Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
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.