hear the one about...? No? Here's why
have to navigate a minefield of political correctness these days.
So which jokes
will they no longer tell?
LEATRICE SPEVACK presents a guide to the funnies you
won't hear at the comedy club
to The Globe and Mail Saturday, January 5, 2002 (Placed
here because it will disappear shortly from the
The truth hurts. Even, sometimes, when it's delivered through the
medium of comedy.
Take a society already rife with racial and religious stereotyping,
mix it with a hefty measure of political correctness, throw in a little
post-Sept. 11 nervousness, and what you get is the potential stifling of
Stand-up comics like to push the envelope, but there are lines beyond
which even they won't go. And ethnic humour -- and how far to take it --
remains their biggest dilemma.
It's a question that has been under the microsope for some time.
Irish-American comic George Carlin talks about black consciousness on
his live 1973 recording Occupation: Fool,where he says: "I
think about black consciousness, then I think of Irish consciousness --
I think when they're conscious, they're great." After the audience
laughs, he adds, "That's my gang. It's okay to hit your own
But is it okay to hit somebody else's gang?
According to Chris Rock, who wrote this in his book Rock This!:
"You probably think I shouldn't use the n-word, but that rule is
just for white folks. Any black person can say nigger and get away with
it. . . . It's like calling your kid an idiot. Only you can call your
kid that. Someone else calls your kid an idiot, there's a fight."
Talking about one's own ethnicity or religion even to crowds who
share that background no longer guarantees guffaws. As audiences become
increasingly jittery for laughing at the most trivial of transgressions,
many comedians are fighting to find what ethnic jokes remain ethical.
Others choose to raise the bar.
"We don't back off on anything,"
Tommy Chong insists in an
interview from his home in California. "Jokes are cash -- you just
gotta spend 'em."
But try telling an off-colour joke around the water cooler at work
and you'll be slapped with a harassment complaint. The rule du jour is:
Don't offend. However, that doesn't leave much room to move for a person
who, by profession, is an envelope-pusher.
Although comedy clubs are not strangled by corporate strictures, many
comedians still fear becoming the target of wrath from a vocal minority.
Truth and risk are being sacrificed in the name of squishy feel-good
sensibilities, as language and comedy routines sink into the mediocrity
of sexless unicolour homogeny, leaving us with more yawns than yuks.
Ripping through the social fabric may be a comic's task, but it has
increasingly become a thankless one.
Vitriolic Toronto comic Ron Vaudry believes there is no such thing as
a victimless joke. And standup Kip Addotta notes: "In this
politically correct world, people are afraid to react to anything that
might be an honest but critical observation."
As a barometer of our cultural climate, a few funny folk offer
samples of what material they now consider over the top, and why.
Who: Charlie Cho, associate producer for CBC Radio in Vancouver,
a former editor of Vancouver's RicePaper magazine.
Joke: An Asian guy walks into a New York currency exchange with
¥2,000 and walks out with $72. Next week, he walks in with ¥2,000 and
gets $66. He asks the lady why he gets less money this week than last
week. She says, "Fluctuations." The Asian guy storms out and,
just before slamming the door, turns around and says, "Fluc you
Why: I have a weakness for surprising language jokes. Although
the Asian guy is the butt of the joke, who hasn't wanted to say, "Fluc
you!" in response to perceived racism? I wouldn't tell this joke to
just any audience because the stereotype of Asians replacing r's with
l's is still too prevalent for comfort.
Who: Rabbi Bob Alper, full-time standup comic and practising
rabbi from Vermont who performs High Holiday services only in
Joke: It's about a man in Northern Ireland when the Troubles were
really intense. He had to run an errand late at night and he knew it was
dangerous, but he had no choice. As he walked through a dark alley, he
felt a gun in his ribs and a voice behind said, "What are you --
Protestant or Catholic?"
He thought for a minute, "My God, if I say I'm Protestant and
he's the IRA, I've had it, but if I say I'm Catholic and he's the Ulster
Defence League, I'm dead." So he thought for another minute and he
said, "I'm Jewish." And from behind him, he heard the man say,
"Well, faith and begorra, if I'm not the luckiest Arab in all
Why: I've dropped this joke from my act temporarily because the
whole thing in Afghanistan, Arabs, the intense fighting in Israel, just
evoking any kind of conflict with Arabs is a little too close to the
surface right now and I want people to be able to laugh and enjoy
themselves and relax and use humour as part of their defence against the
tension we feel.
Who: Lou Eisen, Yuk Yuk's headliner, creator of Yids in the
Hall (all-Jewish comedy).
Joke: One of the biggest victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy is
freedom of speech, especially in the media. The media is afraid to call
Osama bin Laden's followers Muslim terrorists, which is what they are.
Did you see their names in the paper?
Mohammed Atta and Abdullah Ali Abdullah -- let me tell you something --
them sons of bitches ain't Swedish.
Why: This joke is hard to tell because most comedy audiences
these days are young and moronic and aren't interested in world events.
Also, most people hear only buzzwords, and once you say
"terrorist" or "Osama bin Laden," they turn off and
don't listen to the rest of the jokes. Anyone over 40 digs it. Anyone
under 40 thinks Osama bin Laden is a rap star.
Who: Don Kelly, Ojibwa standup comic who has performed on The
Mike Bullard Show,CBC Radio's Madly Off in All Directions and
CBC TV's Comics.
Joke: I hate the term "Indian giver." Hey -- we were
the ones who got all the promises: "Share the land and we'll give
you this and that, sign this treaty and we'll give you this and
that" . . . and they never delivered! And yet, somehow, we get
tagged with the term "Indian giver." The irony's a little
thick! That's like saying to your black boss, "What are ya? Some
kind of slave driver?"
Why: Okay, first I liked the joke and thought it made a valid
point, but it did not work consistently. I think people heard a few
loaded words -- including "black" and "slave" in the
same sentence -- and got so uncomfortable that they missed the point I
was trying to make (not that it was deep or anything). Not sure it was
really a native thing. I always wanted to talk about the "first
nations' experience" in my act but did not want to rely on cheap
jokes that reinforce stereotypes for an easy laugh. My approach has
always been to play with stereotypes (as opposed to playing off
stereotypes) for humour, and also explore real issues with humour.
Who: Mista (Morgan Smith) Mo from The Comedy Network's The
Joke (that doesn't work in a black audience): They say you
truly love someone if you would take a bullet for that person. That's
why, when I'm with my girlfriend, I WALK BEHIND HER AT ALL TIMES! Every
time I go to Jane and Finch, I don't leave home without her! "Hey
honey, I'm gonna go buy some hash. . . . You wanna come?"
Why: When I do jokes, I do want the crowd to like me, but only on
my terms, and I can't do the typical relationship joke, so when I tell
that bit and the women don't laugh, the guys won't laugh. I believe they
think it's a cruel thing to say and a real man would take the bullet.
Maybe that's true, but when I became a man, it wasn't in my contract! I
don't think they want to accept the fact that we say things because it's
the right thing to say, even though it might not be the truth. I hope we
never get shot at, but I really don't know what I would do!
Who: Thomas Gregory, U.S. standup comic who has appeared at
the Calgary and New Orleans comedy festivals.
Joke: I am interviewing former Ku Klux Klan
leader-turned-Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke about his
support for Martin Luther King's birthday as a state holiday. I mean,
how could a former KKK member support the holiday? Duke said,
"Support, hell, yes! In fact, if we kill four more, we'll have the
entire week off to go fishing!"
Why: The reaction was either horror (with politically correct
audiences) or cheering (with redneck audiences) -- neither of which was
the intended outcome.
Who: Kate Rigg, character comedian from Toronto who lives in
New York City, creator/performer of the stage show Chink-O-Rama,
headliner at Caroline's Comedy Club in New York, the Just for Laughs
Festival, Toronto's March of Dames Festival and CTV's Comedy Now.
Joke: I am talking about white people and albinos in my act, and
I'll be ranting about how the 50 Most Beautiful People lists are always
filled with all these skinny, vapid, white girls: "So when I look
at these 50 Most Beautiful People lists with their anorexic
get-married-to-a-gay-guy-for-fun-and-profit asses . . .I gotta stop. I'm
sorry. I don't mean to hate the 50 most beautiful people, but sometimes,
you know, when I look at them staring up at me in their beautiful,
mainstream, ubermarketable beauty, it makes me feel like some kind of
slanty-eyed nigger!" Then I scream, "Oh, my God! That chink
just said nigger! Oh, my God, that chink just said chink! What the hell
is going on?!!! It's a race riot! It's a rice riot!"
Why: This is one I have told a couple of times and love it when I
do tell it, but often I feel I can't because it will be misunderstood.
People's fear of words clouds their cognitive reasoning, and the irony
is lost if I don't deliver it perfectly, so often I don't, but it is one
of my best jokes. But it is deep, right in the issue of whether we
explode or perpetuate racism by sending up racist terms. I don't tell it
'cause I don't want people to feel hurt or judged or disenfranchised by
my use of this language. But at the same time, the terror they feel when
I say it is precisely why I would love to always tell that joke.
Who: Ian Ferguson, bestselling co-author of How to Be a
Canadian (even if you already are one),artistic director of
Toronto's Poor Alex Theatre, creator of "Improvised Soap
Operas" Die-Nasty in Edmonton and Sin City in Toronto and a former
Joke: What's the most confusing day on a reserve? Father's Day.
And the punchline is: "Hey, your kid and my kid are beating up our
Why: The reason to not tell this joke is that a) anyone
unfamiliar with the reserve lifestyle will be offended on behalf of all
native North American indigenous first nations peoples or that b) even
worse, they just won't get it.
Who: Tom Chin, high-school French teacher working with the
Vancouver Asian-Canadian Theatre, host of Seattle's Chinatown
International Business District Summer Festival and Asian Heritage
Month's Asian Comedy; appeared at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.
Joke: "Is there anything Asians don't eat? I mean, what
other culture walks around the world saying, 'I wonder what that tastes
like?' What other culture looks at a tiger and says, 'Tiger very strong.
For me to be like tiger, I must drink tea made from its testicles.'
"Don't laugh so loud, Mr. White Man! 'Cause what does the white
guy say looking at the tiger? 'Gee, I wonder what that would look like
on my TV set? Gee, I wonder what that would look like on my dashboard?
Gee, I wonder what that would look like cut into a small loincloth and
worn by a man named Tarzan?' "
Why: Humour about Chinese culture: Among comics, there is an
unspoken rule that one does not do humour pertaining to other ethnic
groups, as they once did. But, on the other hand, it's still "open
season" on making jokes about the "white man," probably
because he's had "his way" for so long. I think that this is a
logical development, as to do so would actually ring insincere, as one
would obviously be unable to truthfully express the other culture (at
least without sounding woefully ignorant). On the other hand, for a
comic to not do humour about his/her own ethnic group would also ring
false, for he/she would just be aping the mainstream "white"
comics we have all grown up watching. Interesting, no?
Who: Shazia Mirza, 26, Europe's
female-devout-Muslim-standup-comic, British-born daughter of Pakistani
immigrants, won The London Comedy Festival, was voted the Best New Act
in London at The Hackney Empire in 2001 and has a radio show, Shazia's
The Joke: The joke is true, as is all my material is based on the
truth. I say: I went to Mecca, to repent my sins. I had to walk around
the black stone. All the women were dressed in black so you could only
see their eyes. I felt a hand touch my bottom -- I ignored it, I
thought, 'I'm in Mecca, it must be the hand of God.' But then it
happened again. I did not complain. Clearly my prayers had been
Why: I have to be sooo careful where I tell it, because
some Muslims are so offended when I tell it, even though I am Muslim
myself! I would like to tell this joke everywhere and anywhere but
Muslims are offended. They say, "How can you make jokes about
Mecca?" But this is the truth -- that's why I would like to say it.
The thing with Muslims is that some of them don't want to acknowledge
the hypocrisy in their own religion -- as there is with all religions.
Who: Vancouver actress and comic
Laura Sandiford, of Just For
Laughs' Homegrown Comedy Festival, Vancouver International Comedy
Festival and Elvira Kurt's Adventures in Comedy.
Joke: I love rants, and I got to thinking about abortion and I
realized exactly why the right-wing Christians are so against them.
Because if people keep having abortions, the anti-Christ can't be born,
and if the anti-Christ can't be born, that whole shot at redemption and
revelations won't come true, and if redemption won't come true, that
whole shot at redemption has got shot to hell. And do you suppose if an
anti-abortionist got pregnant and in the ultrasound they saw little
horns, cloven feet and a little pointy tail, do you think they'd have
that child because it had a right to live?
Why: I was raised Anglican -- Catholic lite. I just know that
there would be people that would be offended -- I know for a fact. I've
told parts of it and people just go, "Eeeew." I think they're
so concerned as to what people think about them, they're not willing to
laugh at it. You can't laugh at a joke about an anti-abortionist having
Who: Ahmed Ahmed, a Cairo-born comic living in L.A., subject
of a recent front-page story in The Wall Street Journal about the Arabian
Nights shows at Comedy Store.
Joke: I have a lot of Jewish friends. I was raised Muslim and I
have a lot of Muslim friends.
All my non-Jewish, non-Muslim friends ask: "How do you have all
these Jewish friends with all the fighting and the war and the
hate?" I always respond with: Jews and Muslims have more in common
than any other religion ever, if you think about it. Both Jews and
Muslims don't eat pork, we don't celebrate Christmas, we both use "ccchhhh"
in our pronunciation. The only difference is that Jews don't like to
spend any money and Muslims don't have any money to spend.
Why: I don't do it that much any more. I'm just trying to stay
off the political stuff -- it's just such a delicate time. A part of me
wants to stay cutting edge and a part of me doesn't want to rock the
boat. Comedy is an easy way to get your point of view across but if it's
not done in a funny way it can offend people. I always try to stay light
with my humour. Even if the topic isn't light I'll deliver it in a very