Benjamin Schatz on The Best Joke You'll Never Hear
Ahead of Kinsey Sicks' Edinburgh Fringe run, Attorney turned drag queen Benjamin Schatz – AKA Rachel – pens our Comedians on Ethics column to discuss how morally responsible comedians are for what they say
Remind me not to tell you a hilarious joke I came up with. It involves an uproariously inexcusable parody of the song The Girl from Ipanema.
I write parodies for a living. And sing them (and original songs) with The Kinsey Sicks – America’s Favourite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet. But, as funny as the Ipanema parody is, we'll never sing it on stage. If we’re comics, and we come up with something sidesplittingly comical, don’t we have to present it to the world?
No, we don’t.
Because there are other values that matter besides making people laugh. And, comics don’t get a free pass from thinking about our ethics just because we do comedy. Wait, you say, comedy and ethics? Isn't that a contradiction in terms, like McDonalds and fine dining, sensuality and haemorrhoids or Donald Trump and empathy?
Nope. Comedians have to think hard, really hard, about what we say. And if what we say hurts people who don’t deserve to be hurt, what does that say about us?
My route to a comedy career was... unusual. In the 1980s, the most terrifying years of the AIDS crisis, I, a young gay man, became the first and only attorney in the USA working full-time nationally on AIDS discrimination cases. In the 1990s, in a minor twist, I became a full-time, foul-mouthed singing drag queen, and have been doing so since.
Dramatic career shift, right? Actually less than you’d think. In many ways, they're the same fucking thing. Except I won’t lose my current job for saying “fucking.”
Good comedy requires two key elements: truth and surprise. Effective social activism does as well. Both need you to snap your audience out of their normal haze and see things fresh. The question in both cases is: to what end?
There are a trillion hilarious jokes that have yet to be invented. Creative, intelligent people are always looking for original ways to capture something undiscovered and transform it into humour. If you're a comic, and you have to resort to the same old tired jokes denigrating women, or others who already receive more than their share of denigration, you’re not being courageously politically incorrect. You’re being unoriginal, and you’re being mean. Neither of which is funny. Even if people laugh.
Many comics defend themselves, when saying something truly hurtful or offensive, by saying “it’s just a joke.” As if a joke is some kind of Wonder Woman shield that magically excuses whatever crap comes out of your mouth.
But jokes are simply another form of communication. And, as with any other communication, you're morally responsible for what you say, and for how you say it. Making people laugh doesn’t get you off the hook. Smart comics think about what we say. If we want to offend people — and I offend people on an hourly basis — we owe it to ourselves and our audience to decide whom we want to offend and why.
The tagline for our Fringe show, Things You Shouldn’t Say, is 'If you love Donald Trump, you’ll hate our show!' We savage him. Repeatedly, deliciously, hilariously. If you love what he embraces, you will be offended. I promise.
But we’ve made a conscious comedic choice: to belittle the belittlers and not the belittled.
Being conscious of the consequences of our words doesn't mean we have to be dull or pedantic. It just means we have to be smart. So don’t whine, fellow comics; making people laugh for a living is the most joy-producing privilege I can imagine, unless there are jobs that would pay me to have sex with anyone I want, while eating chocolate. (If you know of any openings, so to speak, please let me know.)
People who see us sometimes describe us as 'equal opportunity offenders.' They’re wrong — we choose our targets carefully — but I take their description as a compliment. Because it means they experience us as daring, bold and surprising. We may have to work harder than some other comics because to us, funny isn’t enough. But if you’re a comic and you're not working as hard as you can, you probably shouldn’t be in comedy anyway.
And as for that Ipanema parody? What was so funny it still makes us laugh and so wrong that we won’t sing it? Come see our show and ask me afterwards!
I still won’t tell you.