To declare that political correctness is the death of comedy isn’t exactly an original or groundbreaking talking point. Every comic from Jerry Seinfeld to Howie Mandel has said that or something like it at one point or another, and they’ve been saying going as far back as the early 1990s. This claim has reached the point where it’s something close to conventional wisdom in much of the comedy world, and far beyond it.
Still, a surprising voice was added to the chorus recently: Mel Brooks, the 91 year-old comedy legend responsible for some of the most important (and funniest) comedy films of the 20th century. Speaking to the BBC, while promoting a new production in London of the stage musical version of Young Frankenstein, Brooks unloaded on the political correctness of the current age.
When asked whether any of his classic, daring comedies could be made today, Brooks answered:
“Maybe a few, but never Blazing Saddles. We have become stupidly politically correct, which is the death of comedy. It’s okay, not to hurt feelings of various tribes and groups. However, it’s not good for comedy. Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering into the king’s ear, always telling the truth about human behavior.”
It gives me no joy to disagree with Mel Brooks, as he’s a longtime hero of mine and director of some of my favorite films, including The Producers, History of the World: Part I and Blazing Saddles. His influence on comedy is incalculable and Brooks, while long retired from active filmmaking, has in recent years emerged as a wonderful elder statesman of comedy, talking his craft and telling old stories in frequent live talks and podcast appearances.
The problem is, he’s wrong. Political correctness is not the “death” of comedy. Comedy is very much alive, and thriving, and that very much includes comedy that takes risks and, yes, offends people. Annoying as PC can sometimes be, it has little actual power to hurt comedy or comedians. And beyond that, it’s not so far-fetched that Blazing Saddles could be made today.
What is Political Correctness?
Let’s first look at what political correctness is. The definition seems to change all the time, but it’s essentially understood as the notion that cultural values and mores have changed over time, leading to pressure to avoid certain language that may be offensive or insulting to marginalized people.
This manifests itself today in various ways. Use of overt, hostile racial slurs is more frowned upon that it used to be. Dehumanizing language towards LGBT people isn’t as accepted as it was a very short time ago. Characters in The Hangover, which came out just eight years ago, casually threw the word “fag” around - something all but unheard of in studio comedies today. And prominent people who commit acts of sexual abuse are less likely to get away with it than they used to be.
These changes are all, at the end of the day, good things- all of which, it should go without saying, have led to a hefty amount of cultural and political backlash. But the key is, political correctness, when it comes to entertainment, doesn’t have any direct enforcement mechanism. The “PC Police” isn’t literally the police. And the effect that political correctness has on comedians isn’t in any way censorious- it’s mostly leads to jokes being criticized, to little effect, on Twitter.
It’s really hard to see what comedy is being “killed” by PC. What jokes are going untold? What movies aren’t being made? What careers are being hurt or ended? Who can point to a comedian whose career was going great until PC got in the way? In fact, comedy is pretty damn healthy these days, including some pretty out-there stuff.
Case Study: Sausage Party
Start with movies, and look first at Sausage Party, the 2016 animated comedy that was structured just like a Pixar film, except that it was R-rated and crossed all sorts of lines of propriety and taste. This culminated in a lengthy animated orgy involving just about all of the film’s characters, most of whom were based on crude racial and ethnic caricatures. Not only did the film take a pretty firm line on questioning organizing religion, but it ended with a “Jewish” bagel having gay sex with an “Arab” lavash, diving into about five different minefields at once.
Sausage Party was not censored, and barely even stirred much of a backlash. The biggest cultural controversy that resulted from the movie was a credit dispute between the producers and animators.
Seth Rogen, Sausage Party's co-writer and star, commented on this the other day, in a Twitter discussion with comedian Paul F. Tompkins (Bojack Horseman) that followed the Brooks comments:
If anything I'd say I've been allowed to get away with way more than I ever thought I could. Not the other way around.
— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) September 22, 2017
The only time a Seth Rogen movie has faced content for its censorship was when theatrical screenings of The Interview were cancelled - not because of political correctness, but because of a terrorist group threatening to attack multiplexes showing the film. If Sausage Party can get made in 2016, it's not particularly far-fetched Blazing Saddles could be made in 2017.