We all have our sensitive spots that we don’t think are funny, and almost 100% of the time the people making the joke have no idea of our background or life story, so they don’t know they’ve struck a nerve. As comics, we have thicker skin (we’re supposed to at least), so we don’t take a specific type of material personally. For example, at open mic, we make plenty of racial cracks at our black peers because we know they understand the context (and we’re jerks). We wouldn’t dare make these jokes to a non-comic.
Audience members don’t always understand this when they’re at the comedy club. I heard that once someone in the crowd tried to go after Heywood Banks (one of the more innocent headliners of all time), because he did a joke about a train hitting someone. The enraged audience member had lost someone in a train accident and snapped. When I was a doorman, we had to calm an ex-Marine down (he actually left the showroom in tears) because he associated a joke about the Persian Gulf with his buddy who died over there. Sometimes a comic will make a wheelchair joke with someone in a wheelchair at the show. These are tough to pull off. Mark Lundholm does and actually explains this phenomenon about over-sensitivity in his act. He talks about a hypothetical situation of someone getting upset about a joke involving a bag of Cheetos because they had a traumatic experience due to Cheetos. He said we all have our own “bag of Cheetos.” Audience members do, comics need to outgrow them and pretty much never be offended by anything in the context of our art form.
It takes maturity. (Downer time, sorry!) I lost my mother in ’93, but do you think I’ve heard “Your Mom” jokes aimed at me? Of course. Sure, it’s easy to shut that person up, tell them she passed away when I was 15 and make them feel “this big” (and don’t think I haven’t), but now that I’ve outgrown stage three anger, I don’t even bother explaining. (It also helps to be 35 and not hang out in a peer group who resorts to mom jokes, but you get the point).
So here’s this week’s ladvice: 1. If you’re a comic, you don’t get to be offended by material anymore. Most of what’s “offensive” is becoming hacky anyway (We get it, Catholic priests molested children).
2. Before you do a one-nighter, it’s a good idea to feel out anything that might be taboo ahead of time. If the bar owner is gay, adjust accordingly. If it’s a benefit show, BE SURE you don’t do anything remotely near the cause of the need for the benefit. If it’s a fund raiser for someone with cancer, you don’t get to do an AIDS joke because those are two different things (let’s just blanket this and say you should drop all of your terminal illness material). I recently did a show that was a fund-raiser for a burn victim. I did a quick mental audit of my setlist to make sure I didn’t have even a pun that could be misinterpreted. It’s also important to find the racial makeup of a crowd. In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I explain how crowds react to jokes involving race depending on how many black people are in the crowd from all-white crowds to all-black crowds and everything in between.
Notice I said one-nighters for this rule. The reason being, in these smaller towns, everyone knows everyone and they often think alike and sympathize with each other. In a comedy club you have a bunch of strangers with different beliefs and backgournds so if you offend a few, all is not lost. In my book I also mention the time Harland Williams did a 9/11 joke a month after it happened and somehow survived.
Sometimes a brief chat with the guy in charge at the gig and a visual scan of the audience can open your eyes so you can make the proper adjustments to your setlist.
One last disclaimer: This week’s advice is for the guys who haven’t been doing this for decades. I know pros can sometimes perform without censoring themselves but most of us can’t. If you get a chance, ask them about a time they said the wrong thing at the wrong time. A lot of us have at least one story where this advice would’ve helped.