Zach Weiner, the cartoonist behind Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, recently received a call from his mom. She was offended by one of his cartoons. This gave an opportunity reflect on the value of comedy to a society and what social responsibilities fall upon a comedian. It's a fascinating essay. Here's a snippet:
And yes, to create that connection, the comedy had to be somewhat edgy. It had to be able to cross boundaries. Have you ever seen two strangers getting chummy over perfectly polite and socially acceptable humor? No. Quick bonds of friendship are more often created with dirty jokes or gallows humor. I suspect this is because these things reveal something more intimate, which implies a level of trust.In the past, I've censored myself many times and decided not to post things that I thought were funny, but might offend people that I know.
Now, you might argue that just because an artist can effect social good, it doesn't automatically make his art acceptable. Stalin probably built orphanages, but he was still a dick. That's fair. It is an issue which every comedian has to grapple with. Am I indirectly affecting society in a bad way in order to directly affect society in a good way? For example, I might make a mindless violence joke, and use the social cache from its being funny to help fund relief efforts in a 3rd world country. But, it's possible that the initial joke will inadvertently affect someone's ethics negatively.
It's hard to tell. I recall once doing a comic in which a doctor calls "dibs" on a baby. To me, this was a dumb joke about a doctor misusing the logic of "I saw it first!" Later, a reader emailed me, laughing about how funny it was that I did a joke about a doctor having sex with a baby. To be clear - I would never, ever do a joke of this type. Ever. But, by accident, at least one person thought that I did.
I agonized over whether this result was my fault. And, if it was my fault (however indirectly), was it my responsibility? My eventual resolution was that I should do my best to make my jokes and viewpoint clear without compromising comedy. That was almost ten years ago now (holy balls!), and I think I've improved quite a bit in this regard since.
In other words, as a comedian, you have to accept that some of what you do will influence people in an undesirable way, but you also have to accept the responsibility for trying to marginalize that effect, and for trying to promote the opposite.
But as Weiner says elsewhere in his essay, you'll have nothing to write about if you try to avoid every possible source of offense. The comedian has to take risks. And the audience must not personalize every joke.
These days I mostly keep this assumption: one day, my daughter will read everything that I write. Will it corrupt her? Will it cause her to think poorly of her father?
I don't care if I offend people, but I do try to avoid hurting them. I distinguish these terms because in my experience, there are people who want to be offended but aren't actually hurt. And there are those who are actually hurt by particular jokes. If there's something that I think will hurt a family member or a regular reader, or even a hypothetical reader, I won't post it.