At one point or another, we’ve all heard a joke that for one reason or another, we’ve found really offensive. We might not have been personally offended by it, but we’ve thought that if some others heard it, they would not be at all happy. Whether it’s to do with sex, race, politics, violence, etc. someone out there is not going to like it.
So, the extension of such a thought process is then to question if it’s OK to tell such jokes. Just because someone might be offended by it, does that mean it should be banned or never spoken of again? Are there lines that we shouldn’t cross?
It’s a question that gets asked often, and something that needs to be carefully considered.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of ‘South Park’, take an all or nothing approach to their show. If at any point they decide that they won’t touch a certain topic because it’s too taboo or too offensive, then they would have to ask themselves, if that’s too offensive, then why was this or that OK? Taking an approach of nothing being sacred has led them to their fair share of controversy over the years, however.
There’s ‘Bloody Mary’, which had a Virgin Mary statue sparying blood from either the vagina or the arsehole all over people’s faces, which of course offended many Catholics. There’s ‘Trapped in the Closet’, which in its lampooning of the Church of Scientology, offended Scientologists so much that Comedy Central were forced to cancel airing re-runs of the episode, and Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef and also a Scientologist, left the show soon after the episode was originally broadcast.
But no episode caused as much controversy as ‘Cartoon Wars’. Airing in two parts, the episode touched on the then hot topic of depictions of the prophet Muhmammad in Danish newspaper ‘Jyllands-Posten’, which led to protests and violence across the Muslim world. In this two-part episode, the boys learn that ‘Family Guy’ will be airing an uncensored image of Muhammad on their show, so Kyle travels to Los Angeles to stop the show from airing, fearing violence against Americans from the Muslim world. The episode was highlighting the belief that we have the freedom to talk about anything we want, and we shouldn’t be afraid of major repercussions because of this, because that stands directly in the way of said freedom.
Because ‘Cartoon Wars’ was split into two parts across two weeks, the world was aware that a depiction of Muhammad would be made in the second week, which led to threats against Trey and Matt’s lives. A similar threat was made 4 years later when they again decided they were going to show an image of Muhammad in the episode ‘201’. Take this quote from Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, which was originally posted on a website called revolutionmuslim.com:
We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.
Theo Van Gogh, the man referenced in this quote, was a Dutch filmmaker and a critic of religions including Islam, who was violently killed in 2004 by an Islamic militant for making a film that discussed the abuse of Muslim women in some Islamic societies. While the above quote isn’t a direct threat, it does imply that Trey and Matt faced some very real danger if they carried on with their idea of showing Muhammad on their show.
In the end, on both ‘Cartoon Wars’ and ‘201’, the creators decided to continue as planned, but Comedy Central chickened out, and the images of Muhammad were censored.
Of course, this really pissed off Trey and Matt, and rightfully so. Although Comedy Central’s fear of violence is understandable, by choosing to censor the image of Muhammad, what they’re saying is that it’s OK to make fun of Jews, Christians, Scientologists, Mormons, black people, and everything else that ‘South Park’ has lampooned over the years, but Muslims were out, essentially belittling everyone else who has ever been made fun of on the show. In this context, Trey and Matt saw the line, chose to cross it, and they were justified in their decisions, not to mention their courage in defending our rights to free speech.
Perhaps the king of going too far, is the brilliant Gilbert Gottfried.
To some, Gilbert Gottfried is most famous for his role as the principal in ‘Problem Child’ or as the voice of Iago in ‘Aladdin’. To others, he’s the comedian with a no holds barred attitude, and balls the size of fucking grapefruits.
In 2001, just three weeks after the September 11 attacks, Gottfried appeared at a Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner and chose to say this:
I have to leave early tonight, I have to fly out to L.A. I couldn’t get a direct flight, I have to make a stop at the Empire State Building,
This of course led to a lot of booing and calls of “too soon!” But Gottfried continued and won the crowd back with his version of the legendary Aristocrats joke.
Then, in March 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami disaster that devastated much of Japan, Gottfried posted jokes such as these to his Twitter account:
Japan called me. They said ‘maybe those jokes are a hit in the U.S., but over here, they’re all sinking.
I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said ‘is there a school in this area.’ She said ‘not now, but just wait.
Jokes such as these offended a whole lot of people, and soon led to Gottfried losing his job as the voice of the duck mascot for insurance company Aflac, which does approximately 75% of its business in Japan.
Were Gottfried’s jokes offensive? Absolutely. Were they crossing the line? Yes and no. That depends on who you ask. But the answer to this question should always be no. What’s offensive to you may not be offensive to me, and vice versa. Personally, I’m offended every time I drive past a billboard which has the nerve to tell me “Jesus… is the answer”. But I would never tell people that they shouldn’t be allowed to drive past it and feel pleased with what it has to say. Just because I believe that the only question that that’s an answer to would be “name a fictional character adored by millions”, doesn’t mean that everybody shares my view. And if you try to stop something because you find it offensive, what’s to stop somebody else removing something you enjoy because they’re offended.
All or nothing, Dear Reader. All. Or. Nothing.
I would love to hear your views on this subject, so leave a comment and let me know if you feel that there’s some things we shouldn’t joke about.