YouTube’s Edgy Jokes Are Part Of A Bigger Debate In The Comedy World

YouTube’s Edgy Jokes Are Part Of A Bigger Debate In The Comedy World

The conversation surrounding what is or isn’t “over the line” in comedy isn’t new. More recently, the conversation has shifted from young comedians fighting for freedom of speech to older comedians decrying political correctness. The latest controversial jokes from Felix “Pewdiepie” Kjellberg sit at the crossroads of that ongoing debate: is there a line you can’t cross in comedy?

Comedy can be pushed forward by testing the waters with edgy material, but such acts can meet pushback. Lenny Bruce was arrested for violating obscenity laws in the state of California for saying the word, “cocksucker,” during a set in 1961, and would continue to have legal troubles until 1964. He eventually died while appealing his conviction. While modern comedians are less likely to be arrested for their jokes, they still have to contend with public opinion. In 2005 Sarah Silverman appeared to be seriously confessing that she had been raped as a child by legendary talk show host Joe Franklin during her rendition of the Aristocrats joke for a documentary about the long running gag. Franklin threatened to sue, saying, “I didn’t like the nature of that wisecrack.”

Some anchors of modern comedy assert that public opinion on what can or cannot be joked about has made it harder for them to work, however. In 2013, Comedian Jim Norton appeared on W. Kamau Bell’s late night show Totally Biased to talk to feminist culture writer Lindy West about rape jokes, with Norton arguing that nothing was off limits. Seminal comic Jerry Seinfeld said in 2015 that he doesn’t perform at college campuses anymore because the students are too politically correct. But it isn’t just more experienced comedians who are telling controversial jokes and getting backlash. Last year, Adult Swim canceled sketch show Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace after Brett Gelman severed ties with the network, citing hateful and anti-semitic messaging in sketches.

Public backlash and political correctness doesn’t irritate or anger every comedian, even ones that deal with controversial topics. While I was assistant editor of Paste Magazine‘s Comedy section we ran an interview with Anthony Jeselnik, a comedian whose entire schtick is telling jokes about national tragedies and other sensitive topics. Talking about Seinfeld’s assertion about college students, he said, “Anyone who complains about PC culture is lazy and I think that it’s my goal to kind of get through that obstacle course. I like doing colleges because it’s a challenge. … I don’t want a bunch of gross old men in the back smoking cigars saying they need more racist stuff. That sucks.” Silverman herself has disavowed some of her her older, edgier material.

If what Kjellberg does is comedy, then, where does he fit into this conversation? In his response video, he refers to himself as a “rookie comedian,” who missed the mark with a joke. The bit in question is one where he used the web service Fiverr to pay two men in India to dance around holding a sign that said, “Death to all Jews.”

According to PhD candidate Benjamin Aspray, who is writing his dissertation on offensive jokes and “gross out” humour, boundary pushing in comedy goes back as far as Aristophanes joking about defecation and anal rape. “Historically this type of humour’s been confined to institutionally tolerated spaces such as the medieval carnival, the burlesque stage, or the midcentury ‘party records” where it [let] a (predominantly male, white) public temporarily bring out into the open the drives and concerns kept otherwise private/unsaid by the civilizing function of taboos,” he said.

“Matters of the bedroom and the toilet have been mainstays. Racist and sexist humour, meanwhile, have sort of run a reverse trajectory, since their taboo status was conferred during the Civil Rights era, and almost immediately reclaimed under the pretense of confronting taboos with inconvenient truths. Lenny Bruce, who famously framed the use of racial slurs and profanity as robbing them of the power their taboo status allows them to have, remains the patron saint of this position.”

Lenny Bruce being arrested in 1961.

Lenny Bruce being arrested in 1961.

So it isn’t as if what Kjellberg is doing doesn’t have precedent. But Pat Whalen, who hosts a monthly late night talk show in Chicago called Good Evening with Pat Whalen, stresses that message comes first when it comes to controversial topics. He said, “Comedy is an exact science — not alchemy. You’ve got to know your ingredients and what you want your end result to be.”

In that sense, Kjellberg is following a familiar trajectory for new comedians. “When you start out you go for the blue comedy — jokes about sex and vaginas and dick jokes just to prove how edgy you are,” said Meghana Idurti, co-founder of the comedy collective Team US Comedy “You start out assuming that you have to say really crazy stuff to be considered funny before you realise that you’re way funnier when you’re being authentic and vulnerable and observant and sometimes even self-deprecating.”

Another Team US Comedy co-founder, Vikram Pandya, said he has seen performers telling jokes like Kjellberg’s as well. “At open mics, you’re often only performing to other comedians so to get a reaction a lot of newer comics resort to shock humour to illicit a reaction,” he said.

Whalen said that, “finding the balance between who you are and what your audience wants is something I think every performer experiences.” But he continued, “The x variable here for me is the platform/size of audience.”

For some working comedians, the line on what you can tell jokes about has more to do with your audience than the content. “At the end of the day, it boils down to if your material has an audience or not. Whether that material is offensive or not, if you have enough of an audience these days that passes as acceptable,” Pandya said. “Felix is a perfect example of this. While offensive, he is extremely successful and has a loyal fan base.”

“Comedians use audiences to gauge their jokes. If a joke doesn’t get a laugh then they go work on it until it does or ditch it,” said Cammi Upton, an artist that has worked with comedians Nick Kroll, Nick Offerman and John Mulaney. But she points out that for Kjellberg, there’s a larger delay in between the telling of the joke and the reaction to it. “The difference with Felix is that the feedback he gets isn’t as clear as to whether people laugh or not in the moment. His positive feedback is shown in … subscribers, and that a Disney-owned company wanted to make a deal with him … offensive material and all.”

But while Kjellberg has an enormous audience, he’s still faced professional repercussions for edgy humour, in that he was dropped from Disney and Maker Studios, and had his YouTube Red show canceled. Whalen points out that while the relationship between Disney and Kjellberg may seem unusual, this model is recognisable to comedians. “I don’t think the dynamic is that much different than Stephen Colbert and CBS. CBS pays Colbert to write material, and prays he doesn’t say anything stupid, offensive, or critical of their network. This investment has paid off, especially lately. … The difference is that Colbert has experience and vision. Looks to me like Pewdiepie does not.”

Stephen Colbert and Former US Secretary of State John Kerry on the set of CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert and Former US Secretary of State John Kerry on the set of CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

For Aspray, the fallout from Kjellberg’s Fiverr bit reminds him of the cancellation of Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace. “That was another instance of a boutique subsidiary of a major media conglomerate invest[ing] in grassroots video production from the internet, only to drop them after the reactionary elements of their work … started getting exposed to the wider public,” he said. “I don’t think Felix is even in the same ballpark as Sam Hyde and co. in terms of the latter’s explicitly fascist provocations, but I do think that both are the product of online spaces where radically uninhibited discourse flourishes to an extent that, say, anti-Semitic iconography is a regular feature of the vocabulary, without necessarily corresponding to genuine political convictions one way or the other.”

Whalen said more simply, “He made a joke about killing every Jewish person on the planet, and — to put it lightly — that just does not jive with Disney’s brand. This isn’t a free speech issue, it’s a branding issue.”

Given their understanding of comedy as a business, working comedians aren’t surprised by the fallout from the Fiverr bit. Upton was even surprised that Disney had wanted to be associated with Kjellberg in the first place, saying, “His whole thing is to try to be funny at any cost and he doesn’t think anything is off-limits as far as comedy is concerned.” She did also say that her niece is huge Pewdiepie fan.

“A similar thing does happen, I think, to comedians who land TV series after working the stand-up circuit,” Aspray said. “As Amy Schumer has shown, though, once a comedian has established herself a commercially viable institution, she’s able to convert some of her caché … into risks that younger comedians might be less likely to take.” Indeed, while Schumer has faced backlash for racially charged jokes, she’s somewhat insulated by her network television show and film acting career.

“[Kjellberg would] do much better to take this as a lesson in corporate logics and how to keep capital on your side rather than mistaking the moves of Disney or any other media conglomerate as corresponding to some stalwart set of moral values,” Aspray said.

For his part, Kjellberg realises that whatever his aims, the joke didn’t land. But the feedback from the audience that matters most to him might indicate that he doesn’t really need to change. “For what it’s worth,” Whalen said, “it seems his subscriber count hasn’t gone down by much.”


    • As long as it’s funny and is actually a joke and not just an offensive statement.
      Otherwise people who threaten to kill someone can just say it was a joke, get it?

  • is there a line you can’t cross in comedy?
    Short answer, No.
    Humour is universal, we all enjoy a good laugh but like EVERYTHING that makes us an individual we each enjoy different styles of humour.
    Some people like watching cat video’s, or pewdipew some like holocaust jokes, people need to get the hell over it and move on, stop getting your fucken panties in a bunch every time someone does something on the internet that makes you feel guilty inside.

    Personally the rougher the comedy the better, Jimmy Carr, Louis CK and Katherine Ryan are great because nothing is off limits and that’s great comedy.

    • You say nothing is off limits, but if I cut your hand off and jammed it up your butt millions of people would laugh. ‘Florida Man’ headlines never fail to get a laugh. It’d be insane and criminal but if it gets a laugh it’s comedy and we’d all agree it crosses a line.
      The comedians you mentioned have lines. Louis CK would never stand there and verbally abuse a distressed child with a terminal disease just for a laugh. That’s a line.

      • Hyperbole much… while i imagine that wouldn’t be funny to me initially, i expect people would find it funny and therefore makes it humour, and one day i’d imagine like EVERYTHING i too would have a laugh at it.

        I suggest you don’t look at the vid below if you want to continue your sheltered belief that Louis Ck has a line.

        • That’s the point. It can only be hyperbole if there are lines. It’s extreme but it’s a line we can all agree is there. You don’t mutilate people for a joke. You don’t molest kids as a gag. I guarantee you that you’d never find that funny, and even if you did eventually find it funny you still wouldn’t say it’s ok to do that in the name of comedy.
          It’s easy to say there are no lines but what are these comedians doing if not venturing as close as possible to crossing the line?

          As for Louis CK, that’s not as out there as it sounds. Yeah, it’s a joke about molesting and murdering kids, but it’s not about anyone specific, he doesn’t actually take the molesters side, he’s not aiming it at anyone specific and he’s performing it in front of an audience who knows to expect this. It’s not dinner party conversation and it’s a brilliant example of why he’s an absolute genius, but there’s an entire genre of stand up comedy dedicated to shocking but funny comments like this.
          There are better examples of how far he’s willing to go but he’s not a bad guy so it always ends with a line he won’t cross.

        • That’s precisely his point. You say there’s no line because there’s some humour that some consider crossing a line that you enjoy. But if faced with a kind of “humour” that crosses /your/ line you may think differently. You may theorise that you’d eventually come to laugh as well, but if a brand of “humour” caused you or someone you love lasting harm, your human nature would seek revenge or at least justice.

          • Nope, im living proof i’d laugh it all off eventually.
            I’ve had the roughest life of anyone i know, and probably ever will know, if someone of my upbringing can laugh it off then most people have no excuse.

            Humour gets people through the darkest of times, and helps you to grow as a person.
   seems relevant to this exact conversation, if they have real holocaust survivors telling stories of humour saving them from despair then what argument can you have against that?

          • Given that, I’d say that you found humour a way to cope. Laughing in the face of abuse, disaster or personal tragedy has helped reduce their power over you, freeing you. It is your choice and your right to make light of such things, within your personal sphere and for those you allow in, and if it helps you, more power to you.

            But you must understand that not all people cope in the same ways. Some are still suffering and the thought of someone laughing at their anguish, adds more suffering and humiliation. Others have seen the power of bad things being said in jest contribute to normalise such things. As I said above, humour works for you and that’s fine, but you don’t get to criticise the people for whom it doesn’t.

            The power of humour is that it diminishes and robs the thing that is being made fun of. In your case, you use it against the bad things that happened to you to rob them of their continuous power to cause harm and that’s great. But in the case in question, whose power is being diminished by making of the sentence “death to all jews” a pretended laughingstock? Is it not the innocent people whose mass death is treated as a dare for shock value? When the kids that make the majority of PDP’s audience get to learn abut the Holocaust will they be able to comprehend the immensity of the fact or will they smirk remembering two half naked guys prancing around with a sign for 5 dollars as their Aryan-looking idol guffaws in mock shock?

  • You are asking the wrong question. No action has been taken by anyone to prevent the guy performing comedy in any mode he chooses. What has happened is that commercial entities have decided they no longer want their brand associated with his brand. That’s the question: is there a line you can’t cross to win and keep commercial sponsorship? The answer is a definite: YES. It is wherever that commercial entity wants it to be. That is not the abrogation of anyone’s right to free speech: it is the exercise of their own freedom of association. No one has a ‘right’ to any form of sponsorship and this controversy (and the one around Milo) have exactly nothing to do with censorship.

    • True, but it does open up criticism of the corporate actions in light of the topic; if there truly no line comedy can cross then surely the choices to server ties with a comedian crossing one is arguably unjustifiable.

      • How can be no line when we’re talking about a binding contract between a company and a contractor? The company is not giving its money away just so the contractor can tarnish its brand. It is not some sort of patronage, it is a legal agreement between two parties that expect to profit from it.

  • There may well be people who want to censor comedy, but that’s not what has happened here. This story is about whether sponsors have the right to pull their support (financial or otherwise) if they don’t like what the sponsored party is doing. So to answer both the original question and two other relevant questions:

    Are there lines you can’t cross in comedy? No, as long as it doesn’t incite harm.
    Are there consequences even for things you’re ‘allowed’ to joke about? Yes.
    Are there lines you can’t cross if you want to keep sponsorship? Yes.

      • If you prefer to look at it in an absolutist way, sure. I don’t see “don’t incite harm” as a line in comedy so much as a specific thing that shouldn’t be done at any time, comedy or otherwise.

  • People who claim there are no lines in comedy tend to cross other people’s lines rather than their own. They shrug off a million holocaust, dead baby and rape jokes but if you make a joke about their political leanings, their friends, their body, etc they lose it. Everyone has buttons. They may not always react outwardly but the buttons are there.

    I find the interesting thing is that it’s always about lines. It’s never ‘it’s ok to be mean,’ ‘it’s ok to single people out and make fun of them’ or ‘it’s ok to make jokes that hurt people’. It’s rarely even ‘we know it’s a horrible thing to say, but we had to say it to make this important point’. When you start getting that specific the bulk of these jokes have to admit they couldn’t think of a good punch line so they went with a shocking one.
    In PewDiePie’s case they can point to the premise of the show but if you look at it outside of the larger point about lines the only conclusion you can reach is ‘that’s a dumb premise for a show’.

    I’m not saying you have to conform to everyone else’s ideas of what’s ok and not ok, but it’s ridiculous to say there are no lines.

    • Thank you, excellent post. Lots of people here are misunderstanding the question “should be a line?” as “should the line be where most people seem to draw it?” To the latter, the personal opinions provided here are correct or at least, not incorrect. To the former, it is necessary for the answer to be yes. “edgy”-would-be comedians (whether successful or not, which is an entirely different argument) will always try to push against the line. If you attempt to remove the line, we’ll have “comedians” going to extremes to find it.

      Personally, I think that you can be funny without having to be overly crude or controversial, which are facile, cheap ways to get a laughter or at least a reaction. Only true masters of the craft understand (and can make clearly understood) the point they are trying to make when they go “there”.

  • Seriously, who thinks jokes at the expense of/pointed at/mentioning jews are still edgy? 6000 years of human civilization puts that notion to rest.

    Somebody did something stupid, and his career has taken a boot to the crotch for it. Story as old as mankind. But yet here we are discussing it again like history only gets remembered for 20 minutes.

  • Yin and yang, my dudes. Light and shadow. Fast food and a quick trip to the toilet.

    People are going to be making “edgy” anti-politically correct jokes forever more, and no amount of discussion like this will stop it. But, the discussion will follow. Two sides of the same coin.

  • Upton was even surprised that Disney had wanted to be associated with Kjellberg in the first place
    Same here, I don’t follow him well, but I had no idea Disney associated it self with him, and I’m not surprised they dropped him. What I am surprised is at the three WSJ journos who went on a mission to bring down piewdiepie. One of those journalists made similar anti-Semitic remarks on Twitter.

  • There isn’t, and there shouldn’t be, a legal line regarding subject matter. However, society exists and social rules and norms also exist. If you break them, you earn social stigma. That is not a hard concept to understand. You should be perfectly, legally free, to make all the dead baby, rape and holocaust jokes you want. In fact, I would fight for your right to do so. However, if you walk into an Early Pregnancy Assessment Unit, in which a lot of would-be mothers have been told bad news regarding their pregnancy, and make such jokes there, well, you would quickly find yourself earning a lot of social ire.

    You have a right to be offensive. Just don’t be surprised when people get offended. And if you make jokes that offend people, well, buddy, while you may have the legal right to make such jokes, people have the legal right to get pissed off at you for making them!

  • Speaking of comedy, I find funny that some of the people in the comments defending PDP and saying that there’s should be no line in comedy were also decrying when people were making fun of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. As usual, personal agendas can make some people blind to irony and/or hypocrisy.

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