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Home » Archives » May 2007 » The Offensive Line
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05/08/2007: The Offensive Line

Eddie in San Mateo writes in with two really good questions. First, he's wondering why I referred to him as "Erik from San Mateo" when I addressed a previous question of his. Oops. Sorry, Eddie.

His second question has to do with politically incorrect humor:

Does this brand of humor satirize stereotypes and prejudices or promote them? If a joke is funny, does it matter whether it's offensive or not? Should aspiring writers attempt to replicate this humor in their spec scripts at the risk of stepping into a minefield?

This is a really interesting area. I myself am not a huge fan of comedy that sets out to amuse us by shocking us. The humor, generally, is supposed to come from a jolt of recognition, a sort of "Hey, we're not supposed to say that, but ain't it the truth" kind of thing. Personally, I think this is pretty dangerous stuff, since it's clearly promoting stereotypes or at the very least reinforcing cultural barriers. You might get a laugh, but it's got a mean edge to it.

Of course, there are other types of politically incorrect humor. On The Office, Michael can say something absolutely appalling, and the purpose of the line is to reflect badly on him. I've got no problem with that.

And, of course, there's the strange forcefield that surrounds offensive jokes made by members of traditionally oppressed groups. This might seem like a simple rule, but it becomes really complex when the character is a member of such a group, but the writer giving voice to that character is not.

I guess the key is in Eddie's middle question, "If a joke is funny, does it matter whether it's offensive or not?" It seems to me that if a joke offends me, I'm never going to find it funny. This is the risk you take with material like this -- if you misstep, you don't just have an unamused reader, but a pissed-off one.

If you're writing a spec for an established show, you can, as always, use the produced episodes as examples. They should give you a good idea where the line is for that particular show. Veronica Mars, for example, draws the line in a very different place than, say, Family Guy, which has no line at all. You generally can't go wrong doing what the show already does.

But if you're writing a spec pilot or are otherwise in uncharted territory, I would tread very lightly. And not only for moral reasons, either. I believe that a lot of writers of specs try to use shock value to make their spec stand out. This backfires when others have the same idea. Your ultraspicy (and potentially offensive) chicken wings don't stand out at the potluck when the neighbors brought the same thing.

Lunch: Indian food with tortillas. See? Cultures can collide in a delicious way.


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