COMEDY WRITING: Crossing the Line That Now Keeps Moving

It’s a comedy writer’s duty to test limits and push boundaries, but a misstep nowadays can backfire bigtime. How far is too far in this era of zero tolerance?
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I worked as a comedy writer, hired comedy writers, and now I teach comedy writing—meaning, I share my discoveries, process, beliefs, tips, and tricks with other writers—so when I don’t have an answer on the subject, I usually know where to find one. But not now, not for a question that keeps popping up during script consults and critiques: “In comedy, now that people are trying to become more woke, where’s “that line” you should never cross?”

Where’s that point that separates bold-and-provocative from went-too-far-and-ends-up-fired?

You got me.

I used to know, I think. I’m a white male, I make my share of blunders when interacting with people, but I’ve always been a big fan of equality, inclusion, and free speech. In the past, while writing comedy or working with comedy writers, when I ran into the “where’s the line” question—how far is too far when dealing with racism or sex-based discrimination—it seemed relatively easy to come up with an answer.

Dave Chappelle performs at The Imagine Ball Honoring Serena Williams Benefitting Imagine LA Presented By John Terzian & Val Vogt on September 23, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

Dave Chappelle performs at The Imagine Ball Honoring Serena Williams Benefitting Imagine LA Presented By John Terzian & Val Vogt on September 23, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

The Answer, Past Tense

First, the humor test, to save time: Was the potentially offensive bit truly funny and fresh? Or was it base and gratuitous, just a cheap shot within easy reach? If the latter was true, the “line” question instantly became moot—good writers don’t settle for cheap jokes.

Next, if the questionable bit involved story development—character decisions, actions, or traits—rather than merely a punchline in dialogue, was the bit the only way to move that part of the story forward? Was it the best way?

A hint here: There always is another way. So, if the first option seems particularly offensive…

Next, did the bit risk outrage for good and noble reasons, like using discrimination to expose discrimination? Perhaps via a clever insight disguised by irony or sarcasm? Bottom line, would the bit clearly help more than hurt? Yes? Great. Winner!

Lastly, a general rule: Some hateful words just don’t need to be repeated. By anybody, at any time. Of course, that’s just my opinion and others are free to disagree—no-one elected me the bad-word police.

(COMEDY WRITING: Comedy Loves Bad Decisions)

But That Was Then...

And that was that. Or, that was then. The line wasn’t hard to locate even as it shifted gradually over the years, nudged by social progress. A writer could see it and avoid it or cross it at their own peril.

But times have changed, right? Equality and inclusion are gaining new traction, but we now live in a confused world of microaggressions, trigger warnings, internet trolls, and hate-breeding politics. The line has shifted in a positive direction, but it just won’t sit still.

And now, it’s not only about “where,” but “who”—who is looking at the line and making a judgment? Who is daring to say what, about whom, in what context? And what gives them the right to comment? Some folks are allowed to say or do certain things, but others aren’t—and Heaven help those others if they don’t realize that.

So, progress is happening, but writing edgy comedy has become a not-so-funny minefield. It’s time—okay, way past time—to give this important matter a closer look.

Time For a Rethink

Let’s back up.

To start, it’s a comedy writer’s duty to test limits and push boundaries—it says so in the manual. Half of the job is poking fun at human flaws and flawed humans, partly to help those humans become better people. Shine a light on bad behavior and injustice, and maybe people will talk about that. Maybe that will affect some people’s future decisions. It might even contribute to meaningful change. All that from a funny story, a few jokes? Maybe. Remember a show called All in the Family?

Ask your parents, they’ll remember.

Also, it’s comedy. Comedy does not suffer censorship well. Hostility, aggression, and controversial viewpoints are key components of many funny stories and jokes. On all levels, humor relies on creating tension through some kind of setup and then releasing it with a surprising resolution or punchline. It’s part of comedy’s DNA—the spiral part, the important part, not just the little chunks that bind together.

So, given that comedy’s nature will always require that it frequently and boldly test that line, how far should it go? The advice offered above still helps with answering that, and here are some additional ideas one might consider.

(COMEDY WRITING: How to Fix a Broken Joke)

Evil Characters vs. Evil Writers

First, if a story needs to include discriminatory characters, most likely because attacking discrimination is one of the story’s main goals, it is important to remember that while dialogue is primarily associated with characters, scene descriptions reflect the writer’s thinking and values. If the story requires that characters spew discriminatory dialogue because it’s trying to make a point and the characters are meant to be realistic, most would find that an acceptable creative choice. But, if that bigotry seeps into other elements of the script, that’s inexcusable and that’s on the writer.

And even then, some producers and executives won’t see or be impressed by the distinction. For some, especially today, any amount of such bile is too much, and that’s understandable. Buyers should have the same right to decide what is or is not acceptable in content, that writers have.

Who’s Right and Who Wins?

Next, a wise writer is sensitive to which characters are proven right in the story, which are proven wrong, and which social viewpoints win in the end. If a privileged (typically white and male) character acts in a discriminatory way, insulting or injuring others because of their race, gender, beliefs, or orientation, and if the writer then rewards that behavior by granting the character success or victory at story’s end, that’s bad. Very bad. But the fix is easy and obvious if the writer wants one. And it’s something most of today’s viewers would prefer to see.

A character’s a bigot? Passive, aggressive, or even murderous? Fine, we’ve already noted that some stories need those characters—consider Oscar-winning film The Green Book and buzz-worthy HBO series Lovecraft Country. But we’re writing comedies here, not dramas or tragedies with unjust endings, and this isn’t the '70s or pre-'70s. While discriminatory characters might be allowed to prosper during parts of a funny story, they and their warped attitudes are begging to be slapped down by story’s end. So, one should feel free to create characters that cross the line, but then opposing characters, preferably the bigot’s victims, should be empowered to ultimately outwit and defeat the bigots. And their warped attitudes.

Sometimes, a line-crossing character experiences emotional growth as their story progresses, learning they’re wrong and working to correct their behavior. Green Book’s Tony Lip is an example—an Italian man who prejudges others and has been prejudged himself, who becomes more accepting solely as a result of his journey in that story. His character arc is positive and uplifting, making that film doubly satisfying.

(COMEDY WRITING: Every Script Deserves a Good Beating)

At the dialogue level, many times a just victory means that a bigot attempts to dish out discriminatory insults, but their victim cleverly deflects the digs and proves the bigot a fool. (Audiences love cleverness in any context.) Sometimes the bigot realizes they’ve been owned but other times they’re too ignorant to understand that, which makes the retort doubly satisfying.

Pendulums a Bad Thing?

Is there a degree of pandering here? In having stories favor victims of discrimination just because they are victims? Maybe, but so what? Given the horrible abuse so many have suffered in real life and in fiction, for so many years, if the pendulum has now swung from degrading those victims in stories to favoring them, how is that a bad thing?

Plus, for those who object to all pendulum swings just as a matter of principle, consider this practical storytelling benefit: It’s easy to hate villains who are also bigots, especially in comedy. Funny stories often build to having misbehaving characters, good and bad, get a huge, public comeuppance at story’s end. When that happens to a bigot, the added social-justice win makes the ending, once again, even more satisfying. Pendulums aside, how is that a bad thing?

Creative Expression vs. Social Justice

I am no expert on social justice. And I’ve just described ways that writers might censor themselves when I hate the idea of creative censorship. But people are suffering and words have power, so what’s more important? You decide.

But here’s a recommendation I know is a winner: If you’ve never seen the so-influential All in the Family series, find it online and screen one of the landmark episodes that tackle racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, antisemitism, rape, abortion, religion, or the Vietnam War.

Then, imagine that show airing during the far-from-woke '70s. A show that featured a white, male bigot constantly spewing hate.

That show was number one in the ratings for five seasons straight. It changed the world.

And it did that by deliberating crossing the line again and again.

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