Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
(Photo illustration by Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) When comedy goes too far as comedians walk the line between offensive and funny.
Can comedy go ‘too far’?

Essay » What’s funny, what’s offensive and what happens when one turns to the other.

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Mar 29 2013 02:56 pm • Last Updated Mar 30 2013 07:59 pm

Keith Stubbs, then a touring stand-up comic, landed in Oklahoma City on the morning of April 19, 1995, for a gig that night.

That day, a truck bomb blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

If the words "too soon" ever could apply to a comedian, this was the day. But Stubbs had to perform.

"I didn’t do jokes about it, but I did jokes around it," said Stubbs, now proprietor of Utah’s Wiseguys Comedy Club and morning host at 101.5 FM "The Eagle."

He joked about the then-unknown bomber filling out the forms for a rental truck or figuring out how much fertilizer to buy.

"Some of the people in the audience were at the site, trying to get away," Stubbs said. "People wanted to laugh."

People who tell jokes for a living often step up to the line between what’s funny and what’s offensive. And sometimes they go over the line.

But where is that line? Many comics don’t find out until they’ve crossed it.

"A lot of comics say there’s never a line," Stubbs said. "That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to work."

story continues below
story continues below

So sorry » When the joke doesn’t work — and people get offended — the comic may have to apologize.

In 2011, after a tsunami ravaged the Japanese coast and knocked out a nuclear reactor, comic Gilbert Gottfried posted several jokes about the tragedy on his Twitter feed — sparking an outrage and costing Gottfried his job voicing the spokesduck in Aflac commercials. In February, the satirical newspaper The Onion issued an apology after an Oscar-night tweet that used an extreme profanity (OK, it was the "c-word") in relation to 9-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.

"When The Onion did that, I didn’t like it," Stubbs said. "I know they’re kidding. I know it’s a joke. But I also have an 8-year-old daughter."

Anna Neatrour, a Salt Lake City librarian and writer for the Fake AP Stylebook, a parody Twitter feed, called The Onion’s tweet "definitely too far."

"What they were trying to go for is a statement on the news cycle, and the way the media turns on actresses," Neatrour said. "But there would be ways to make that point without bringing a kid into the picture. If they had a joke about Anne Hathaway killing kittens, that might have done it."

(Note to the sarcasm-challenged: Neatrour is neither advocating murder for kittens nor suggesting that Anne Hathaway does.)

Twitter trouble » Both outrages involving The Onion and Gottfried happened on Twitter, which is an increasingly popular medium for comedy — but, Neatrour said, a tricky one.

"If you’re doing comedy specifically on Twitter, you’re so limited on characters. It’s sometimes difficult to get the context in," Neatrour said.

Twitter also is instantaneous — which can obliterate that moment in the brain between "that’s funny" and "ooh, maybe I shouldn’t."

The Tweets that Neatrour and other "Bureau Chiefs" contribute to Fake AP Stylebook are edited before anything is posted. "It’s not as unfiltered as it might be," she said.

Next Page >

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment

About Reader Comments

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.