PENALIZED FOR CONTENT
(or, David Responds to His First "Angry" Email from an Audience Member)
Two posts in two weeks! What am I on speed?
My headline weekend at the Comedyworks went very well, leaving me feeling pretty warm about everything. It's a state of mind that leaves you a little unprepared for negative feedback, but I received a bit in the form of an email from a woman who "took issue" with a joke I did concerning the Death Penalty.
In fairness, it was not really an "angry" email, but actually quite gracious and even flattering in parts. But the heart of it was the suggestion that I should not make light of a topic like the death penalty given the tragic number of wrongful convictions that result in executing innocent people. She cited specific cases, clearly being very familiar and very passionate about the subject.
I'm copying the response I sent to her here, just for the benefit of anyone with an interest in the blurry lines between humour and offensiveness, and the question of what people should or should not say onstage. It's a long one, so for skimmers I'll mention that I think Paragraph Three kind of sums up my feelings on the subject. Just one humble comedian's perspective...
*(not her actual name)
Thank you for your message. Sorry for the delayed response, I've just been trying to focus on getting through my shows this weekend, and in the meantime slowly digesting what you had to say. It's rare to get this sort of feedback, particularly in such a sober, well-thought-out manner, and I thank you for that. It provides a fine excuse for me to take a bit of stock in what I do and why and how I do it.
It's the first objection I've had to the Death Penalty bit, so in a set filled with references to blind people, deaf children, Jesus' crucifixion, women's self-defense and blowing up dogs, the critique of that particular topic caught me a bit off guard. But clearly it is a topic you are passionate about, and I truly hope that that one joke (or sequence of jokes) didn't cast a shadow over your whole experience. I pretty well toss out a whole variety of subject matter in the hopes that if one idea doesn't connect, some of the others will.
In the past few years I've compiled a lot of "dark" jokes that I really enjoy doing, not because I'm trying to be shocking or edgy, I just find them funny, and enjoy exploring where the boundaries are to get the audience on board. I'm always mindful, and usually nervous, about alienating individuals in the crowd who have personal issues with the subject matter, but when a joke gets to the point where it is consistently connecting with audiences, I try to set those doubts aside and be assured that the consensus is that the joke is funny. At that point I consider it a shame to set aside good material that brings laughter to lots of people on the off-chance that individuals might get offended. I can't control what issues individuals are bringing into the room and I don't feel right inhibiting myself by trying to please everybody. We live in an age where offending people has become synonymous with some sort of verbal assault or infringement on human rights, and I just can't buy into that. What it boils down to is that someone didn't find the joke funny, and that's pretty much inevitable when you're addressing hundreds of people in a given week, whether you're discussing airline food, war crimes, or anything in between.
(I don't mean to suggest that you yourself are overreacting or accusing me of this sort of infringement, I'm just trying to explain my mindset when I'm deciding what to talk about onstage).
I don't have any strong position about the death penalty, although I'm in general very left-leaning on most issues and think it's probably not a good idea, both in sheer ethical terms but also because of the wrongful convictions that you address. But I do find it fascinating and amusing to look at the disconnect of using words like "penalty" to describe the act of execution, and of course taking that observation to an outrageous extreme. I certainly don't think people should be taking away the last meals of the condemned, but again, I think it's more than fair to look at the whole ritual that's been built up around a basically horrible act of putting people to death, and the strange ways we think we can lend "civility" to the procedure with hollow kindnesses like last meals or even last rites for that matter. Those thoughts manifested in the idea that, "if it's decided they deserve to die, why do they also deserve their favourite food?" and then that becomes a joke. I don't address the issue of wrongful conviction simply because I don't have anything funny to say about it.
The death penalty is a reality in our world and I reserve the right to comment on the stranger aspects of it and morph those into punchlines. It's not going to change the world, or probably even provoke much thought, but if it makes people laugh, that's pretty much the job description.
I will mention that it's happened many times that a joke I do for a while will wear out its welcome, either because the audience consensus seems to shift against it, or because it just doesn't feel right anymore. I actually stopped doing the death penalty joke for years because I had other stuff I wanted to talk about. I've revisited it recently for old time's sake but it's entirely possible it may not be around much longer anyway, if that brings any comfort.
I appreciate the time you took to let your feelings be known, and also want to thank you for the kind words you offered. To be honest, I think you kind of overestimate my influence on society. I don't want people to take what I say seriously, and in my experience the few people who actually do pretty much disagree with what they (usually wrongly) perceive to be my beliefs. So I don't see myself moving anyone to any particular point of view or action with the possible exception of a small few who've watched me then gone on to jump onstage and express themselves and have fun and try to bring a little laughter to folks.
Sorry for this long message, it's been cathartic and interesting and kind of fun trying to articulate this stuff.
I really do hope you enjoyed yourself on Thursday despite any misgivings with some of the material. I had a wonderful weekend and am very happy that there are people who seem to enjoy listening to my words, especially when those people turn out to be smart and clearly compassionate, decent folks like you.
All the very best,