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Stop the war on comedy

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
March 17, 2012 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says that political comedy, like what Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart exemplify, should not be stifled.
Dean Obeidallah says that political comedy, like what Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart exemplify, should not be stifled.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah: A new war has broken out -- a war on comedy
  • He says the war started when Rush Limbaugh's defenders attacked Bill Maher
  • Obeidallah: So what exactly is the line that comedians are prohibited from breaching?
  • He says political comedy must not be stifled; hateful jokes are a problem

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He has appeared on Comedy Central's "Axis of Evil" special, ABC's "The View" and HLN's "The Joy Behar Show." He is co-executive producer of the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival and co-director of the upcoming documentary, "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- First, there was the war on drugs. Then came the war on terrorism. Followed by the war on Christmas, women and religion. We seem to love waging wars.

And now a new war has broken out: the war on comedy.

This war started just a week ago by those defending Rush Limbaugh's infamous attack on Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law school student who simply offered an opinion Limbaugh didn't like. So, Limbaugh being the "entertainer" that he is, responded by calling this young woman a "slut" and "prostitute."

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

With Limbaugh under attack for his despicable comments, his supporters launched a desperate counterattack to save him by targeting "liberal" comedians like Bill Maher and Louie C.K. for their crude and demeaning jokes about Sarah Palin. Their point was that Limbaugh may have been bad, but he's not the only one, so he should be forgiven. (I'd love to see a defendant in a murder trial try this defense.)

Thus, the war on comedy was on. The hostilities escalated late last week when Fox News' Greta Van Susteren called for a boycott of the Congressional Correspondents' dinner because Louie C.K. was slated to host the event. (C.K. dropped out of hosting the dinner shortly after the controversy erupted.)

I'm not really sure why Limbaugh's defenders launched this war on comedians. Limbaugh does not even consider himself a comedian; instead, he's referred to as an "entertainer," which is the same label often used to describe strippers. (No offense intended to strippers.)

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In any event, Maher and C.K. were under attack for having crossed the line that comedians are forbidden to transgress.

So, here is the big question: What exactly is the line that comedians are prohibited from breaching? What type of joke crosses from killing the crowd to killing your career?

To me, the answer depends on two factors. Are you a famous comedian? And what type of joke is it?

If you're not a famous comic, you can get away with saying almost anything. I perform regularly in the comedy clubs in New York City which feature -- in my opinion -- the top comedians in the nation. But still, night after night you will hear material far worse than anything Maher, C.K. or even "the entertainer" Limbaugh would have articulated. There's no shortage of jokes that are anti-everyone, including anti-women, anti-gay, anti-minority, anti-overweight people, etc.

In a comedy club setting, it's very easy as a comedian to determine if you went too far. The audience stops laughing, or at least the laughs drop off considerably. The comic then moves on to the next joke and that is the end of it.

On the other hand, if you're a famous comedian, it's a completely different story. If you tell an anti-"fill in the blank" joke, you might find yourself on TMZ, hiring a team of publicists, and making the rounds on television shows offering your "sincerest apologies."

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But to me, the more important factor in determining if a comedian -- famous or not -- has crossed the line of decency is to look at the subject matter of the joke.

While I absolutely support freedom of speech, comedians deserve to suffer consequences if they make hateful jokes about race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

However, comedians must be afforded great leeway when the joke is about a political issue. Lampooning people in power like our president, Congress and political candidates is nearly a cornerstone to our democracy. Even our libel laws provide a higher degree of protection for private citizens than for public figures.

American comedians have a proud tradition of raising awareness on important political and social issues. Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Chris Rock and, of course, Jon Stewart, do more than simply make people laugh -- their comedy can shape public opinion.

The standard for acceptable political comedy cannot be whether the joke offended someone. Political jokes will always offend someone since they are inherently divisive. The reason we tell these jokes is not only to get a laugh, but also to challenge people's views. (Here's a little secret: We comedians enjoy the fact we sometimes rankle those in the audience who disagree with our political jokes.)

Political comedians must be afforded the unfettered right to satirize our politicians -- even if their jokes include crude words such as the ones that Maher and C.K. used about Sarah Palin, who is still considered a leader in the Republican Party even if she is no longer the governor of Alaska.

If we stifle political comedy, we will cause a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas on political issues. We will not only have lost the war on comedy, but also effectively silenced comedians from telling jokes about any controversial political topics or figures. This would result in two equally dire scenarios for our nation: Less freedom of expression and more prop comedy.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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