Written by Josh McDonald.
Nestled in the heart of Trump Country, Huntington is in the center of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio—three states that went deep red in 2016. But Huntington has a Democratic city government and a blooming music and arts scene, and there is a tinge of urban liberalism in this the city of 50,000 people. And while I’m far from a conservative, as a comedian I’ve seen a chill in free speech, thanks in part to the progressive ideals of the “safe space.”
Originally intended to combat homophobia on college campuses, the safe-space concept has been expanded to create an environment where any marginalized individuals or groups of people can gather without fear of persecution from a more dominant group. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that idea. Historically speaking, oppressed peoples have long been shut out of society and forced into private meetings. The drive and desire to create spaces where people know they will not be discriminated against based on their gender, race, creed, economic status, sexual orientation or skin color is a good thing.
But regardless of how much we would like for it to be, the world is not a safe space. And it is most especially not “safe” at a comedy show. Stand-up comedy is one of the last refuges of free speech and it exists, like any art form, to create an emotional reaction and further conversation. Comedy, in its purest form, gets at who we are as a people. There are no sponsorships or ad deals that control content. The only person a comic has to keep happy is the club owner, who just wants to sell tickets and chicken wings.
A good comedian will be able to get at the heart of our shared cultural experiences. Some comics may represent a so-called mainstream or popular view of things. Others may appeal to a smaller niche of like-minded people. But all of them represent the main pillar of American society: dissent and debate. Our willingness to discuss difficult things decides how we move forward as a society.
The comedy world is not a perfect one and is still subject to many forms of racism, sexism, and stereotyping. As the recent revelations about Louis C.K. illustrate, comedy is still subject to the same male dominance as all other aspects of show business and, in many cases, the business community at large.
Not that the comedy world is filled with nothing but white, cis-gendered males either. It has enjoyed a long history of embracing diversity, including comics who are gay, African-American, Latino, Asian and female long before those groups gained acceptance in other artistic venues. Comedy, like all art, is subjective and requires performers to show the audience their take on life, through a variety of viewpoints. And stereotypes are bound to come up, as well as more difficult and abstract subjects such as rape, murder, and war.
Some might say that comedy is like pornography. It has something for everybody and everything is fair game. A good comic will take a stereotype and use his or her platform to turn it on its head, showing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the false “truths” of society. Shocking subjects, such as abortion or drug addiction, are lampooned not because they are inherently funny in and of themselves, but because of the fact that we live in a society where they exist. Real life is not all sunshine and lollypops, and the art of comedy should reflect that.
At a comedy show, people are likely to hear offensive, vulgar things. That’s the expectation when walking into one. Comedy shows are equal-opportunity events, in the sense that you’re bound to hear something that’ll rattle your world view. While you might turn a blind eye on a joke about child molestation because you can’t relate to that experience, you turn away when a comic mentions cancer because that might be personal to you. All you can you imagine is the last few months your mawmaw or pawpaw spent in hospice care and suddenly your cackles turn into boos.
When I first performed comedy in Huntington, acts and audiences coalesced around the Funny Bone, a bona-fide comedy club located in Pullman Square. Since it was a widely recognized comedy club, everyone knew what to expect. Of course there were hecklers and the occasional person walked out, but the public for the most part knew their tastes would be tested from the stage. Nothing was sacred or off limits—as long as the comedian was funny.
After the Funny Bone closed, I remember doing shows at a gay club over on Seventh Avenue called Club Deception, and seeing the same “no-holds-barred” mentality work in that setting. Gay jokes, rape jokes, they all flew. When the Black Sheep comedy open mic night began in 2012, it took awhile to cultivate an audience, but the comedy scene stayed true to its “anything goes” ethos.
I left town in 2014 for New York City, one of the most diverse and brutal scenes in the country. Despite the rage over “New York City liberals” in the conservative press, no topic was off-limits in the comedy scene, as long as the performer was funny.
When I came back to Huntington in 2016, I noticed a shift in the language and topics comedians tackled. Instead of asking me if a joke was funny, fellow comics were asking if I thought they could get away with saying it on stage. It made the performers rigid, as if they were walking through a mine field with the audience, lest they say the wrong thing. The audience, for their part, seemed nervous if a comedian danced around sensitive subjects because they could sense the trepidations.
From talking with other comedians and seeing the change with my own eyes, it seems the “safe-space” concept has slithered its way off campus and into the bars and showrooms. Safety trumps funny these days, and this ultimately stifles all performers, including comedians. Imagine any other artist being told he or she cannot create a certain bit because of how it might affect specific sections of the audience.
I did not get into the comedy business to offend or to harm. I wanted people to feel good. Two of the most cleansing feelings people can experience happen after they cry and after they laugh, because these are involuntary reactions and most of the times we can’t control either. The truth is, topics like sexual assault and racial discrimination can overwhelm people, but laughing about them can also make those topics easier to handle and ultimately overcome their negative impact.
An old adage goes, “sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.” A good comedian can tap into exactly that range of emotion and steer it toward laughter. A bad comedian will just either make you mad or make you feel bad. But don’t judge a comic by his or her topics; judge them on their ability to take you on a journey across troubled waters. If they don’t land you safely on the other side, you have my permission to boo them off stage.
Josh McDonald has performed at comedy clubs and colleges throughout the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Midwest and is a regular at open mic nights and professional comedy shows throughout the Huntington area. His new album, “Josh McDonald: Hero In Town” is on sale now.