Can a joke be no laughing matter?

There is a thin line between what an audience will find humorous and what they might find offensive.

A great comic can find a way to walk this line without getting in trouble, but are there some topics that comedians should avoid?

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“If a comedian says something that an audience member disagrees with, sometimes that audience member will heckle and start an argument. So it varies from comedian to comedian on how to handle that situation,” said Dave Merheje, winner of Just For Laugh’s 2011 Irwin Barker Homegrown Comic Award.

Comedy etiquette exists between comedians. They shouldn’t be stealing other comedians’ jokes and they shouldn’t “treat other comics like shit for no reason.” 

Jokes themselves don’t necessarily come with boundaries.

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Toronto stand-up comedian, Quinn C Martin, is one of Canada’s rising entertainers performing in many clubs across the city.

I think everything can be joked about, but in order to get the best results, i.e. laughs, the joke has to be thoughtful and sensitive to the topic and time in which the joke is being used,” said Quinn C. Martin, a rising Canadian comedian who has appeared on shows like Video on Trial and Kenny vs. Spenny.

K. Trevor Wilson is a Toronto-based actor, stand-up comedian, and writer.

I firmly believe humour exists everywhere from our greatest triumphs to our darkest tragedies,” said Wilson. “That is in fact the gift of the comedian, the ability to find humour where others can’t. 

That being said, not every comedian has the ability to tell every joke, but I’ve found that the fastest way to get comedians to write a joke on a subject is to tell them that they can’t.”

Club120 owner Amanda Taylor, who is also known as “Mandy Goodhandy”, said, the club does not put limits on what a comic can or cannot say.  However, she makes it clear to each comic that not every subject is considered funny by an audience. If a joke is questioningly offensive then she will suggest dumping it in order to not risk losing the audience.

Comics have certainly said things that I find appalling especially involving race or gender, but I will not take away freedom of speech.  We have worked way too hard for way too long to win our rights regarding freedom of speech,” Taylor said.

Audiences are not stupid and they do not want to hear a comic rant about their racial or sexist issues, she said.

As a host, Taylor has witnessed comics who get upset when the audience doesn’t laugh at their jokes. 

“They may even say that an audience sucks, and continue to just get miserable during their bit. The audience does not owe them a laugh, but they do owe the audience a laugh,” Taylor said.

Yuk Yuk’s prides itself on not being censored; therefore, nothing is off limits in their comedy, said Kyra Williams, Yuk Yuk’s vice president of operations.

 “That being said, comedians have their own boundaries,” Williams said. “Some will not do certain material because it goes against their own beliefs or position or persona as a comedian.”

Some of the comedians keep their act clean and some are R-rated, she said.  

When asked if any comic has ever crossed the line at Yuk Yuk’s, Williams said,

“Absolutely, but this is all subjective. One person may think someone has crossed the line, but another person may not even think they went far enough.”

Jokes can be made about anything on any topic. However, the joke must be appropriate for the audience that it is being told to, said Jason Laurans, owner of Absolute Comedy, a comedy bar in Toronto.

“It happens all the time (comics crossing the line). An experienced comic will notice a joke went too far, and adjust his/her material appropriately,” Laurans said. “Hopefully he could get the audience back from the uncomfortable mistake.”

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Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club

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