Are there any topics that are off limits?

A friend of mine: “Basically I’m an admin in sexual health for men with prostate cancer. They have erection issues and all of that fun stuff after the chemo.”

Me: “So your work has a barrel sized viagra dispenser?”

Friend: “Nah, their issues are more serious, they either need injections straight to the penis, have curvature that requires surgery or worse. I also get to ask people about the intensity of their erections on a scale of 1 to 10. 5 is where they’re barely able to penetrate.”

Me: “Wow, you must really like boners… This could be comedy gold. If you could take such an uncomfortable topic, and make an appropriate joke that releases the tension, it’ll kill.”

Friend: “Nah, nah. I don’t like to talk about work during stand up. It’s not good to make fun of people with cancer… Almost everyone knows someone who’s had it… AIDS jokes are okay though.”

Me: “I don’t think any topic is off limits. Just some topics are much harder to make funny. But those topics have the most payoff potential. And this is so uncomfortable, if you could make it inoffensive, it’ll be great.”

DISCUSSION FOCUS: What topics, if any, do you consider off limits for comedy? Death? Diseases that you can’t avoid? 9/11? God? Why? If nothing is off limits, why?

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6 Replies to “Are there any topics that are off limits?”

  1. From an old Eddie Murphy standup (Raw I think?), talking about Bill Cosby giving him a hard time for being dirty, and asking Richard Pryor for advice, he said something like “A joke is inappropriate when it isn’t funny”.

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Great Pryor quote.

    I’d consider amending it to something closer to “A joke is inappropriate when it isn’t funny to most people” — or at least most people who watch stand up comedy.

    No matter how vile a joke, you’ll always find one person willing to laugh at it… the trick is turning it into a joke that gets laughs in front of diverse crowds most nights of the week.


  3. I think this is a more complicated subject than you think. The law, a clear and precise tool having statutes protecting free speech with limits easily defined by defamation and liable.

    OTOH, taste is subjective, but relevant to this question. You would tell a bunch of cock jokes to a bunch of retirees and expect it to play, would you? (Well given the seniors *now* given senior then, this is an increasing debate) Perhaps if they were gay seniors, then it would be within tastes, theoretically, and justified in presenting those jokes.

    And thus my first point.

    Any performing comedian has incumbent upon them to know their audience if they are professional. Even with If that audience may have potential taste boundaries with some of your material, you as a professional entertainer are obligated to deal with it in context, and limit yourself.

    This is not so true as it once was, but it has efficacy from comedic capability standpoints. Why must a comedian choose to rely on a blue or black or grizzle topic to get laughs? Was it the performer’s choice made by research knowing this audience would like that material, or, was it shock value comedy presented because it might be a cheap laugh, the only laugh they could get, a necessary waker uppper, an application to a growing trend of audiences, or an audience boundary tester when pre-show research or introduction material fails.

    With distribution online, you can go for anything you want, and, isn’t every unique comedian (and this is undeniably the path to being the best comic you can be for who you are) going to find their audience with similar tastes, and thus, they have found their market segment, will experience the amount of growth it contains with their marketing, and never fear censorship, negative critique from the topic POV, but certainly will continue to get negative critique if the material within the topic fails comedically.

    I recently heard the Woody Allen interviews from Laugh.com (a worthy endeavor to support for all working comics) and he speaks of a thing called, ‘the material trap’.

    Essentially, it doesn’t matter what you write, or act out or ensemble or improv or riff. What matters is finding out who you are, because that is the only way to become the comedian who can connect with an audience requiring a relationship with a person and material they can relate to.

    That connection, because it is interactive and communal, even if you are in personal perspective and personal experience jokes at the time, is what makes them laugh, what makes them connect and raise your stock mentally as somebody they prefer (in the marketing sense) to source for laughs when they desire or need them.

    So, do any topic you want, but do it authentically you, and you won’t really have an issue. If you are doing it for other reasons, then you are experiencing a performer’s developmental issue, and if you are to get bigger and better, requires correction.


  4. I personally feel there is nothing off limits at all, however its annoying and easy when its pandering and preaching to the choir, like a “Christain” comic attacking evolution (with “Humour”) or something like that, that makes my blood boil and i hope those comics evolve a new profession. So i guess it can be about perspective and motive as well, I feel a liberal comic doing their material to any audience is brave and true to his art where a weaker comic(religious perhaps) will alter theirs to get laughs. Im not disagreeing with Art’s post about appropriate material i think if we assume comics are somewhat intelligent and self aware it becomes a moot point. So personal politics come into play as well about off limits material.

    Interesting Topic.

    im sure ive shed no light on it whatsoever apart from a chance to bash christains……….so die die die.

  5. I don’t think there’s anything INHERENTLY inappropriate. But it also depends on your kind of show, people go to see a guy like Jimmy Karr knowing what they’re getting. If a comic with a family-friendly reputation did his material they’d be booed off stage.

    Also worth saying. some topics are dicey not because the whole audience will go “oh man, too far!” but because you risk creating a heckler. Rape jokes fall into this category a lot of the time. One person takes serious offense, tries shouting you down and now there’s this whole confrontational dynamic because you made a joke that turned one person into your personal worst enemy for the night.
    If it’s like that youtube clip of a girl getting into it with a comic over using the word “waitress” rather than “server” the audience will probably have your back. They’re being unreasonable and interrupting the show. But if the audience can sympathize with why the heckler took major offense, then you could be in trouble.

    This is more of an issue in a small venue. In my Jimmy Karr example, one drunken lout at the Apollo is not going to have much pull to derail your work. In a small comedy club a small audience insurrection could be bad.

  6. I don’t think any subject is off the table. It’s like the property quote – location, location, location, except it’s – audience, audience, audience.
    I’m hoping to do my first stand up routine with the next few weeks. Once confirmed I’m going to let my friends know that it will not be a PG performance. I’ve tested some jokes on friends, who’ve told me not to use somes jokes as they are so risky, but they were laughing and smiling whilst saying this, so IMO it stays in.

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