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Political Correctness is Not Killing Comedy

This issue goes beyond the world of film. There are literally hundreds of different podcasts, many of them quite popular, dedicated to discussing the craft and day-to-day life of comedians. The tortured inner life of comics has been a topic of so many indie movies (most recently, this summer’s hit The Big Sick) that it’s practically a cliché at this point.

As for standup, Netflix has invested hugely in stand-up comedy, putting a new special online once a week, and not all of those specials are by safe, clean, uncontroversial comics. In fact, there are also a whole lot of comics working today that are actively anti-PC, led by the likes of Joe Rogan, Anthony Jeselnik and Bill Burr, all of whom have hosted prominent Netflix specials. Have these men been censored or stifled in any way? No. If anything, the myth of political correctness threatening comedy has been great for their careers. Dave Chappelle had some rather ugly jokes about trans people in his recent Netflix special, which drew significant criticism. The result? Chappelle is going to do more Netflix specials, to the tune of millions of dollars.

What about the prominent comic most vocally opposed to political correctness, Bill Maher? Sure, he had a speech at UC: Berkeley protested a few years ago, but the speech went on as scheduled. He drew fire earlier this year for using a racist slur on his HBO show, but not only was he not fired, he actually received a contract extension a few months later. For all the hand-wringing over Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock not playing colleges anymore, colleges still host comedians on a fairly regular basis and usually without any controversy or incident.

Lenny Bruce is invoked often in these sorts of arguments. But let’s look at that comparison: Lenny Bruce was literally censored and arrested, by the government, for his comedy. Nothing close to that is happening to anyone today - and no, social media complaints about a joke that failed to land aren’t the same thing. In fact, if Lenny Bruce were alive today he would likely fare a whole lot better than he did in his own time. He’d probably be paid millions for Netflix specials, alongside Chappelle and Louis C.K. At most he’d be hounded by Twitter complainers and thinkpiece-writers - people with no real power to hurt him in any way.

The Blazing Saddles question

Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles, released in 1974, is actually something of a bad example of a movie that couldn’t be made today. Sure, the film is loaded with use of the N-word and other language that might be shocking to modern ears. But Blazing Saddles is pretty clearly on the side of anti-racism, and its plot is sharply critical of white racial panic.

Would it be the n-word that kept Blazing Saddles from being made? Quentin Tarantino’s film The Hateful Eight used that word more than 60 times, and featured a monologue (by Samuel L. Jackson) possibly more perverse than anything in Blazing Saddles. That movie was released in the long ago age of… December 2015. And the only protests it drew were from police unions, who objected to Tarantino’s praise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

TV seems to have been similarly unrestricted by the pressures of political correctness. South Park has long wielded outrageousness as part of its appeal, and the latest season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia featured the episode "Hero or Hate Crime," which explored the boundaries of political correctness in the most direct way possible: by pushing them. It could be argued that political correctness is necessary for edgy comedy to exist - after all, if there wasn't a risk of causing offense then it wouldn't be edgy.

Blazing Saddles was in many ways a product of its time, and of risk-taking and creative energy of the early-to-mid-1970s, in which movie studios granted an unusual amount of leeway and autonomy to daring filmmakers who came of age in the 1960s- something that’s not exactly present in Hollywood boardrooms today. If Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today, neither could Easy Rider, and the reason for that would likely have more to do with studio timidity and a disinclination towards risk-taking than any kind of censorship or political correctness. That, and there isn’t much of a demand in 2017 for satirical Westerns.

Next: Mel Brooks Says Blazing Saddles Would Never Be Made Today

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