Guy Williams: Offensive jokes can be funny. But are they worth it?


OPINION: Like all good stories, this one starts in Palmerston North. A man queuing for Jono and Ben tickets asked me if I wanted to hear a joke.

He was filming on a selfie stick. Now I’ve learned from many horrific experiences that selfie sticks are a big red flag. They’re right up there with Red Peak profile pictures or two tickets to that anti-vax movie. I responded honestly, from my heart: “I can’t think of anything I would less like to do in my life!”

The poor guy was so sad, so I backpedalled quickly. “Ok say your joke… as long as it’s not racist or sexist.” Straight away he said “Ok don’t worry about it then”, and put away his camera. I laughed out loud; I wish he’d filmed it.

A sick part of me thought he should have exploited my accidental loophole and agreed not to say anything racist or sexist and then told a horrible homophobic joke to spite me.

This was my first day in Palmy, and it set off a weird trend of people wanting to A) tell me racist jokes, or B) complain to me about how you can no longer say racist jokes.

I’ve got great news for these people… you can! You can say racist jokes whenever you like, and you can say sexist or homophobic jokes often as you like!

Now be careful, there is a catch to this excellent comedy opportunity; an offensive joke could hurt people’s feelings, perpetuate negative stereotypes, and alienate some or all of your audience.

You have to be prepared for people to not agree with you, or to not like you for saying it. And then when you say “oh come on it’s only a joke”, I will probably think that you’re stupid or ignorant for even attempting it.

So an offensive joke is a risky joke to make. Take it from me, as someone who has alienated their audience hundreds of times, both intentionally and unintentionally. You can say whatever you like, but people might think less of you because of it.

Old crackpots love to complain that political correctness has gone mad, but if it stops a minority from feeling crappy about themselves, or slows down the perpetuation of a harmful stereotype about gay people then surely it’s a great thing?

I love shock comedy and offensive humour and I love political correctness. To me, political correctness isn’t a law or a rule, it’s a set of helpful guidelines which teach me how not to be an insensitive douchebag (my natural state).

I’ve learned that comedy would probably be a lot better off if people left out cheap racial material that punched down and focused their offensive comedy cannons upwards at the powerful instead.

“You can’t say anything anymore,” is something I hear a lot from comedians just before they go out and do a hack routine based on lazy stereotypes.

You can say whatever you want; it’s one of the great freedoms and privileges of living in New Zealand. Sometimes we take it too far! It wasn’t long ago that Brian Tamaki blamed the Kaikoura earthquakes on homosexuals!

Because if there’s one thing we all know about Kaikoura, is that there’s a huge gay scene down there. Gay friends would always tell me there were three gay capitals of the world: San Francisco… Sydney… and Kaikoura. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced an all-male whale cruise.

On the flip side, it does surprise me when people try and say that offensive jokes aren’t funny. They can be very funny. Comedy is partially about surprise, and there’s no easier way to surprise or shock an audience like someone saying something that is horrifically offensive.

But is that cheap laugh worth it when it’s causing sometimes serious harm to its victim? Certainly not.

Unless it’s broken English, I always laugh at broken English… no… okay. I’ll stop.

As the majority, it’s often hard for me to appreciate the powerful effect jokes have on reinforcing stereotypes that Pacific Islanders are lazy, or that women are crazy. More and more when I tell a joke, I need to weigh up the potential laugh against the negatives: offence, prejudice, alienation, sky high chance of failure, and just struggling to find people who want to be my mate afterwards!

I’ve learned that if you can rise above the racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic jokes you might be able to get a friend to hold the camera for you, and you won’t have to use that selfie stick anymore.