Everybody has stuff they regret saying. That’s probably doubly true if you’re a stand-up comedian and the majority of stuff you’ve said has been in front of rooms full of strangers. But, for a long time, comedians were hesitant to say they regretted any of their old material or thought it was in bad taste. A new article from Vulture bucks that trend, asking 13 professional comedians from “Weird Al” Yankovic to Cameron Esposito to Sasheer Zamata if there are any jokes they regret telling with the benefit of hindsight. To round out the piece, Patton Oswalt describes one of his regrettable, early bits and paints a portrait of a brash young comedian who mistakenly confused laziness for edginess.
I did a bit — and I guess I was trying, in my young mind, to just offend — where I used the words “gay” and “retarded.” “Are there gay retarded people? If so, where’s their march? They should be allowed to have a march!” When I look back at the bit, it’s just lazy. I’m trying to say the word “retard” and get that easy laugh. I’m rarely embarrassed by anything offensive I do, but I’m very embarrassed when I’ve done something lazy.
Oswalt’s story is similar to the other comedians on the list, in that it’s not like he used to be homophobic, ableist, or racist and then one day decided not to be. Rather, he was a young comedian getting a reaction from an audience that he thought was reflective of his talent. As a more seasoned performer, he can now look back and admit that shock for the sake of shock isn’t that impressive after all. In fact, it’s sometimes the easiest joke you can tell.
But this level of maturity didn’t come easy for Oswalt, who claims to have spent years “wrongly fighting against that and thinking [he] was some First Amendment Warrior.” With age comes the realization that times change, tastes change, and people change. If your goal is to entertain the public, you have to decide if you’re going to be the kind of person that changes with them. “The core of what makes a comedian good is you look at stuff in the world that everyone accepts and you tear it down a little bit to find out what’s funny in it,” Oswalt tells Vulture. “If I refuse to do that with my own work and I only do that with the outside world, that’s a pretty weak stance to have in life.”
You can read all the comedians’ responses here, including SNL writer Anna Drezen’s self-deprecating riffs and Joel Kim Booster’s realization that adults with braces have feelings too.
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