Comedy is Not More Constrained Today

Boundaries shift, not tighten

February 7, 2020

The role of comedy in society has stayed almost exactly the same for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Comedians have always said what couldnít be said by others and transgressed boundaries no one else could. This is undoubtedly important: comedians play an integral role in speaking on issues that are too taboo for others to discuss.

Today, many lament the fact that political correctness has tightened the window of acceptable discourse for comedians. However, this is purely a mythñrather, the borders of said window have simply shifted.

In 1972, George Carlin released his comedy album ìClass Clown,î in which he gives his infamous monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Of course, Carlin mentions and explains each of these seven words, and when performing this, was arrested for ìdisturbing the peace. A few years later, a more developed version, called ìFilthy Words,î was broadcast on the radio uncensored. The corporation that owned the radio station that broadcast the monologue was subsequently sued by the FCC, a case that eventually went to the Supreme Court (FCC v Pacifica Foundation). In this time period, many other comedians, such as Lenny Bruce, were arrested for jokes deemed too offensive or outrageous.   

In 2019, when a comedian uses any of the seven words, and they are used quite frequently, nothing happens. The words, or at least some of them, are accepted as part of speech, and by extension comedy. Profanity is nowhere near as taboo as it used to be, and ìSeven Words You Can Never Say on Televisionî certainly had an impact on public perception.

To pretend that comedy has narrowed its boundaries on acceptable speech is historically ignorant. Transgressing boundaries has been a key component of comedy as long as comedy has existed, all that changes is the exact location of said boundaries.

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