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A Person, Another Person and a Third Person Walk into a Bar

Political correctness has become part of everyone’s lives over the last couple of decades. Everyone now needs to be very careful not to offend anyone by anything they say or do, and this is becoming a real issue for people making a living in the very subjective comedy industry. Is everything fair game for a joke? Is it ever too soon to make light of a serious event? Is it therapeutic to laugh at the things that traumatise people the most?

The debate is fierce among comedians and reached fever pitch during the Edinburgh Comedy Festival which finished on 31 August. For example, one comedian received a scathing review for a show that the reviewer found to be offensive in just about every way. The comedian proudly shared the review on Facebook, having received exactly the reaction he wanted from the press. Immediately comedians from all over the world jumped in expressing very strong and very differing opinions. About half were in support of the comedian, agreeing that making a joke about something serious doesn’t trivialise or make fun of it, it doesn’t mean that comedian supports or condones it, it just means that the comedian has found something funny in something serious and can make people laugh with it. Some pointed to jokes about the Holocaust and 9/11 and said that they believe comedians can joke about these things without suggesting they were not serious or traumatic for the people who were affected by them. These are of course historical events and, as we all know, time is a great healer. I don’t think many people would object to a joke about the sinking of the Titanic, for example.

My good friend Jon Atherton, a fine Australian comedian who lives in Malaysia, hushed a crowd here in Jakarta just after 9/11 by saying with tears in his eyes, “I think it’s wrong to make jokes about what happened on 9/11. A lot of people died that day and I lost a good friend. I remember I called him the night before because I had an uneasy feeling. I said ‘Mohammed, don’t fly that plane.’”

But racism and sexism and other forms of prejudice and bigotry are not the same. Our differences will never fade into the past. Can we make jokes about racism and sexism without being prejudiced or bigoted? And are some forms of prejudice OK while others are not?

On Facebook, in the wake of the story about the dentist who shot the famous lion, someone did a spoof and posted a picture of a smiling hunter with a rifle sitting on the back of a ginger guy he had supposedly just shot and pulling his head up by the hair to show his face. The accompanying text said this “animal” had spent 10 dollars just to kill this innocent and endangered species. Very funny everyone agreed; but what would the reaction have been if the spoofers had used a gay guy or a black woman instead of a ginger guy? Was the joke an example of “gingerism”? Was it offensive or just funny? If it was funny, is that because most ginger people laugh along with everyone else?

If black people were to laugh at racist jokes, would it stop the jokes being racist? Are black people offended by racist jokes, or is it other people getting offended on their behalf? What about bald jokes and old people jokes? Are they OK because baldness and age are not races, religions, genders or sexual preferences? If gingerism, baldism and oldism are OK, why aren’t the other “isms”? I am very sure many ginger people, bald people and old people have been deeply upset for centuries by jokes at their expense, but nobody seems to care. The fact is most jokes are at someone’s expense. Comedians these days usually make them at their own expense or at the expense of some imaginary character.

Black English comedian Dane Baptiste said, “My skin is the biggest organ of my body, despite what stereotypes would lead you to believe.” If someone else told that joke about Dane, would it be racist?

And finally, if a ginger goes bald at age 70, is he still ginger and if yes, should we make fun of him for being ginger, bald or old?

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Eamonn has lived and worked in Indonesia for over 20 years but doesn’t understand the country at all and now realises that he never will. He is an entrepreneur, businessman and writer, lead singer with expat band Xhibit A and the owner and operator of The Jakarta Comedy Club and The Bali Comedy Club.