Contemporary Comedy: Does Vulgarity Equal Hilarity?

Comedy has always been about pushing boundaries. In a lot of ways, it’s necessary to do so. What would be the point of comedy if it doesn’t seek to question our own moral boundaries? As a natural part of this process, a certain level of vulgarity is required, not only for pure shock value, but in a lot of ways it is necessary to talk about touchy subjects. The reason comedy is such a valuable medium for social discussion is because it is a medium in which it is acceptable to talk about subjects that are deemed unfit for casual dialogue.

But all too often nowadays we are seeing a surge of comedians who use vulgarity purely for its shock value, making statements about rape, abortion, racism, etc., that no regular person could ever get away with saying. And most surprisingly, these comedians are experiencing a great amount of success from this approach. But does this truly equal comedy?

As someone who has grown up with a deep, personal love for comedy in all its forms, it’s difficult for me to say yes. I’ve always believed comedy is just as much an art form as painting, ballet, and yes, I’ll even go out on a limb and say country music is an art form too, I suppose. This is because comedy, just as every other art, has the ability to say something, to make an argument in an attempt to hold a mirror up to society. Humor is perhaps one of the most effective persuasive tools, and when done correctly, it can be used to approach those touchy subjects we are all afraid of talking about in order say something meaningful while still delivering on laughs.

A great example of a comedian using vulgarity for a purpose is Louis C. K. Widely known as a pretty crass comedian, Louis always has a moral behind his jokes. For instance, one of his bits is about the controversial and offensive use of the word “faggot.” Usually a cringe worthy term for those who are sensetive to the hurtful conotations towards homesexuals it has acquired over the years, Louis says it repeatedly in this bit, however he doesn’t say it to talk down to homosexuals. At one point in the bit, Louis says, “When I was growing up, ‘faggot’ didn’t mean that you were gay, it just meant that you were a faggot.” Basically, Louis is critiquing the ways our culture has assigned new meanings to words, arguing that “faggot” should never have become synonymous with homosexuals in the first place, especially as a hateful term.

Other comedians, most prominently Daniel Tosh, popularized by his regularly controversial show Tosh.0, routinely use terms like “faggot” not in an attempt to liberate homosexuals from the hurtful meaning of that word, but simply for the shock value, often perpetuating the hate that goes along with that term. I fail to see the humor in calling someone a faggot for the sake of being hurtful and continuing the trend of shaming others for their sexual preferences.

Like I stated earlier, comedy is an art form, and its value comes from the arguments it can make. Not only that, but it possesses healing quality. Comedy can make us laugh at all the tragic and hurtful things that happen to us on a daily basis, and then we can move on from them. I have more than a few gay friends who have all told me they were encouraged by Louis C. K.’s bit about the word “faggot” because it helped them realize that in the end, it’s just a word that we can choose to assign any meaning we want to it, and this is exactly why comedy is important for society–to spread happiness and positivity, even when there is vulgarity included. But when a positive message is absent and all that is left is vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake, then comedy loses all of its value, killing one of our most precious artforms.