I was an amateur stand-up comedian in New York in the late 1990s. I obviously did not do that well, otherwise I would not have sought a career in the federal government. I was in clubs with the likes of Louis CK and Patrice O'Neal, who were the headliners, but I was the 4:30 p.m. show. On Sundays.
O'Neal has since passed away and Louis CK is a great success now. I think he pushes the boundaries quite often. Many comics make their living doing this.
But there are limits. Sometimes those limits get in the way of good entertainment. Expectations of political correctness of late have been a plague for big comedians, especially on college campuses. Even Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps the cleanest comic of our day, voiced frustration on several nightly talk show appearances that political correctness is overshadowing comedy to the point that being funny has too many rules.
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But sometimes the limits that society puts on comics keep us human.
I have been a Kathy Griffin fan for years, because she is a little different. Her routines are about celebrity gossip, which is mostly cheap laughs, of course. But I have always found her interesting to listen to because she merely mocks people who are always in the news.
When I saw the photos of Griffin’s mock beheading of President Donald Trump, I thought about my time as a CIA public affairs officer. We received video feed of the beheading of Nick Berg, who was an American radio controller in Iraq at the time he was captured.
After watching the video, the room cleared out quickly. A seasoned case officer walked by my desk after watching it and said, “I am going home tonight with nightmares. This was the worst thing you can do to someone.”
As much as we might dislike an elected official, this is not a joke. If Kathy Griffin had been in our room at CIA seeing this type of horrifying murder take place, I doubt she would have made the mistake she did. I also think she should have known this without even having to see such an event take place.
Comedy is all about finding the line and pushing it to the limits. But as Griffin said in her apology: “I’m a comic, I cross the line, I move the line and then I cross it. I went way too far.”
The late, great George Carlin pushed the boundaries of language and political correctness from all sides. His famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” act got him arrested in Milwaukee for obscenity. Still, I think he would agree on an additional eighth word you can’t say, and that is to broadcast harm.
Sometimes even comics need common sense before we cross a line.
Lisa Chambers is a business development and U.S.-Japan relations consultant in Dallas and a former CIA public affairs officer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org