“Racism isn’t funny.” This is the assertion from one very disgruntled audience member who interrupted a set from comedian Amarie Castillo during a show at the West Side Comedy Club. The incident was caught on video and posted to YouTube, during which Castillo reacts to a heckler who has seemingly been deeply offended by a joke. In the video, titled Bro Down Hoe Down Shut Down, we see Castillo asking someone in the audience if they’re alright, showing a hint of bemused concern as she asks, “What’s wrong, what happened?” The offended party replies that there had been “racist jokes.” When Castillo questions, “You know you’re at a comedy show, right?” the young man argues “Yeah, but racism isn’t funny.”
This statement, delivered with some vehemence by the heckler, begs some interesting questions about the nature of comedy. Can racism be funny? Are there subject matters that are too taboo to joke about, or is anything fair game? Is it possible that the same modern ideals that promote tolerance and political correctness have also caused some viewers to become overly sensitive or easily offended? Watch enough comedy, and you’ll eventually run into some darker material. Abortion, rape, cancer, pedophilia, and yes, racial differences, are all common joke fodder in places where clean humor is not a priority. While some suggest that racist or sexist jokes can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, the question becomes what makes something okay to joke about? Many agree that nothing is off the table, as long as the joke is funny. In that case, the responsibility falls to the comic to be able to read the audience and decide whether the material is too dark or not being well received.
In the video, Castillo has a few things to say about the matter. She argues that “comedy is subjective” and admonishes the heckler for bringing down the mood of the show, while praising the other comedians in the lineup and comedy itself as a “beautiful art form.” The argument continues as the man complains that it wasn’t art, and that anyone who supported [the racist jokes] was “not acceptable.” This raises another interesting point. Does being offensive affect the value of something as a form of art? Art is often made to be purposely offensive, in order to make a statement of some kind. It is also worth noting that the offended youth was, as far as can be seen in the video, not himself a person of color. While people of any race should recognize racism and speak out against hate speech in general, in this case it does seem to put the heckler more in the category of the easily offended, rather than someone who has directly felt the effects of racism.
It is at this point in the video that the offended heckler leaves, Castillo ended the drama with a remark that people will continue to support comedians, because “they know how hard we work,” and sees him off saying “I’m sorry you got offended, we love you,” which prompted an applause from the audience. She continued to address the issue, saying “we all have our demons and dark side, and this is why we turn it into laughter.” The confrontation in the video provokes a small lecture from Castillo, driving home how challenging comedy is, but how wonderful it is that comedians have the freedom to say what they want, and that the audience has the freedom to object to it. Her words drew more applause and cheers from the crowd, who if nothing else seemed in agreement with the fact that these freedoms are important. Without knowing the exact joke that created this altercation, I can’t speak to whether it was funny enough to outweigh the offensiveness. Regardless, it prompted a valuable debate which has been gaining traction in the comedy community as society struggles to make the world a more welcoming place. Nonetheless, kudos to Amarie Castillo for handling the heckler with an admirable combination of grace and wit. She took what's probably a comedian's least ideal situation, and turned it around positively, proving that comedy is indeed... a beautiful art form.