Comedians find humor in the darkest subject matter and comment on society, exposing harsh truths. Most of us would be hard-pressed to say they should not have the right to say their piece. Others, however, say comedy should be curtailed. Read this list and make up your own mind.
Mona Shaikh was born in Pakistan, and after moving to America at 15, she became interested in a career in standup comedy. “I grew up in a politically unstable country, so politics is weaved into my fabric,” she said. “I can’t be an artist now and not talk about things that impact people.” Her most controversial moments have been her critiques of the Muslim world.
While doing standup in Dubai, she was censored from discussing human rights violations or criticizing the government of Saudi Arabia, under threat of being banned from the city. She hasn’t stayed silent on the topic of Saudi Arabia, though, once mocking the Saudi government for not allowing women to drive. She has also mocked how some Muslims imams have sanctioned domestic violence and jokes that Pakistani men are obsessed with virgins because they don’t like to be criticized. All this has earned her the nickname “The Naughty Muslim” and has brought backlash from death threats to having her website banned in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The Italian actress and comedian Sabina Guzzanti gained popularity as a political satirist. She first courted controversy after mocking Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. “I am not going to sign the agreement for the European arrest warrant,” Sabina said while doing an impression of Berlusconi. “One thing is to bribe an Italian judge to falsify the ruling of a trial; another thing is to bribe a slew of European judges. It’s too expensive, and would suffocate any business activity.”
Her truly most contentious moment came during a speech at a rally for gay rights. She is quoted as saying, “In 20 years Ratzinger will be dead and will end up in hell, tormented by queer demons—not passive ones, but very active ones.” To many Italians, this was unacceptable, and to many Italian politicians, this was grounds for prosecution, based on an obscure law introduced by a treaty between the papacy and Benito Mussolini in 1929. The treaty was revised in the 1980s, and one of the changes made was to remove the offense of which Guzzanti was accused. “But in Italy there is this habit of passing lots of new laws and only seldom remembering to cancel the old ones,” says Guzzanti. “So the new ones and the old coexist.”
Although certain government officials pushed for it, Sabina was never jailed. “I don’t agree with anything at all that Sabina Guzzanti says—much less what she says about the Pope—but I stand by her right to say whatever colossal nonsense she wants to,” was the statement made by Roberto Castelli, Silvio Berlusconi’s justice minister.
Dapper Laughs is a character created by Daniel O’Reilly that is supposed to be a representation of British lad culture. He became well known on social media with catchphrases like “Oi, Oi” and “proper moist.”
The trouble started at a comedy club Daniel was working at. He claims a woman in the audience was asking him to roast her friend; she reportedly said “She’s gagging for a rape,” which he repeated. This sparked outrage among British media outlets, who said that Daniel was inciting sexual assault. The public backlash was immense, with petitions asking ITV2 to remove his show. These petitions were ultimately successful, and the show was canceled. Daniel also canceled his upcoming tour—not that he would have been welcomed if he hadn’t, as there were also petitions to keep him from preforming at certain venues.
Markus Meechan is a Scotland native and YouTube comedian. On April 11, 2016, he uploaded a video on YouTube that got him into serious trouble. Titled “M8 Yer Dugs A Nazi,” it was a video where he had his girlfriend’s pug give Nazi salutes and respond to commands like “Gas the Jews.”
Markus states in the video itself that he is not racist and that he made the video to annoy his girlfriend, but this did not matter to the Scottish police, and on April 28, 2016, he was arrested. Markus later apologized, saying, “I am so sorry to the Jewish community for any offense I have caused them. This was never my intention, and I apologize.”
Mike Ward is a Canadian comedian; he made a joke at the expense of a young disabled boy named Jeremy Gabriel.
Jeremy was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a condition that affects the development of bones and tissues in the face. He became a big celebrity in Canada after he was flown out to sing for the pope. Mike mocked Jeremy’s appearance, saying he had stolen a wish because he didn’t die. Years after the joke was originally told, Jeremy’s mother Sylvie Gabriel filled a complaint against Mike, and he found himself in front of a human rights tribunal. Mike was fined $42,000 in total, $25,000 in moral damages and $10,000 in punitive damages to Jeremy, and $5,000 in moral damages and $2,000 in punitive damages to Sylvie Gabriel after the tribunal sided with them.
Mike has said he will appeal and joked, “If I lose that, I’ll just move to Syria or Saudi Arabia, or some other country that respects free speech as much as Canada does.”
‘What I’m about to read is not allowed,” the German comedian and satirist Jan Bohmermann said, just before reading a controversial poem about the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has a history of prosecuting people in his own country over insults. Erdogan was not pleased with Jan’s poem, which made reference to him having a “small tail” (tail in Germany being a reference to male genitalia) and saying he watches child porn while kicking Kurds.
Chancellor Angela Merkel called the poem “deliberately offensive,” and, not wanting to upset the Turks after brokering a deal with them over the refugee crisis, allowed an investigation to be opened on Jan. She was heavily criticized by political opponents for this, who said that she was jeopardizing freedom of speech in Germany. The case was later dropped, but these were not the only repercussions Jan would face. The public broadcaster in Germany ZDF removed Jan’s poem from their website after public outcry. The backlash from the public got so bad Jan had to be placed under police protection.
US comedian Lenny Bruce had a career beginning in the late 1940s and ending with his death in 1966. Bruce started to be known as a troublemaker after asking for money for a leper colony, raising $8,000 and keeping $5,500 for himself. Bruce was arrested for this, but the charges were reduced, and he moved soon after.
The controversy really started in 1961 when he was arrested for having prescription drugs and for using obscenities while onstage. He was acquitted on the obscenities charge in 1962, but police began monitoring his shows. That same year, he was banned from playing in Australia and once again arrested for drug and obscenity charges. Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsberg helped Bruce during the trial but to no avail. In 1964 he was found guilty. Later, he was banned from entering England and Scotland as well.
The French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has been accused by French authorities of being an anti-Semite and of inciting hatred against the Jewish people. M’bala has said that France is run by Jewish “slave drivers,” “the Holocaust has become almost a dominant religion” in France, and said about a Jewish journalist, “When the wind turns, I don’t think he’ll have time to pack a suitcase. When I hear Patrick Cohen talking, you see, I think of gas chambers. Pity.”
He has also repeatedly invited an infamous Holocaust denier named Robert Faurisson on stage. As a result, he has been arrested for violating French hate speech laws multiple times. This has not been his only punishment, as he also had his show canceled and has been banned from entering Britain.
The satirist and political commentator Bassem Youssef was originally a heart surgeon but became a comedian after becoming popular on YouTube and getting his own TV show. Trouble started for Youssef after allegedly insulting Islam and the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, as well as attracting accusations that he was “spreading false news with the aim of disrupting public order.” A warrant was issued for his arrest, and his bail was sent at 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,200). “Freedom isn’t free . . . so he paid cash for his bail,” said an announcer on his following show, in which he refused to back down to government pressure and instead mocked them even more.
After Mohammed Morsi was ousted, Youssef’s mockery and insults were turned against General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi; the CBC did not like this, so they canceled his show. “They said I was speaking about things I should not be speaking about . . . Insulting national symbols,” he said. “But you know, Morsi was the president: he was a national symbol.”
Mae West was a writer, film star, and Broadway performer. She is most well known for her iconic one liners and her blunt sexuality. What is not so well known is the persecution and censorship Mae West went through.
In the early 1900s, Mae West’s brand of humor and provocation did not always go over so well, and on April 19, 1926, the first play Mae wrote (entitled Sex) landed her in jail with a 10-day sentence. Unshaken by this experience, her next play dealt with an even more risky subject: homosexuality. Entitled Drag, the play was a success in Connecticut and Patterson, New Jersey. Not wanting to tempt fate again and threatened by the Society for the Prevention of Vice, she kept the play out of New York.
In 1932, Mae got her first film role starring in Night After Night, but film came with a whole new set of challenges. On July 1, 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code began heavily editing Mae movies. She found ways around the censors with double-entendres and innuendos, but this censorship would greatly affect the quality of some of her movies. In 1936, her film Klondike Annie angered William Randolph Hearst so much that he banned any mention of her or the movie from his publications.
By 1943, Mae seemed to lose interest in films and wouldn’t appear in another until the 1970s. Despite the outrage against her, Mae was well liked by movie audiences at the time and is still remembered fondly for her outrageous humor and style.