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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: By Any Other Name

During this last month I did a couple of things I haven’t done before. I went to comedy club with my friends (a first for me) and I had a colonoscopy (also a first). One was a frightening and painful experience, and the other was the colonoscopy.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if I accidentally wandered into a racy club only to be shocked by a raunchy comedian. This awful experience came as a painful surprise because I had taken precautions to avoid any embarrassment. I only went to the club because I had been invited by a friend who had promised that the place was “family friendly.” Each comedian was warned in advance that the material couldn’t be the least bit blue. After all, the local community simply wouldn’t put up with such shenanigans.

In fact, one comedian who had previously strayed from the wholesome formula by throwing in his normal off-color jokes learned to keep it clean the hard way. Every single person in the audience left before he was fifteen minutes into his routine. He was then banned from the club and wasn’t paid a penny for his trouble. “Don’t worry,” my friend encouraged me, “the material will be squeaky clean.”

Encouraged by the description of the venue, I invited a group of friends to be my guests for the evening. We would be finishing a video shoot on a Thursday afternoon and a group of the actors that I had hired would join me, my son, and several work colleagues for an evening of fun. That was the plan.

As each performer, including the featured comedian, started into his or her routine, it became clear to me that many of them would honor the “clean-cut clause” in this contract by walking up to the outer edge of clean material and dipping a toe into a pool of filth as many times as they could without “offending the audience.” This pernicious tactic set off all kinds of alarms in my comfort center.

You know what it’s like. You’re watching a TV show and the characters start making inappropriate sexual references while you’re sitting next to your mother-in-law or grandchildren. You squirm with every innuendo and wonder just how long the show will continue down this awkward path. Should you switch channels in the middle of the program and risk looking like a prude or will the episode return to safe ground if you just wait another few seconds?

Of course, when you’re seated in a comedy club you can’t channel surf out of the dangerous waters and into the safe harbor of the Disney Channel. If you feel offended, you’re going to have to stand up and leave—which is what I did. After about ten minutes of on-the-edge horror I actually did get up and step out of the room for a while as a way of escaping the tension, but when I returned it only got worse. The featured comedian moved from blue material to racist, sexist, and otherwise insensitive jokes.

Here’s where it became confusing to me. The club had been labeled “family friendly” because no blue material was permitted (or so they promised), but apparently there were no rules against making fun of the Pope or Jews or Indians or Middle Easterners or anyone else for that matter. Nope, that stuff was okay.

Of course, the disturbing belief that you can say whatever insulting and prejudicial thing you want in the name of comedy isn’t unique to our local club. Apparently, when it comes to humor, there’s a whole new set of rules about what you can say with impunity. Stand on a stage and it would seem that within our society you have permission to say things that you would never dream of saying at work—things that would get you fired in a New-York minute. You can say things that you wouldn’t dream of saying to your best friends on a fishing trip. You can say things that you wouldn’t say if you were fall-down drunk. That’s right, call it comedy and somehow thoughts that no decent human being would ever express aloud are now okay to shout to a crowd.

We pull off this all-too-transparent hypocrisy by using clever stories and labels to justify the most bizarre of behaviors. Something that would be called bigoted at work is called clever or edgy or even art when spoken from a stage. Something that would be labeled sexist or racist in most domains is called comedy and then somehow it’s okay. Of course, assigning the behavior a new label changes nothing. The underlying thoughts, the vicious and insulting characterizations, remain unsavory no matter what you call them. With apologies to William Shakespeare, a skunk cabbage by any other name stinks just the same.

I know that this kind of “perfuming the pig” happens all the time. It’s not unique to comedy clubs. You can’t watch a standup comedian or sitcom on network TV without realizing that although blue material is prohibited by the FCC, politically incorrect material is actually encouraged over the airwaves. And should audience members dare groan or hiss over a particularly bigoted and insensitive line, the comedian then makes fun of the audience for being out of touch or prudish or stupid.

As I drove two of the actors who’d been my guests to their hotel later that evening, I asked them what they thought about the material. Here were two African-American actors who the comedian had actually singled out of the audience and used as a platform for bringing up what I thought were insulting racist stereotypes—in both directions. Both actors said they had been offended. One went on to argue that any material that divides rather than unifies the audience is simply wrong.

She was right. It turns out that not only is it wrong to be divisive, but (and here’s the good news) you don’t have to do so in order to be funny. I’m reminded of one Sunday evening in1964 when I lay on the floor in front of my neighbor’s TV set and for the very first time watched Bill Cosby perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. I laughed myself to tears as Mr. Cosby told of what it was like in kindergarten—sharing the common experience of trying to wield a huge pencil as you wrote on paper that was so cheap that it still had wood chips in it. Here was a person who came from a very different background tickling my funny bone as he took me and the rest of the viewing audience down a memory lane that was common to us all—nothing blue, nothing bigoted, nothing sexist. And wow was he funny.

I think it’s time we all took a stand. Okay, I’ll take a stand. If what you’re about to say could get you fired at work, is likely to insult someone, or could perpetrate an ugly and insulting stereotype, don’t say it anywhere. Don’t say it to your coworkers around the water cooler. Don’t say it to your friends in the back of a fishing boat. And for crying out loud, don’t say it on stage or in front of the cameras where your chance to do damage only increases—and then try to weasel off the hook by calling it comedy.

Equally important, don’t put up with politically incorrect conversations or comedy material. Don’t give a listening ear to those who routinely offend. Of course, here’s where it gets awkward. It’s not easy to let others know that you don’t appreciate their insensitive jokes. You don’t want to be hostile or insulting, that’s part of what you’re trying to condemn.

Actually, in person, it is fairly easy to let people know your stance. Simply don’t laugh when someone tells a joke that makes fun of a race or group of people or religion. Should someone start their foray into the world of the politically incorrect by saying: “I know I’m not supposed to make fun of ________, but…” don’t let them continue. Cut them off with a smile and say, “You know what, I’d rather you not finish that sentence.” Taking cheap shots is never the right thing to do, and trying to excuse yourself by pointing out that you know it’s incorrect doesn’t give you permission to plow on ahead.

However, be careful not to hold a public performance review by chastising the offending party in front of his or her friends or coworkers. Simply don’t laugh—and then deftly change the subject. Next, during a private moment, point out at you don’t appreciate those kinds of jokes and would prefer that he or she not tell them to you. When describing the problem, don’t be self-righteous or attacking, simply explain that it makes you feel uncomfortable and leave it at that.

When it comes to the media, turn the channel. If you’re at a club, get up and leave if you can without creating a ruckus. Take time to talk with people afterward. I held a meeting at work the very next day and we talked as a group about the inappropriate nature of the material. I apologized for having exposed them to such tripe. I also spoke with and apologized to my son and the actors.

Finally, I e-mailed the club owner. I pointed out that I love good clean comedy and that for me that includes material which isn’t bigoted, sexist, or off-color. I explained that I wouldn’t return to his club until he changed his definition of “family friendly” to include sensitivity to not only blue material, but material that slurs any group of people or beliefs. That means when it comes to entertaining me, the comedians will have to work harder to find material that is unifying, not dividing. No longer can they count on the shock value of harsh, bigoted, and insulting words.

So there you have it. I learned a lot from that tension-filled show the other night. Despite years of tradition to the contrary, building a stage doesn’t give anyone permission to speak the unspeakable. Building a stage carries with it the responsibility of honoring the public trust. In a similar vein, calling a bad behavior something else in order to get away with it doesn’t improve the behavior in the slightest. At the end of every performance, people should walk away feeling better about the world, not feeling as if they need to take a shower.

18 thoughts on “Kerrying On: By Any Other Name”

  1. sunilraheja

    Thank you Kerry for making this stand and so clearly articulating the importance of decency and respect – even more so when we are given a public platform. We as a society have a lot to learn about the importance of this!

  2. Penny

    Thank you. I’ve learned everyone has a different definition of family-friendly. Under the circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have used a Bill Cosby example of humor. His treatment of women was abhorrent. Another celebrity that we thought exemplified family values, only to be disappointed.

    1. Chris

      An important lesson that many would deem naïve, but should be mainstream. Sorry that Kerry’s words were not heeded over the past 18 years, the world has become even more vulgar and divided with related behavior rationalized as “mainstream”. Media companies depend on this to make their money and drive traffic to their sites.

  3. Patty Kimber

    Yeah, I love Patterson, but using his 2005 story referencing Bill Cosby is a poor choice.

    1. TLG

      This article was first published in 2005 when the Bill Cosby reference was not an issue. Mr. Kerry passed away a few months back and this was shared from his archive. The fact that he found a comedian’s humor funny as a child is the point, it’s not important which comedian it was.

  4. Harley

    Great article, and good comment by Penny about Bill Cosby. However please note that this article was written in 2005. I am not sure of the timeline of when it all came out about Cosby’s treatment of women, but that may have been after this was written. Note also that I believe Crucial Learning announced some time ago that Kerry Patterson passed away not too long ago, and they are likely sharing these as a way of continuing his legacy of wisdom and impact. Crucial Conversations folks, it would probably be good to note that anytime you share his past articles. Thanks for continuing to share his wisdom with us.

  5. Sam Joseph

    I truly appreciate your candor in addressing this issue. In today’s culture it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking this kind of behavior is normal. I have been in situations similar to this, but sometimes lack the courage to speak up. I plan to share this with my leadership staff.


    Politically incorrect comedy is generally the best comedy, attempting to portray it through the lens of the nonsensical DEI lens is absurd and pretentious. Think Bill Maher.

    While I agree that if the club said the content would be family friendly it should be, think back to what even TV ratings considers PG. Ever watched the 80s movie, The Goonies? Wholesome family entertainment that has cusswords almost every 17 seconds. And that was in the 80s.

    With that in mind, now consider this paradigm through the mind’s eye of the modern day era and you realize that most anything is no longer taboo and that the patients are running the asylum. Comedy isn’t meant to be comfortable, but illicit a response in the listeners, many times playing on society’s quirks and stereotypes. If anyone cannot stomach that, I would suggest modern comedy isn’t your thing and to steer clear.

    1. Beth McNamara

      Thank you for this. I agree. In my opinion, comedy is not a place where you should be making this argument. Many comedians use comedy to get people out of their comfort zones and to think differently and to do that they make fun of people of all types. There are some comedians, as Kerry points out, that are just jerks and disguise it as comedy. This is wrong to do, but please do not say that no comedian should ever joke about a group of people or a religion (extremes of any type are dangerous) … it sets a treacherous line on free speech. Where do you stop? The people that use it strictly to air their misogyny or racism often show their true colors – don’t patronize them. Generally speaking though, if we can’t laugh at ourselves then we need to look internally.

  7. Jeff Urbanek

    In Kerry’s defense, this article first came out in 2005, before Cosby’s behavior became widely known (although there had been whispers for years). The first allegations first came to light that year and were dismissed by prosecution. It wasn’t until 2014 when the cases against Cosby really started to become front page news. It was tough explaining to my son why I was throwing out the Cosby albums that we had listened to for years. Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters are good examples though, as they were such keen observers of human behavior. Theirs was not a mocking, but I felt a joyous embrace of human eccentricities.

  8. Tina Beazer

    I do not attend comedy shows, so I am actually shocked that “comedians” behave that way. Thank you, Kerry, for taking a stand for decency and civility.

  9. Christa

    I’ve always called this your “consumer right”- If you don’t like a what a company does or stands for, you don’t have to buy their product. The same goes for anything else you find offensive, don’t buy, don’t watch, step away. When more of us have the courage to walk away, the company/product/ show gets hit in the pocketbook, that gets their attention and often leads to change. That being said, all comedians are not racists, bigots etc. and even those who are, have the right to free speech-you have the right to walk away.

  10. Sandra Shill

    I don’t think that “blue” humor should be lumped together with humor that denigrates people because of their gender, race, etc. While I think many comedians use blue humor as a lazy way of getting laughs, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, as long as it’s not being done in a venue that promises not to have it (as was the case in this story, so, in this instance it *was* wrong). But “punching down” at historically marginalized groups, like people of color, women, etc. can be hurtful and is not okay, even under the umbrella of comedy. Blue humor, on the other hand, while it may make some folks uncomfortable, is not hurtful to anyone.

  11. Robert VM

    re: Cosby reference. Maybe adding a brief intro with current editorial context that this was a piece written in 2005 and even though new history has come to light since then the ideas are still incredibly important to our current times. I will admit since this came to me via email as an update about newly posted CL material I thought it at first was a new piece.

    That said I disagree with the stance that the specific comedian is not important, by the mere fact people are keyed on that part of the writing versus the ideas and arguments demonstrates otherwise.

  12. Rebecca Arthen

    Great big huge Thank you for this empowerment! Well written well said.
    Amen to your decision to write this.

  13. Alagesan V

    Dear mr kerry….I agree with your views and stand whole heartedly with you as it hinges on my conscience for anyone whether intentionally or otherwise hurt anyone in any manner.
    However we ourselves cannot be erring when we are pointing out another.
    In your own words”perfuming the pig” seems you are also pondering such things. Also another issue is mr cosby….i loved himm all my life until i came to know all the degenerate things he did when he had the advantage over others… is the same issue as in all the bigotry etc….he is definitely not a good example. Its like saying we all should be as good as Hitler when we are a leader at any level….just thinking out loud n sharing….please…no offence meant.

  14. Kent Gale

    I agree completely. I have found that kindly stating how I feel about something inappropriate takes courage but is usually received with appreciation.

  15. Brad

    CL – Thank you! I’ve been a fan for many years when I first went through crucial confrontations. Influencer has helped me tremendously, and currently working through GTD with my 20 year old son. I truly appreciate the newsletters and answers to questions. I’ve read many of the articles that Kerry wrote, God rest his soul, and when I saw this I was excited. I appreciate CL maintaining and sharing his legacy.
    Regarding the example of Bill Cosby, he was a clean comedian for many years and it is terrible how he treated women. I disagree with some that we should get rid of all good things someone has done due to a character failing. We don’t have to look very far to see hypocrisy in many of our political, sport, and social heroes. Having said that I think it would be good for CL to have an intro clarifying that this is a reprinting and certain examples at the time may not be the best in the current environment.
    Regarding the comedic content. Generally, I agree that for family appropriate, and to a certain extent generally appropriate should not include racist, misogynistic, sexist, etc. should not be accepted. As consumers we have and should take the right to not support that. I would state the exception would be a comedian / speaker who uses such humor in a way to point out how inappropriate these things are. This would actually bring the audience together and not be divisive. Obviously, this takes skill and there is a line these jokes would not pass. – just my 10 cents.

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