Q: What’s so special about kids with cancer? Why are they off limits? We thought everyone was fair game in comedy, but apparently no, there are sacred cows. Should performers pull their heads in, in anticipation of an angry reaction, or is that what we should be trying to provoke? Of course our work can be offensive at times. That’s the point! We only wanted to be edgy, and we thought our audience wanted that too. Now we feel hurt and betrayed. What’s a way out of this? — Chas, Ultimo, Sydney.
A: I’m not sure what you’re wanting out of here Chas, the feelings of hurt and betrayal, or the frustration of working in an industry where the main sacred cow is entertainment. As you are trying to find a way out, you may want to consider how important it is for you to be in. Like the jesters of old, it appears that you are being asked to be funny or we’ll chop off your head. And yet pulling your head in may result in compromises that you are unable to bear.
You took on a difficult task when you tried to work with kids suffering cancer. You spoke on behalf of others, and so they appeared even more voiceless, arousing poignancy rather than humour, and you risked looking callous. You would know better than I that humour functions by uncovering the unspeakable and the deliberately concealed. Part of the danger here, is that in our culture, death has quite a lot of unspeakable territory, so it tends to block out the funny of lesser unspeakables.
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Growing up in my house Chas, you could say anything at all, as long as it was funny. The problem was, I didn’t always find it funny myself. A lot of dangerous things can be said with humour; this is part of your goal, and the reason you are willing to risk being offensive. This time though, you seem to be saying that the very people you trusted to laugh with you, did not, and that this leaves you torn as to which master you’re serving.
You ask should you be trying to provoke an angry reaction. Should you? This sounds like an important question. You have bumped up against something hard and unyielding, and you are being asked to examine who is responsible for the bruises you suffered, and if they were worth it. Don’t let yourself down by hiding behind simply drawn constructions like “edgy”. Allow yourself to fully explore the edges you would like to expand. Otherwise you risk civil disobedience without a purpose, and the sting of the slap you receive will hurt even more.