Permission to laugh, sir?

I have decided that my focus for this academic year will be ‘Permission to Laugh’.  How and why do we manage to give the audience permission to laugh at some sort of tragic event, that might otherwise be deemed a no-go area for jokes and comedy?  Joan Rivers makes jokes about the Holocaust, does that mean Henning Wehn can too?  Perhaps, but he would need to convince us of his empathy for the victims first, in order for the joke to be a success (unless he was performing exclusively for Nazi sympathisers, which I’m *pretty* sure he wouldn’t be up for).  In his book with Lucy Greeves, Jimmy Carr mentions an incident that could have killed his joke (not to mention the rest of his set) when after making a joke that poked light fun at sufferers of brittle bone disease, he discovered one in the audience:

One night, the mention of ‘brittle bones’ elicited a huge cheer from one man in the audience. He was in a wheelchair. ‘Hello,’ said Jimmy, not without a certain trepidation. ‘Have you got brittle bones, then?’ The man’s reply? ‘Brittle as fuck.’ (Carr and Greeves, 2006, p.192)

It was unlikely to cause too much offence, but Carr was talking about a serious condition of a member of his audience – it could have gone the other way.  If we then look at the Joan Rivers clip I posted a little while back, where an audience member complains about a joke about Helen Keller (he has a deaf daughter), her defence is a) that she has a deaf mother, so she has the authority to make such jokes, as her empathy could never be questioned and b) that ‘Comedy is to make us laugh. Nine eleven – if we didn’t laugh, where the hell would we all be?’.  Had she not had a deaf mother, would she have won the audience back?  Shouldn’t b) be enough of a defence?  With so much cruel, ridiculing comedy about, we are all very nervous about where the comedian’s sympathies lie.  My goal for my 40 minute show at the end of the year is to play with this idea of the comedian having authority over a tragedy, and if they don’t, then how (s)he can get the audience to a place where they feel that they have permission to laugh.

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