Kill Comedy, Kill Truth

Written by:
10 May 2024
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In this article, Brianna McKee contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into the freedom of speech on Australian university campuses, conducted as part of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program.

The Foundations of Western Civilisation Program was established in 2011 to defend and extend Australians’ understanding of the influential, historical role of the West in establishing many of the liberties enjoyed by members of our society.

French playwright Moliere once said, ‘The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.’

As the share of television output devoted to comedy falls, it begs the question: has society become so afraid of correction that comedy is being thrown out too, and with it, free speech?

Renowned comedian Jerry Seinfeld thinks so. Recently, Seinfeld declared the ‘extreme left’ is destroying comedy. It comes after the BBC announced comedy was an ‘at risk’ genre. The amount of original comedy on the BBC has dropped by 40 per cent in the last decade according to UK television regulator Ofcom.

Seinfeld blames this trend on political correctness saying, ‘This is the result of the extreme left and PC crap and people worrying so much about offending other people.’ He said further, ‘When you write a script, and it goes into four or five different hands, committees, groups – “Here’s our thought about this joke… ” Well, that’s the end of your comedy.’

In contrast, he noted, stand-up comedians are ‘not policed by anyone’ in particular. ‘The audience polices us. We know when we’re off track. We know instantly and we adjust to it instantly.’

Seinfeld, aged 70, is in the middle of promoting his recently released Netflix film, Unfrosted, which is a comedy about the race between rival companies Kellogg’s and Post to create breakfast ‘Pop-Tarts’. However, he took time during the movie’s press tour to weigh in on the state of the film industry and comedy.

Speaking to New Yorker’s Radio Hour he noted that jokes made in his eponymous show Seinfeld could not be aired today. ‘We did an episode in the 90s where Kramer decides to start a business of having homeless people pull rickshaws because, as he says, ‘They’re outside anyway.’ He added, ‘Do you think I could get that episode on the air today? We would write a different joke with Kramer and the rickshaw today. We wouldn’t do that joke. We’d come up with another joke.’

From Roald Dahl to Enid Blyton, to even last year’s debate on the divisive Voice to Parliament, in the name of ‘safety’ and ‘harm prevention’, classic works of fiction and critical political debates face increasing censorship. There is an ever-growing appetite for revisionism and censorship in the publishing and film industries, as well as the media and political sphere.

In the case of Roald Dahl’s classics, words like ‘fat’ have been replaced by ‘enormous’, ‘small men’ have become ‘small people’, and words like ‘ugly’ have been deleted entirely. It seems the bar for causing offence cannot be set low enough.

The expansion of the definition of ‘harm’ is the key problem here. Today, ‘harm’ is often defined subjectively by the person who has been hurt or offended. This leaves authors and comedy writers alike with the impossible task of reading an entire audience’s mind before writing a script or making a joke.

The modern tendency to ignore the established definition of words, the facts of a given issue, or truth itself, in order to protect the ‘feelings’ of others, is problematic not just for comedy, but more importantly, for free speech.

As protests over the war in the Middle East have shown, yet again, a key battleground for free speech is university campuses. The Institute of Public Affairs’ latest Free Speech on Campus Audit found 38 of Australia’s 42 tertiary institutions were considered hostile to free speech in 2023, an increase from 33 in 2018 and 31 in 2017.

Our institutions of higher learning should be encouraging the contest of ideas. Yet, speech that may cause ‘humiliation’, or even something as little as ‘offence’, is often policed with an iron fist. Not surprisingly, both are terms that can be defined broadly and interpreted subjectively. They are therefore open to being used as cudgels to censor speech that university administrators do not like. On top of this, deplatforming, safe spaces and trigger warnings all pander to the view that students must be protected from content they might find offensive.

Just as the threat of punishment keeps students from speaking out, Seinfeld suggests it is the threat of being cancelled that keeps scriptwriters from producing comedy.

Comedy and offense often walk hand in hand. The line separating humour from hurt is often very thin, and comedians must be allowed to walk that line. While jokes can certainly be taken too far, mere ‘offense’ is too low a bar. And sometimes taking offence is more correctly a case of an outsized ego being bruised.

A world without humour would be a world without correction, or thought-provoking, comedic takes on the truth. What a tragedy that would be.

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