram, it's on Facebook, and before you get off stage, you're hated."

Toronto comedian Evan Carter says political correctness is not the enemy of comedy. (evancarter.com)

Still, Carter, who teaches a course in stand-up comedy at Second City, doesn't think political correctness is the enemy of comedy: "I think what's the enemy of comedy is lazy comics."

He says that even very risky material can be accepted by the audience if it's intelligently written and delivered; he brings up Louis C.K. as an example of a popular comic who handles tough topics like spousal abuse or racism cleverly in his routines.

"Craft the joke, build a joke, so that the audience goes, 'Yeah, I probably shouldn't be laughing at this but I see your point and I'm willing to learn from it,'" is the advice he gives his students. "But if it's somebody that's just coming up and punching you in the face while you're standing there with a line, with a word that's just there to shock you? Well, that really doesn't take much craft at all."


Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Senior Education Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a senior education reporter for CBC News. Appearing on The National and CBC Radio, she has previously reported on arts and entertainment, and worked as a current affairs producer.