I recently attended Ron Bloomberg’s lecture on comedy. To a question about Mel Brooks’ Springtime for Hitler (The Producers), Bloomberg responded that he found it deeply offensive and not a subject for comedy. While I well understand this reaction and respect it, he termed it “over the line.” I have to wonder if the goal posts for comedy are being narrowed in today’s tribally divided culture?

Think back to Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, Eddie Murphy and even Archie Bunker. Humor could be “naughty” and even offensive to some or many. Satire, even if offensive, always has been regarded as a legitimate branch of comedy. Today, even an ultra-“liberal” comic like Bill Maher seems amazed when a joke in his monologue elicits groans or boos from his audience.

Some of this is, of course, context. President Donald Trump was rightly chastised for making fun of a physically challenged reporter. Yet, a recent Seth Meyers bit drew hilarious laughs as he imitated Henry Weinstein wheezing into court bent over his walker. Meyers often uses context in his sketch where he shares the mic with an African American female writer and a lesbian writer telling jokes a white male “shouldn’t tell.”

The point is, what is today’s “over the line” on comedy? Is there no more room for satire? Many filmgoers enjoy violent films. I personally do not, but do not think the worse of those who do. Edgy humor, like that of Richard Pryor, may be offensive to many, but should it be swept off the table for that reason?

Clearly the boundaries of political and societal correctness are not etched in stone. Maher, for example, insists his standup shows play very well in “red” states.

So what is “over the line?” Years ago, as a professor, a student asked me not to refer to her as an Oriental, but rather as an Asian. Of course, I made the adjustment immediately. I had no wish to offend. I drew the line, however, when called on the carpet for using the term “niggardly” in a lecture. I refused to buy into the notion that some might be offended by a word that actually means “stingy.” Instead, I used it as a learning experience for those who rushed to tell the provost that I had used the N-word.

Up to now, courts have broadly defined protected speech under the First Amendment. The “line” was not based on offensiveness. Some found Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of nude men in sadomasochistic poses offensive. Many found the desecration of the American flag as a form of political protest highly offensive. Yet both were found to be protected speech under the First Amendment.

In an era like today, where tribalism and polarization shape our everyday world, it is my hope that comedy will be excluded from the chasm separating the country’s different schools of thought. If some don’t find it funny or “over the line, so be it. But for others who do, even if a minority, let’s provide them an opportunity to be heard.

Let the marketplace shape the outcomes as restricted only by the parameters of the First Amendment.

Paul Lazarus has served as a practicing attorney, a film producer and executive, the film commissioner for New Mexico, and as chair of the Motion Picture Department at the University of Miami.

(1) comment

Khal Spencer

Great piece. As it happens, I first saw The Producers at the Hillel House at Stony Brook University. Apparently it was not considered offensive.

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