Last week, Pete Davidson performed at Binghamton University. Davidson, who is known for his dark sense of humor, made a few comments during his set that stood out from the rest. At one point in the show, he said something along the lines of, “It’s just a joke, you guys can laugh. You don’t have to look around and make sure it’s okay to laugh.”
Sometimes, it does feel like you have to glance over your shoulder and make sure it’s appropriate to laugh at a joke. He also mentioned how difficult it is to be a comedian in this day and age because of how sensitive some audiences are — especially college students. As a result, Davidson will no longer be performing at colleges.
Many people want comedians to censor themselves, and stop joking about topics that are deemed offensive or distasteful. After the show, I saw a fellow BU student had tweeted that they thought a girl was cute until she said she thought Pete Davidson was funny when he joked around about suicide. Davidson has been very open about his struggles with mental health and thoughts of suicide in the past, just as he was at this show. Many college students struggle with anxiety and depression, and may be able to relate to some of the jokes Davidson makes about it. What is wrong with laughing about your pain and your struggles? While it may offend some to hear Davidson joke about the tragic issue of suicide, it may help others to know they are not alone. Davidson is essentially publicizing the topic of suicide and letting audiences know that it is okay to struggle with your mental health and speak out about it. By censoring Davidson on the topic of suicide, and judging others for relating or thinking there can be humor in dark things, you stigmatize the subject and silence those who use comedy as a means to talk about it.
Another issue comedians face is not necessarily their subject matter, but the language they use when discussing the subjects. For example, journalist Jon Ronson told the BBC that audiences no longer pick up on the nuances of jokes, saying that “Nobody seems to be able to tell the difference between a racist joke and a liberal joke that comments on racism.” People are so often on the lookout for statements that are politically incorrect that they overlook the context and are offended regardless.
Additionally, comedians making jokes that are deemed offensive does not actually mean that these comedians hold offensive beliefs. Comedy is a form of art and entertainment, and the people making these jokes aren’t necessarily people with bad beliefs. We should draw our attention to stopping those people who confuse comedy with an opportunity to say hurtful things — ‘canceling’ these racist, sexist and homophobic people instead. On the other hand, I should note that when it comes to comedy, I do not believe that all bets are off. Simply standing on stage with a microphone does not give you the right to be problematic. For example, new Saturday Night Live hire and costar to Davidson, Shane Gillis, is currently under fire for using racial slurs. While I do think there is a place in comedy to push boundaries and shock audiences, Gillis and his racial slurs are not funny and push no boundaries. It is one thing to joke about yourself or call out the privileged in society, but blatant racism cannot be excused. There is a clear difference between using comedy to make social commentary and being offensive for the sake of being offensive.
Lastly, if you don’t want to be offended, avoid watching notoriously offensive comedians. I agree with Davidson’s decision to stop performing at colleges because there is no point in performing to an audience that finds the material problematic rather than funny. There are obviously people out there who find Davidson funny and it is better that he perform for them rather than defend himself against college students. Comedian Lisa Lampanelli summed it up well by saying, “If you like safe, generic comedy, that’s fine. Go on a cruise ship and crack up listening to the comedian point out the hilarious differences between loafers and shoes with laces. But don’t go to one of my shows and be outraged by what you hear. Going to my show and expecting me not to cross the line of good taste and social propriety is like going to a Rolling Stones concert and expecting not to hear ‘Satisfaction.’”
We need to work to understand the differences between being funny and being offensive. That line isn’t the same for everybody, and it may never be, but discussing where that line lies can help determine what humor is really acceptable. With that in mind, not everything that seems problematic on the surface always is, but we should continue fighting against things that are genuinely hateful and hurtful.
Sophie Miller is a junior majoring in English.