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” humor, boundary pushing in comedy goes back as far as Aristophanes joking about defecation and anal rape. “Historically this type of humor’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 humor, 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.”
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 realize 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 humor 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 humor, 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 recognizable 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.”
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 realizes 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.”