If I rode the subway  and joked loudly about the appearance of the people around me, I would probably make my fellow commuters extremely uncomfortable and be berated for it. Yet, if I made the same jokes as a comedian does on stage in front of an audience, my position might protect me from reprimand.

The freedom enjoyed by comedians, however, may be changing. Social expectations are constantly in flux, and comedy is not immune to their ebb and flow. University and college campuses are one of the first frontiers on which comedians are battling the changing expectations of their work.

The problem comedy faces at universities, according to famous comedians including Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K., is the increasing political correctness of student crowds. Audiences becoming increasingly intolerant of jokes that target or offend marginalized populations. Diversity and cultural acceptance are at the heart of many student spaces. In response to this, some comedians may choose not to perform for audiences they expect will react negatively.

Celeste Yim is a student at the University of Toronto and a comedian who performs on campus and in comedy clubs around the city. She has felt the “sting of alienation” within comedy circles as a woman of colour that calls out comedians she considers to be offensive. “I don’t know how I could say that I’m offended by something … [and] somebody with a different experience… can refute that. That’s invalid.”

The line between a joke being funny and offensive is difficult to define, if it exists at all. Are jokes about gay people always homophobic? Are jokes about Chinese people always racist? These questions must be asked, especially as high profile comedians claim that the field is contingent upon jokes that deal with these topics.

Audiences provide de facto feedback on these issues through their reactions at shows. The presence or absence of laughs can tell comedians a lot about what their audiences are looking for and the changing attitudes that surround their craft.

“It just comes down to knowing your audience, knowing who you’re talking to, and who wants to hear what stuff,” says Jordan Foisy, a comic who performs in a weekly comedy show called Chuckle Co. at The Comedy Bar in Toronto.

“It just comes down to knowing your audience, knowing who you’re talking to, and who wants to hear what stuff.”

“People who are most upset about the new [politically correct] culture don’t even want to listen to why people are saying that something offends them. [They say] just don’t worry about it, instead of being, like, oh maybe I should take a second and be empathetic to another person that’s telling me what I’m saying is hurtful,” says Foisy.

Foisy advocates for comedians to engage in critical reflection: “If I want to go forward from that, maybe they didn’t get the joke. Maybe there’s a way I can reword it so that it’s better for everyone. Or maybe I really believe in what I’m saying and I think it’s worth the discomfort, okay go forward. But if you’re not even going to take into consideration why what your joke is saying is upsetting to people now, then I think you’re a fucking dinosaur basically.”

Adding more voices

Foisy describes his work as relatively inoffensive, but he is acutely aware of the ongoing conversation about political correctness within comedy.

“What’s happening in terms of marginalized communities finally having a voice to say that they’re offended by a joke — it’s not PC [political correctness] police — it’s the fact that people of colour and women have Twitter now, and that they can ruin somebody’s career if somebody is a fucking racist piece of shit… And this is the first time in the history of the world that the audience has as much voice as the people telling the jokes,” says Foisy.

Jess Beaulieu is a co-host of The Crimson Wave, a weekly feminist comedy show at The Comedy Bar, and agrees that conversing about comedy is an opportunity to educate.

“You’re educating people in the process, with art. You’re educating men, you’re educating straight people, you’re educating white people, [and] you’re educating people who body shame. You’re like, ‘Oh, this is what you’re doing wrong, this is my experienc[e],’” says Beaulieu. The show is feminist-friendly; it invites women, as well as queer people, people of colour, and people of all sizes.

Beaulieu explains,“There is a demand for this kind of comedy, because feminists [in] particular, and women, queer people, anyone really belonging to a marginalized group, [have] been out-casted from the comedy community as an audience member, or as a community for years. And they aren’t able to even watch a show without being triggered, without being angry, without being offended, without being personally attacked.”

Comedy is seeing an increase in participation by women and people of colour. Some of the most successful comedians in America right now are women, including Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, and Sarah Silverman. There is a growing number of comedy shows in Toronto that are run by women and that feature women, including The Crimson Wave, West End Girls, Open Gigi, White Girl Wasted, and Things Black Girls Say.

Beaulieu says this has caused a shift in dialogue. “I think that … women are in more leadership roles in comedy in this industry, in terms of hosting their own shows, producing their own shows, creating opportunities for themselves, and giving other women stage time, giving other women voices, giving other women platforms where they can share their comedy and their thoughts and opinions in a positive space that isn’t going to shit on them for saying that.”

Laura Wang/The Varsity

Laura Wang/The Varsity

As a young women and comedian, Yim is aware of the learning curve that comes with comedy performance.

“So many people who, in my mind, champion the best ideas of what comedy is supposed to be get it wrong. And they probably will get it wrong and will continue to get it wrong. Everybody makes mistakes and everybody is learning and changing, and especially with comedy, you know, some of the most famous comedians in the world, you watch their stand-up specials from two weeks ago and five years ago and their comedy is crazy different,” Yim says.

Navigating voices

Comedy as a genre is not homogenous; comedians tackle taboo topics and sensitive issues with various strategies.  The content of their performances is unlikely to be interpreted the same way by all audiences. Certain subjects will be considered taboo to some and acceptable to others. A comedian is an artist with a platform to address topics that make them tick — things that are important, powerful, or painful. Talking about these issues can challenge an audience and leave them uncomfortable. There is the hope that they learn something or feel a little less uncomfortable the next time the topic is broached. 

Beaulieu explains that some people are uncomfortable with what she covers in her feminist comedy shows. Regardless, her passion for sex education drives her to incorporate this topic into her work.

“What I’m doing is not controversial in the same sense as a white comedian going up on stage and using the N-word, or a man calling their girlfriend a bitch, or a whore, or whatever. That’s, to me, a very different kind of controversy,” says Beaulieu. I don’t even consider what I’m doing controversy, and the whole point of my comedy is to normalize this stuff, to take the controversy out of it, because periods should not be controversial, being bisexual should not be controversial, sex in general should not be controversial since most people in the world have it.”

Foisy agrees, “I love the idea of challenging the audience. I don’t want them to be comfortable the whole time, I want them to think about things, I want them to challenge their own preconception about themselves.”

Foisy thinks this requires knowing what your audience wants. “If you just think they’re idiots out of the gate, or vice-versa, you just think they’re uptight [political correctness] police out of the gate, then you’re not going to able to challenge them — they’re just going to tune you out,” he explains.

Satire is used by comedians to expose flaws or deficiencies in governments or people in power, sometimes with the goal of effecting change. But when misunderstood or used poorly, satire can just be harmful and offensive. Beaulieu does not encourage comedians to use satire as a way to broach sensitive topics, such as race or sexual identity.

“I don’t think a lot of audiences are smart enough to grasp satire… And there will also be people, even if they do understand it, they’ll laugh for the wrong reasons, and then we are still programming human beings to laugh at racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, body-shaming punch lines,” says Beaulieu.

American satirists are popular and sometimes use their popularity to make public statements aimed at inciting change. Stephen Colbert testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee in 2010 with a sarcastic speech about the living conditions and lack of rights for migrant farm workers in the United States. In his speech, Colbert used racial slurs and other provocative methods to point out the American government’s indecencies toward migrants.

At the same time, Colbert was interested in using his voice to amplify the issues of a marginalized group. “I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and this seemed like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result,” he said in Congress.

Comedic methods like these can be rewarding, but they are also risky; Colbert’s speech could have been interpreted as a privileged man propagating racist discourse.

Beaulieu’s rule of thumb is to punch up and never down, in relation to your privilege and that of the group that you are talking about. A white comedian discussing the wrongdoings of white people is punching up. A female comedian talking about misogynistic men is punching up. A straight comedian mocking queer people would be punching down.

When it comes to sensitive topics, Beaulieu believes, “If you’re going to be criticizing a group of people, or even a political issue, or a world issue in general — it should always be punching up depending on what your identity is… that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t talk about certain issues, but you have to be more careful with them if you are the oppressor in the subject that you’re tackling.”

Yim agrees, “I don’t think that there is anything we can’t touch, that comedy is excluded from. But I think it’s incredibl[y] important to be aware of your role in comedy, and to have a goal with that.”

“I don’t think that there is anything we can’t touch, that comedy is excluded from. But I think it’s incredibl[y] important to be aware of your role in comedy, and to have a goal with that.”

Yim will consider a few things when deciding whether a joke is worth the “currency” she has on stage. “Was that joke necessary, is it something we needed to draw attention to for this joke to work? Were people offended and did they express that? And was it funny? Remember why we’re here. Was that funny and was that worth it?”

Close to home

Local comedy shows are inexpensive spots for entertainment, often requesting as little as five dollars for a show featuring experienced comedians. Campus comedy troupes, such as the Trinity College Comedy Collective and the UC Follies Sketch Comedy Troupe, bring the art close to home.

The Trinity College Comedy Collective invites comedians from around the city to put on a show for students during exam season or other times of heightened stress.

Yim is the co-head writer for the UC Follies Sketch Troupe, a group of nine students who put on bi-monthly shows at local clubs in the city and smaller shows on campus.

Yim finds pleasure in working with diverse individuals in her comedy troupes, some with experience in comedy and some with no experience at all, who are just interested in laughing. “When you get a group of people telling these stories from different points of view, what could be more interesting than that? I just can’t think of anything else,” she says.

Like other student initiatives, student comedy can be defined by progressive attitudes. Young people may be the driving force behind a changing comedy scene that is becoming more diverse and accepting of marginalized populations and their involvement in the scene as performers and organizers of shows.

Both campus organizations represent an intersection of students and local comedy. This intersection of campus comedy with the Toronto comedy scene brings together different audiences and sparks ideas.

Yim says, “I would be more inclined to make a hesitantly less [politically correct] joke off-campus than I would on campus… For one, I would know the people I’m performing for, and I wouldn’t want to offend any of them… But more than that, the standards for progressiveness and liberalism and general decency are higher for me on campus, so I assume it would be for others on campus. There is a heightened sense of awareness when it comes to offending groups of people or certain people.”

Foisy believes that the difference in audiences between one place and the next, even within Toronto, keeps things exciting as comedy evolves in the city. “I would say when I started, it was like a lot of comedy scenes, where it didn’t really reflect the city it was in …. it was mostly white guys. And now it’s still mostly white guys, but I would say the proportion is less. I think there’s way more people and more of them are women and people of colour. And that’s rad too. It’s an exciting time to do comedy, it’s great, [and] people talk about it,” he says.

Check your coat, then check your privilege

Privilege and a sense of entitlement can give comedians the feeling that they can say whatever they want, wherever they want, because of the protection of freedom of speech.

Foisy feels, “Not enough comedians recognize that the world has changed underneath their feet … they’re just fucking like, ‘Oh, nobody likes my jokes anymore.’ And it’s like, ‘Well it’s not about your fucking jokes anymore, man, the world is changing.’”

He comments on how comedy as a vehicle for freedom of speech can become an excuse for saying offensive things: “Their jokes never back up how important they think what they’re saying is… it’s like, ‘OK, if that’s true, if what you’re saying is you need to be able to say all of this stuff that you want to say, then fucking how come I never hear you writing about free trade? Where is your joke about climate change or consumerism or systemic racism, or the influences of money on politics?’ All these big problems, and they don’t tell any jokes about that.”

Beaulieu recognizes that she has a responsibility to address societal problems in her comedy. “Everything I do has a political purpose behind it, that’s the kind of art that I create, so I do think that me talking about sexuality on stage, talking about menstruation, talking about women’s issues, writing about it, producing shows that are very inviting to women… [It] is a responsibility that I feel I do have, and I feel that every human being on this planet should also feel that same responsibility, to use their existence to better the world in some capacity, even if it’s on the more minor level,” she says.

Yim feels a sense of responsibility even for the minor effects comedy can have on individual lives. “In the grand scheme of things, even in the scheme of U of T, we’re not making huge ripples, but for every show we do, it’s that feeling that, ‘We did that, and that’s good that we did that.’ It always feels important. Even if somebody were to come watch one of our shows just once and laugh and continue on with their lives, what a special thing we got to do and share with them,” she explains.

Freedom of speech and empathy are not mutually exclusive. Empathy can help a comedian to check their privilege; free speech can help a comedian expose difficult truths. As some comedians are discovering, “punching up” punch lines that connect to the audience may be reinventing the nature of comedy.