Tastes change and the jokes that made comedians famous a decade or two ago would fall flat before contemporary audiences. That’s partly a result of our increased sensitivity to certain topics, i.e., political correctness, says Paul F. Tompkins. But rather than shame audiences for their supposed uptightness or failed sense of humor, Tompkins says comedy is an exchange between audience and comedian. And if the audience isn’t laughing, you’re not telling good jokes.
Paul F. Tompkins: I think you can make jokes about anything. But you have to accept that there will be people who don’t like it. And they are completely within their rights, just as you are completely within your rights to say whatever you want to say. They’re within their rights to react how they’re going to react. So you can’t be surprised or insulted if someone doesn’t like a thing you said that is a, you know, you’re making jokes on a controversial topic. I think there’s a lot of people who court that and they want that because it’s attention — it gets more eyeballs on them and what they’re doing. But there’s some people who do feign outrage at this or they’re genuinely feeling like how dare you tell me what I can and cannot joke about. But I would say in most cases, audiences are not telling them you can’t joke about this. What they’re saying is that wasn’t funny. And that’s a different thing. I think you can talk about any topic and I think you can make any topic funny. It depends on what your point is and where you’re coming from. Audiences always know. They always know. And if you have a sound point that you’re making and it’s well thought out and it’s well-crafted, you can make me laugh at a thing that I think is tragic. You can make me laugh at a thing that I think is horrific. You can make me laugh at a thing that affects me personally. But if you’ve done your homework and you’ve gone about it the right way, it will still be funny.
But it’s when people do, I think, a lazy job at something. They’re not trying as hard as they could. Or they really are just courting outrage. That’s when audiences say that wasn’t funny. But I think it’s so rare; it’s so rare that anyone says you’re not allowed to joke about that. Tastes change over the years and so topics that were routinely joked about years ago that might affect certain people — maybe it’s something that happened to someone and we throw a word around because it’s a shocking punchline and it’s good for a laugh. But is it worth it? And over time people who are tired of being ashamed because a thing happened to them, they vote with their silence or they say that’s not funny. And I think that comedians have to recognize that humor evolves and times change and you can’t stay stuck in the same place for too long because then you’re irrelevant. And so it’s very easy to say, "Oh people are too uptight now. They’re too uptight." But the fact of the matter is these people are the people of today and you might be a person of yesterday if you can’t adjust and you can’t be in tune with what people think is funny anymore. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything where an audience turned on me in that way. I’ve said things that, now, I wish I hadn’t said because times have changed and like the me of 15-20 years ago made a joke that I wouldn’t make today because I — just because I look at the world differently now, you know. And because the world is different now. And, you know, it’s all part of a maturation process, I think, for everybody. And I’m of the school that says adapt or die, you know. And so if this is not a thing that we joke about anymore, I’m going to find something else to joke about. Or I’m going to be better at handling these subjects so that people know what my intent is. My intent is not to mock the victim here. It’s not to mock the little person. I’m ridiculing something that is worthy of ridicule and that every word out of my mouth is worth the same. And just not to be cheap, I think, is a tiny thing, but it’s kind of important.