More than simple laughter: the therapeutic side of insulting humor

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Comedy has been a celebrated genre of entertainment for ages. Over the years, it has changed in many ways in terms of content and delivery. Nowadays, there is a curious trend toward very dark and insulting humour. Comedians such as Bill Burr, Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle and many others can come across as rude and disrespectful, but at the same time, insanely entertaining.

Thanks to Netflix, it is now much easier to speculate that these comedians enjoy great popularity not only in their home country, but worldwide. The fact that Bill Burr’s latest special on this streaming platform was filmed in the Royal Albert Hall, in London, is proof enough. Why is it that nowadays the type of comedy that attracts big audiences is one that includes profanities, insults and other offensive content?
In a recent interview with Forbes, Bill Burr indirectly addressed one of the reasons why his own comedy and that of, for instance, Dave Chappelle enjoys such a large presence today. He pointed out that today it is very easy to attract massive criticism simply by saying something politically incorrect.

Burr argues that there are much greater issues to discuss, such as pharmaceutical companies selling addictive medication in order to enlarge their profits. However, controversial comedians, such as Dave Chappelle, get a lot more media attention for the content of their speech. In other words, culture today is tailored in such a way that allegedly scandalous words overshadow issues such as drug addiction. This is not an argument for the dismissal of offensive language and acts in society today, but perhaps intentionally hateful conduct and comedic performance ought not to be judged in the same manner.

Hateful behaviour is obviously something that deserves strong criticism and even ridicule. However, a stand-up’s intent is to entertain an audience, and offensive language is used merely for the purpose of eliciting laughter. If a comedian attacks certain groups of people solely to be hateful, it will most likely not even be amusing; at least it could not become as popular as did the acts of performers such as Burr and Chappelle. A lot could be argued against these claims, and it is not my intent to delegitimize the feelings of people who do not agree with me.

Returning to the question of why such humour enjoys high levels of popularity, I believe that it has to do with the fact that this type of comedy approaches topics that people are struggling with, and being able to laugh about it for as little as an hour of listening to (mostly) tasteful jokes about it is therapeutic.

I particularly enjoy the comedy of Russell Peters, a Canadian-born performer. A great deal of his acts deal with him working through his family struggles, by means of, for instance, making fun of his own father. I resonate with that, because, as many others, I have family-related issues of my own. Certain similarities between his narratives and my own upbringing are comforting; specifically because Peters does not discuss it in a way that a therapist would, but rather turns problems into something that both he and I can laugh at.

This kind of comedy can also be therapeutic to people who go through much more difficult struggles. A number of people who I am acquainted with come from regions such as the Middle East, for instance, and they are not only amused by the way Russell Peters mimics the accents that people from those regions have, but quote the comedian’s performance bits almost on a daily basis.

I believe there are many reasons why comedy of this sort is one of the most popular types. One, because such content attracts a lot of media criticism, which then attracts the public’s attention (even though the media is critical of it). Second, even with how insulting it may appear, it retains the most important aspect – the comedy. The audience sincerely enjoys the politically incorrect jokes, because even they can be therapeutic in dealing with one’s own issues, whatever they may be.

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