Monday, July 30, 2012

Dane Cook, Offensive Comedy, and Hecklers

It's tough to get a laugh these days, but it's always been easy to piss off the more sensitive-minded, especially if you're a comedian. Any time I hear about a comedian going too far with his or her act, or receiving backlash from a showdown with a heckler, I almost always find myself supporting the comedian and wishing people would lighten up. The latest case of a comedian getting in trouble happened last Thursday, when Dane Cook took to the stage and made a lame and poorly-timed joke about the Dark Knight Rises shootings in Aurora, Colorado. His comments came 6 days after the event and brought on the expected backlash, bringing the once-funny comedian back into the spotlight, but not in a positive way.

Dane Cook made a name for himself as a shock-rock comedian, full of spunk and a special talent for comedic rhythm, impressions, and sound effects. In my late teen years, I was a huge fan of Dane's comedic stylings. He was brutally honest, creative, and most important, he made me laugh. As the years went by, I grew out of Dane's comedy and paid little attention as he slipped into obscurity, doing a number of lame comedies and a few serious roles. I'll always appreciate his older material, but as a comedian and an actor, I am not currently a fan of his, he seems to have lost his touch and is obviously trying a bit too hard these days to get attention. No better way to get people talking (and blogging) about you than to find a touchy subject and tastelessly include it in your stand-up act.

When it comes to humour, I don't find myself offended very often. Even when I don't laugh, even when I feel that a joke crosses the line, I have enough perspective about the role of The Comedian in our society that I can easily forgive and forget. And while I don't usually enjoy the more try-hard offensive comedians who make a living pissing people off, I definitely enjoy a comedian who isn't afraid to go into taboo territory, one that isn't afraid to hold back. It all comes down to one important factor: is this comedian making me laugh? Could be about sex, death, incest, racism, sexism, mostly anything, and if the delivery and tone are well-handled, I'll find it amusing. For the most part, we embrace comedians because they say what most people are afraid to, because they point out the absurdities of our culture, because they have fun with the more taboo subjects. In terms of censorship, I probably have enough to say about that for a whole other post, but to put it briefly: it's always way easier to change the channel or get up and leave than it is to silence a comedian. Even bad publicity is publicity and offensive commedians live and thrive from it.

As I said, whenever I hear about a comedian getting in trouble with the public and media, I usually sympathize, since I personally find that people take things much too seriously in our society. However, in the case of Dane Cook, I wasn't necessarily offended, just bothered that he would kid around about such a tragedy so soon after it happened. When it comes to topical comedy and world-wide tragedies, there may be an eventual 'safe zone' where comedians can use the story in their material and get away with it. But 6 days after the event, when people are still mourning, in hospitals, and all the funerals haven't even occured, it was too soon for Dane to go there. As an ex-fan of Dane's, and as someone who was quite bothered by James Holmes's actions, I feel like he was taking a cheap shot, and not even a very funny one. The question remains: Was this an intentional ploy on the Dane's part to get his name back in the headlines, or was it just a moment of poor judgement? For those wondering, the joke he made was that he heard The Dark Knight Rises was so bad that people would have been asking to be shot 25 minutes in anyways. That's as far as the joke went, it wasn't part of a larger set-up, he made no further commentary about the incident, and there was no pay-off in the end. Just a stupid thing to say.

I've heard the recording of Dane's terrible joke, and I actually found it quite interesting. First, Dane's tone seemed off. I only heard a minute-long clip of a much longer show, so I can't speak for the entire set, but something about Dane's voice during the joke made him sound tired, like he wasn't in his usual rhythm, just going through the motions. I also found it interesting that, while Dane was destroyed in the media after the fact, the joke actually earned some laughs and cheers from the crowd. There are a few audible groans, but for the most part, people laughed, which makes me wonder. Could it be that this whole thing was blown out of proportion? Or were people laughing as a defense mechanism, since the joke was so awkward and offensive that they didn't know what else to do? Or was the crowd just responding to the effect of the punchline, where they were groomed through-out the set to respond with laughter, that they laughed without fully realizing how lame Dane's joke was? I listened to this recording as a regular defender of offensive comedians, with an open mind, and I honestly just didn't find the joke funny. It's about more than shock value, it's about good writing and even better delivery, and the joke just fell flat for me.

Usually when a comedian makes the news, it isn't because of one bad joke, it's because of an interaction with a heckler. It seems that wherever there's a funny-man gracing a stage, there's a drunken jerk or group of people ready to shout something out. Some seek attention, some just want to be a part of the show, some are genuinely offended, and others are just bored. No matter the reason, hecklers are a part of the comedy lifestyle, and a comedian's reaction will often backfire and land him or her in trouble. My opinion is that if you're in the crowd at a comedy show, it is your responsibility to govern your own feelings and to leave if the comedian is boring, un-funny, or offensive. As soon as you break the barrier between performer and audience and try to become part of the show, you are an open target for whatever the comedian unleashes on you. The comedian is up there, trying to get laughs, trying to remember his jokes, trying to kind and keep his rhythm, and the last thing he needs is someone stepping on his funk with a lame joke or complaint. It's on the audience to be polite, not the comedian. Comedians usually don't attack people unless they are provoked, and if they do, it's usually more playful and I've seen some comedians use crowd interaction quite well. But when does defending yourself against a heckler go too far?

There have been a few famous cases over the past several years. The most recent case of comedian vs. heckler is Daniel Tosh, a comedian known for breaking social etiquette and purposely trying to get under people's skin. On one particular night, he was in the middle of his act, going on about how rape is always funny, when a girl in the crowd shouted to him that rape is never funny. In my mind, it would have been much easier for this girl to keep her mouth shut and to leave if she didn't approve of Tosh's comments. Obviously, to any rational mind, Daniel Tosh is not a rapist and doesn't condone the violent act. In his apology, he explained himself by saying that as a society, we need to be able to laugh about the horrible aspects in order to cope with them. However, his reply, which differs depending on the source, was something to the effect of: It'd be funny if the heckling girl was raped by 5 guys. That's her version of it at least, Tosh has said that his comment was more like she had already been raped 5 times, which is why she's so sensitive. Either way, it was probably a bad move for Tosh to go there, and he paid for it with some media heat and the always-important public apology.

Another incident occurred a couple of years ago, in Vancouver, BC, a city very close to my hometown of Maple Ridge. Guy Earle, a comedian from Toronto, was heckled by a pair of lesbians. To defend himself, Earle unleashed a torrent of insults, focussing on them being lesbians. Wrong move. Gay rights activists freaked out about this and it was pretty big news for a while. In the end, Earle had to pay $22,500 to the pair as a punishment for his actions. While I don't necessarily defend Earle for his homophobic comments, that verdict is completely ridiculous. Just about anybody can walk into a comedy nightclub and walk out much richer, all they have to do is provoke a comedian to make offensive comments about their race, sexual preference, or religion. Just any topic that has support groups to back it.

Speaking of race, there's also the case of Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld). Back in 2006, Richards made news for a racial attack on a group of black dudes who wouldn't shut up during his act. While they likely deserved some sort of punishment, Richards took it much too far, making comments about lynching and using the always-dangerous 'N Word'. I don't think Richards ever quite recovered from this incident, in the public eye at least. Dealing with hecklers is easily one of the toughest aspects of being a professional comedian, especially when the reply to the heckler can cost you money and fame. There's a fine art to silencing a heckler and winning back the crowd, but when the subject is rape, sexuality, or race, it might just be better to let the heckler have his moment and move on.

As long as we have tragedies, controversies, and differences between us, we'll have a comedian who gets on stage and tries to make a joke about it. While some comedians have made a successful career out of family-friendly material, adult comedy goes hand in hand with taboo subjects, swearing, and making light of tragedies. All I ask from my comedians is that they try to be intelligent about it. The joke shouldn't be hollow and forced, it should be phrased and delivered in a way that not only receives a genuine laugh (rather than an awkward chuckle or pity giggle), but also makes us think about the subject in a different way. When it comes to events like the shooting in Colorado, there is rarely anything funny about people being attacked without mercy, and most everyone agrees that this is a terrible event, so there's not a lot we can learn or discuss.

 The trouble with topical comedy is that by the time it's safe to joke about, nobody laughs because it's old news. I sure don't envy the role of The Comedian, but I do sympathize with them, because sometimes the very thing we pay them to do is exactly what gets us all upset. That being said, I hope Dane goes back to acting in lame movies, where I don't have to see him, and leaves topical and offensive comedy to the masters, the ones who know timing and delivery. It's up to the comedians to make us laugh, the audience to understand the nature of stand-up comedy, and the heckler to accept the consequences for interupting a live performance.

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