Dads is a TV show on Fox about two young men who are forced through presumably wacky circumstances to live with their fathers, providing us with, if nothing else, some much-needed screen time for the middle class white man. Fifteen episodes of a nineteen episode season have been broadcast so far, and I have watched one, called “Funny Girl.” In twenty minutes there were jokes about the number of gay people in San Francisco, marital rape, a Latina maid who can’t speak much English, and lesbians’ affinity for DIY. One of the plots—and I use that word loosely—of the episode is that Seth Green’s character is dating a woman who regularly does bad comedy bits. While following her into a bedroom to have sex, he asks whether she has a “mute whore” character. This is a show which proudly eschews political correctness: at a Television Critics’ Association panel, co-creator Alec Sulkin expressed hope that it would continue to be “insulting” and Green denounced modern America’s “really careful culture,” before defending the racism and sexism of the characters as “pretty disparaging portraits of white men.”
The problem with this argument is that these white men are the stars of the show, and their prejudices are heartily endorsed by the bleakly enthusiastic studio laugh track. Dads is not about why it’s bad to be a misogynist who stereotypes ethnic minorities; it is about trying to exploit those character traits for entertainment.
Dads has been panned by critics, but it is far from the only example of comedy which happily avoids political correctness. Jerry Seinfeld recently appeared on CBS This Morning and complained about people treating comedy like “the census or something,” which apparently contradicts his idea that race and gender should not enter into comedy criticism. He even used the phrase “PC nonsense.” Of course, it is very easy for someone who enjoys so many kinds of social privilege to ignore issues of diversity, but what is also sad about Seinfeld’s attitude is that he is limiting himself as a comedian when he claims that the only important element of comedy is, “Are you making us laugh or not?” Dads shows us just how painfully boring it is when writers are even partially stimulated by a desire to battle the forces of political correctness. There are few things older and less original than stereotypes about manly lesbians or incompetent foreigners. There is nothing fresh or exciting about rape jokes in a culture that already refuses to confront the problem of rape in an effective way. This is the most traditional comedy, the least surprising, and the kind which shocks in the sense that you might wonder how they got away with it, but not in a way that makes you confront your beliefs or think about something differently.
When you can’t make the jokes that have formed the foundation of what people consider comedy for so long, you are forced to think of something else. Or, like the creators of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you can take the traditional subjects and invert them to make something truly original and incredibly funny. I use Always Sunny as a counterpoint to Dads because there are some basic similarities between the two. Both shows feature wildly insensitive characters who have no concern for other people’s feelings or for being politically correct. The difference is that the Always Sunny gang are repeatedly and consistently punished for their awfulness, and their behavior never seems to be endorsed by the show itself. There is a plot-line in which Dennis, one of the main characters, discusses his excitement about buying a boat. He explains that it will be easier to persuade women to have sex with him on it, because of the “implication” that something scary might happen to them while they are alone with him at sea. The writers never present it as anything but horrific. They even have another main character—who is morally questionable himself—express confusion and repulsion at the idea. The joke here is on Dennis, who of course does not succeed at sleeping with anyone on the boat, and more widely on rape culture itself. The Always Sunny characters have little money, no friends but each other, and no long-term romantic triumphs. They are terrible people who do terrible things and who suffer for it, which makes the show infinitely more interesting and allows us to laugh rather than grimace. It is probably not the first series which comes to mind when you imagine politically correct television, but it manages to avoid marginalizing less privileged groups by deriving its humor from much more creative places.
When a rich man exploits a poor man, we do not laugh. It is a very basic tenet that jokes should not be made by the socially privileged at the expense of those without that privilege, because cruelty is very, very rarely funny. Mocking the weak—whatever the reason for this weakness—is the easiest thing in the world and must be avoided at all cost by comedians hoping to create something original or interesting. Comedy and kindness can combine beautifully, and making that happen is more difficult because it is newer. It is exactly what a comedian should be doing: it’s fresh, it’s exciting, and it welcomes as audience those who traditionally have been victims.
One of the most valuable aspects of comedy is that it necessitates taking risks. It’s harder to enjoy at a punchline you’ve heard before, and with the average person’s media consumption higher than it has ever been, we hear a lot of them. The world, even just the United States, is full of comedians who repeat these ad nauseam and find success doing so, but these people are missing a fundamental aspect of what it takes to make good comedy. They do not take risks and so they do not surprise us, or make us look at things in new ways, or encourage us to find unexpected ridiculousness in our lives. They get some laughs, because it’s easy to react to something you already know, but they don’t inspire the joy and insight that truly creative comedy does.
There is a common perception that restrictions and limits are harmful to creativity, and that absolute freedom is the ideal environment for the germination of original ideas. This is perhaps part of the reason for the powerful antipathy in parts of both the comedy community and the general public towards political correctness. Often considered one of the ultimate threats to artistic liberty, political correctness can be generally defined as the avoidance of language or expression that marginalizes groups or individuals who are already disadvantaged in society. If that definition is already aggravating to you, we probably wouldn’t get on, because at its heart it means paying attention to your words and behavior so as not to further insult or exclude the people our culture has a history of insulting or excluding. There isn’t a lot there to get upset about.