Comedy, the most subjective art in the history of the world. What one person finds funny, another finds offensive. Jokes about God might bring laughs from some, and death threats from others. A bit about race might bring uproars from one group of people, but condemnation from the next.
For decades, comedians have fought against censorship. Richard Pryor battled with NBC in the 70s over the content of his prime-time series. While George Carlin had parts of his routine entirely based around words he wasn’t allowed to say on television.
But in recent years we have seen Censorship gaining ground all over the world. Regularly, we see any commentary about any group on the face of the planet met with some kind of label. If you make a joke about the homosexual community, you are homophobic. Bits about race now garner the title of racist for the performer. A joke about Islam is met with the accusation of islamophobia, and a crack about the trans community greeted with the transphobic label.
In some places, “Authorities” have even gone so far as to execute comedians for creating content they do not agree with. Nazar Mohammed was executed in August by the Taliban for being nothing more than a comedian making silly songs on the internet. You know the type of thing fifteen-year-old Americans do all the time. .
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Mark Twain once said “Censorship is telling a man he can not have a steak because a baby is unable to chew it.” With those words, he outlined the reality of today’s outrage culture. It is entirely subjective to the individual.
Recently Dave Chappelle released “The closer.” The controversial final comedy special in his line of work with the streaming giant Netflix. In it, Dave punched a lot of lines at a number of “Marginalized” groups. Cracks about the Black community, Asian community, homosexual community, and Jewish community were abound.
But none of those jokes caused the controversy. Dave made jokes using the N-word, jokes about violence against Asians, women, cracks about Jewish people, and the homosexual community. Out of all that material, what has caused the uproar was the comedian’s jokes about the Transgender community. Which is where the subjectivity comes into play.
Richard Pryor was hilarious to many people, but received pushback from the wealthy people his jokes were often at the expense of. Imagine a world where Richard Pryor couldn’t make jokes about race because they made white people uncomfortable. Imagine him not being able to make jokes about the Vietnamese monk that had set himself on fire because it upset the people in the government?
What if Palestinian comedians couldn’t joke about Israel because it upset Israelis? Are we ok with banning jokes about the Chinese government because it might offend Chinese people? How can we allow subjective outrage to dictate what is acceptable commentary?
I recently sat down with Vito Gesualdi, a left leaning comedian who was assaulted at the Dave Chappelle Netflix protest, to discuss the matter. Some readers might recognize him as the gentleman with the “We like Dave Chappelle” that was destroyed. The following excerpts are from our interview.
John Sullivan: “What do you do for a living Vito?”
Vito Gesualdi: “These days I’m a full time YouTuber and content creator, but I also have a side gig doing graphic design for tabletop games.”
John Sullivan: “And what type of content do you create? Is it accurate to label you as a comedian/comedy content creator?”
Vito Gesualdi: “I call myself a comedian, as it’s the best descriptor of what I do. I exist to make people laugh.”
John Sullivan: “As a comedian, I imagine that Dave Chappelle is an idol to you with his over three decades in comedy. How did it make you feel to see people protesting to have him silenced?”
Vito Gesualdi: “I was amazed that people would label one of the greatest comedians of all time a hatemonger for daring to talk about certain issues. As a comedian, my livelihood depends on being able to freely joke about all sorts of topics. Anyone who tries to silence that is trying to stamp out my profession and voice.”
John Sullivan: “So when you came out with your sign, you weren’t just defending Dave Chappelle, but defending the basic rights that allow you to make a living?”
Vito Gesualdi: “It’s defending anybody’s right to discuss and joke about sensitive topics. Dave didn’t go over the line, and if what he said gets erased, then none of us are safe.”
John Sullivan: “As a comedian, where does the line get drawn on when someone is being hateful and engaging in comedy?”
Vito Gesualdi: “You have to look at what the humor is, what’s the focus of the punchline? Is the punchline “hey this culture is peculiar” or is it “hey this culture is stupid and deserving of hatred”? There’s nuance to figuring that out, but do we really think Dave hates anyone?”
John Sullivan: “What would you say to the detractors who think Dave Chappelle does hate people, or that he “Punches down.”
Vito Gesualdi: “I’d ask who determines which way is down? Groups like Jews and Asians are doing very well politically and economically, but some would say they are off limits for jokes. But poor white groups get characterized as “rednecks” or “white trash” without hesitation. It assumes all groups occupy some imaginary stack, which is a wholly reductive way of examining society.”
John Sullivan: “During the viral video, things started to get a bit physical between you and several protestors as they damaged your property. What was going through your mind at that moment, and did you have concerns for your own safety?”
Vito Gesualdi: “In any protest situation, I’m always aware that something could go wrong. I’ve dealt with violent Antifa types before, and have to keep a tight grip on my property for fear they might snatch it. I’m glad they stole my sign and not my camera. Ultimately, I just hope they recognize I’m too polite to be a real threat to them, and that beating me up is unnecessary. So far this has worked.”
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John Sullivan: “Articles are coming out about this situation regularly, making claims as to what position you hold on the community protesting Dave Chappelle. With that in mind, would you like to take the opportunity to make your feelings on the LGBTQ community known from your own mouth?”
Vito Gesualdi: “The problem with this question, and any attempt to place all the complexity of sexuality under one banner, is that it assumes all LGBTQ issues are one and the same. My thoughts on homosexuality are not at all the same as my thoughts on transgenderism, and gay / lesbian / bisexual / queer topics were not the focus of the protest, nor or my reaction to it.
In regard to transgenderism specifically, I have my own unique take on gender. I don’t think any items or behaviors should be coded as gendered. There is no such thing as “women’s clothing” or “girl’s toys” there are just clothing and toys. A boy can wear a dress or play with a doll if he decides that makes him a woman that’s his right, but I think that decision is based on an antiquated set of gender coded norms.
The most important thing is freedom. You should have the right to do, wear, act and say whatever you want as long as it causes no undue harm to any other person. Thus, trans people should be afforded as many possible accommodations to make their protections under the law as fair as possible, regardless of whether I or anyone else agrees with their self-determined gender. Where it gets tricky is when their rights intersect with the rights of say: a biological female athlete who wants a fair playing field, or a biological female prisoner afraid of sharing a prison cell with a biological male. These are complex issues, and ones we can figure out through safe and sane dialogue.
Unfortunately, these discussions seem to be drowned out by campaigners who think they have society already figured out 100% and everyone should just fall in line. The conversations aren’t happening and they are full of misinformation and obvious hyperbolic rhetoric.
All people deserve rights, and we need to come to an agreement on what to do when the rights of different groups intersect. It isn’t an easy discussion and there isn’t a “right” answer, but we still need to find one that works for our modern society.”
John Sullivan: “Is it your belief that comedy is the best place for those discussions to start?”
Vito Gesualdi: “It’s definitely part of it. If we can joke about what makes us feel weird or uncomfortable about these issues, it can normalize them. It’s natural to feel weird about discovering people are out there who want to remove their genitalia to become their truest self. And it’s okay to joke about how weird that can make us feel, if it’s done in a way that fosters understanding about why somebody might make that decision.”
John Sullivan: “Well said Mr. Gesualdi, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me.”
As I said at the start of the article, comedy is the most subjective form of art on our planet. Without free expression, comedy dies a gasping pathetic death. Vito Gesualdi is a refreshing breath of air in a suffocated industry. Only time will tell if more individuals like himself, and Mr. Chappelle challenge what is deemed “Acceptable material for comedy.”