Will Smith Has Proven That Comedy is Dead. Or, Did He Just Prove the Opposite?
An opinion piece by WIBX morning show host, Bill Keeler
I don't want to get into the argument over whether or not Will Smith crossed the line when he walked up and slapped Chris Rock in the face over a monologue joke. Anyone who knows me would not at all be surprised when I say, "it was a joke" and Smith absolutely crossed the line.
I want to address the general thought that comedy, also known as free speech, is being cancelled in America.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I talk for a living on the radio, I've been fired for content, and during my career, I've owned a handful of comedy clubs. With that out of the way, here's why I don't believe comedy and free speech in this country are in jeopardy of extinction.
I think it's important to look at how far we've come as a society because our past is so easily forgotten. We are a nation in which most of us consider freer than all others yet at one point, women couldn't vote, African Americans couldn't drink from a white drinking fountain, Asian Americans were locked up in camps during WWII, suspected Communists (remember we're a free people able to belong to any political party) were stripped of their jobs and prosperity, and as late as the 1960s, being openly gay in parts of America could result in your arrest for indecency.
In the 1960s, comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested several times for performing "lewd material" in New York City Clubs. In 1973, George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" aired on a New York City radio station prompting obscenity rules on radio and television. In 1987, Hustler's Larry Flynt, after being shot and rendered paralyzed, won a landmark case at the Supreme Court which ruled the pornographer's "obscene" satire is indeed covered under Free Speech in America.
Still, the pendulum will continue to swing in the USA as books are being banned by school districts, indecency rules by the FCC remain in effect on radio and television, in 2004, a law was proposed to ban books that promoted homosexuality in Alabama, and this year it became illegal for teachers to discuss "alternate lifestyles" as part of curriculum in schools before the fourth grade in Florida, even though gay marriage is legal in all 50 states.
Overall, however, we are a much freer society when it comes to content and speech, even in the age of cancel culture and political correctness. Most prohibition is aimed at exploitation of children and child pornography in America where the general consensus is a zero tolerance for pedophilia.
The marketplace is more relied upon than ever before when it comes to what is and isn't appropriate. Some comedians say they've stopped performing on college campuses because students in their teens and twenties find much of today's humor crossing the line of acceptability. However, comedy clubs are still filled with raw and distasteful humor, possibly more vulgar than ever before and the obvious difference is that the police aren't raiding the club because the talent on stage is breaking indecency laws.
In 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union was established to protect rights under the U.S. Constitution, including free speech and freedom of the press. Since then, there have been plenty of situations where by today's standards, a person's 1st amendment rights were violated, even as the ACLU was there argue for freedom. The key phrase here is "by today's standards" which means as society changes, so does its tolerance and definition of the word indecency.
It's really all about what the audience will accept and over the years comics have learned to customize their act depending on the crowd. Recently before a performance, a comic asked me what my rules are when it comes to "curse words." My answer to him was, "I'll leave it to you to read the crowd, but this audience seems a bit older." He read the crowd and performed with very few obscenities. During the late show, the crowd was younger and his act was a bit more risqué.
There are topics and words that are off limits today, that were used freely back in the 70s, for instance. Obviously gay curse words, Jewish slurs, the "C" word and "N" word come to mind as content that can cross the acceptability line for the public. So, maybe comedy will change in the years to come, but I don't believe we will tolerate "prohibition" that is mandated by the government. I do think that self imposed limits by society and the country as we evolve will continue to be established as times change.
A perfect example would be some of the name calling Archie Bunker used on the tv series All in the Family back in the 70s. The words were often times used to expose bigotry and stereotypes, but by today's standards, they tend not to be uttered. That's not to say that you won't hear them used in an effort to prove a point from time to time...or depending on the crowd, at a comedy club.