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Shockingly Funny: The Morality of Eric Andre’s Comedy

photograph of Eric Andre at an event

In a recent interview with The New York Times, comedian Eric Andre refers to himself as a “benevolent prankster.” Eric Andre is arguably the modern king of hidden camera pranks, which have racked up millions of views on YouTube. Andre got his start performing standup comedy and was scouted by Comedy Central where he debuted his interview-style prank show, “The Eric Andre Show,” in 2012. On June 23, his Netflix standup special “Legalize Everything” released, and it is anticipated that his hidden camera comedy “Bad Trip” will release sometime this year on Netflix.

Eric Andre admits that his career relies on “purposely trying to get a rise out of people.” While a large portion of modern standup incorporates elements of self-deprecation, Andre’s style of humor fundamentally depends on eliciting a reaction out of someone else – and the stronger the reaction, the more humorous the content. This style of comedy is called ‘shock humor’ and often plays on so-called “low culture” subjects such as toilet jokes, sexual themes, and dark humor. With Andre’s steady career in comedy on the rise, there has been little discussion over the morality of his, and other shock-humorists’, methods.

Is it okay to purposefully seek a strong reaction from unsuspecting others? Does the relationship between the shocker and the shock-ee matter? And do the ends of shock-humor’s comical absurdity justify the means?

Eric Andre is not oblivious to the questionable morality of his work. In his NYT interview he discloses that for the shock-humorist, “you end your day feeling like you did something wrong and it’s not until you see the footage edited together properly that you’re like, OK, I have a funny bit in here.” For Andre, it seems the end result of humorous content justifies the short-lived shock he elicits from others. But some might argue this method of achieving comedy is neither respectful toward the rights of others nor justified by the end product. By attempting to upset, disgust, or disturb others, Andre acknowledges he is using people as a means to an end. And though every person appearing in his hidden camera prank has signed a release form, how many other individuals, that Andre elicited a reaction from, have refused to be a part of his videos? This lack of information makes it hard to truly gauge how much emotional turmoil and trauma has resulted from Andre’s process in creating his comedy.

Another moral consideration when it comes to shock humor is the positionality of the person being shocked and the way in which their identity is used in the process. Some instances of Andre’s NYC hidden camera pranks could be interpreted to derive humor by playing on a subject’s identity. In one of his videos, he begins a conversation with a woman asking a lewd question. This instance is disturbing considering the frequency with which women experience sexual harassment in public spaces and could potentially be considered sexual harassment under the New York City Human Rights law. In another video, filmed outside of the Democratic Convention, he asks blatantly sexist questions about Hillary Clinton to a woman who agreed to an interview. In both of these instances, Andre plays on the gender/sex of his comedic subject to attempt to elicit a reaction at their expense.

Andre’s shock humor could also lead to especially harmful consequences if the subjects of his humor are already prone to public harassment or stress. In the official trailer for his upcoming comedy “Bad Trip” it appears that many of Andre’s prank victims are people of color. In fact, one of his more extreme pranks targeted a black barbershop and ended with a black man chasing him and his costar, Lil Rel Howery, with a knife. Even if Andre did not intentionally target communities of color, or play on race stereotypes while doing so, it is still important to consider whether or not it is especially immoral to visit shock and emotional distress upon individuals and communities who experience a higher rate for social and economic stress to begin with.

Despite the morally questionable aspects of Andre’s methods, some might argue that those who are featured in his pranks are, in a way, willing participants in the comedic exchange. While individuals cannot control Andre’s actions, they are arguably responsible for their own reactions to his attempts to shock them. Aside from during his subway hidden-camera pranks, Andre never targets individuals who are incapable of walking away from the situation, and he has stated that he carefully tries to operate within the bounds of the law. While the law is clearly not always a good guide for determining morality, Andre could certainly be considered better than those who shock in order to harass or assert their  power over others, such as in street harassment. Additionally, Andre often uses himself and his body as the “shock,” subjecting himself to public humiliation, judgment, and sometimes potential violence. It could be argued Andre is technically at greater risk for harm than any individual he shocks. This is especially true if one considers his identity as a Black man, in a culture and society where calling the police on Black people is normalized, and police brutality is a common phenomenon. When asked about his experience interrupting an Alex Jones rally outside the 2016 Republican National Convention, Andre admitted to Stephen Colbert thinking to himself, “Oh I’m gonna die…This is where my life ends.” To some, Andre’s willingness to put his life in danger makes the shock he causes others seem minuscule in comparison.

The case in favor of Andre’s comedy becomes stronger when one considers his attempts to question social norms through his comedy. Andre has been vocal about his identity as both a Jewish person and a Black man. One might also observe that unlike some forms of dark humor, Andre’s specific brand of facetiousness often raises further awareness about important issues. Both his standup comedy as well as his social media accounts are used to highlight issues concerning social justice and inequality. During “Legalize Everything” Andre shocks the audience by acting out an exaggeratedly violent imitation of police brutality while yelling, “This is a system invented by rich, white, Christian, heterosexual businessmen, and if you don’t match that description, then it is my job to subjugate and oppress you, motherfucker, for I am your judge, jury, and executioner!”

Andre has also intentionally used the shock aspect of his comedy to target and poke fun at bigoted people and their beliefs. The topics he chose to shock others with during his trip to the RNC such as transgender restrooms, cross-dressing, abortion, and Black Lives Matter were clearly meant to poke fun at the caricature of Republicans as being prejudiced and intolerant towards certain groups of people.

Shock-humor has the potential to call attention to harmful social norms and subjects considered too taboo for casual conversation. It can also, as Andre has shown, be used to force others to reexamine their own engagement with socially harmful institutions and ideologies. However, the morality of shock-humor on an individual level and the relationship between the shocker and the shock-ee are too important to ignore. As the popularity of shock-humor and comedians like Eric Andre continues to rise, it is time we asked ourselves whether the hilarity of absurdity justify the means of shock.

Is All Comedy Ethical? “The Office”’s Irresponsible Use of Satire

Photograph of the cast of the TV show The Office all sitting for a press conference on set

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Before I start, I have a disclosure to make: I am a huge comedy fan; stand-up, sketch comedy, sitcoms, dry humor, dark humor, you name it and I’ll probably watch it. In high school I would stay in most Saturday nights waiting for the newest episode of Saturday Night Live, and I became so intrigued by the way the show was simultaneously political and funny. However, SNL was very blatant about their liberal political views, while I noticed other shows were not. Other shows like, Portlandia, seemed more invested in providing social commentary through sketch comedy.

Moreover, comedy is often used to make critiques of our social world, and comedy writers play around with various forms of comedic critique. Shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah rely on witty jokes with emphasized punch lines, while shows like SNL use exaggeration, imitation, and parody. Nevertheless, both of these shows, and many other shows containing political and social commentary, utilize satire to convey their critique (they might also be how you prefer to intake current events). Satire can be defined as humor that utilizes exaggeration, ridicule, and irony to expose someone’s flaws and shortcomings. Satire is meant to criticize and convey an opinion; however, it is important to analyze whether writers are able to convey their messages clearly, even when these messages are conveyed through irony or exaggeration.  

While seemingly unrelated to ethical issues, satire and comedy have epistemic power. Since society often learns through media, and comedy is a kind of media many intake on a daily basis, comedy has the power to influence knowledge about a particular topic or society at large. This is particularly poignant considering satirical comedy promotes a particular perspective. When I started watching SNL, I was not fully aware how excitedly I internalized many of the political opinions conveyed through cold open skits, where politicians were freely questioned, imitated and made fun of. This reflexivity led me to ask, what could be the risks of consuming satire simply for its face value, its ability to make people laugh? Can a comedy show be considered harmful, when a satirical critique is not legible or understood by everyone? As I began to develop a critical lens, I realized that I did not always understand certain references, or know exactly why I was laughing. Other times, I understood how brilliant seemingly nonsensical comedy could be.

I became inspired to ask these questions after watching the episode “Diversity Day” from The Office. “Diversity Day” is the second episode of the first season of The Office, and a salient portrayal of satirical comedy. In the episode, Dunder Mifflin corporate headquarters calls in a diversity training specialist after Michael Scott, the office manager, recreates a Chris Rock stand up act. While Michael does not see a problem with his imitation, his actions make the entire office very uncomfortable. At one point, Michael decides to lead Diversity Day by making everyone put a notecard with a particular racial or ethnic group written on it on their foreheads. His game consists of having people guess what group is written on their notecards by talking to others who are supposed to give them clues of who they are. Michael goes on to promote the use of problematic stereotypes as clues and eggs people to “stir the pot.”

This episode can easily be called controversial and problematic by many; however, writing off the social critique within the episode as simply “problematic” might mean missing some of what the writers hid in irony and exaggeration. One could argue that the writers utilized exaggeration to convey the problematic and hurtful nature of racial tropes and stereotypes. As Michael promotes “stirring the pot” it becomes evident that even those who do not mean to be insensitive are fully aware of how to be so. The overtly problematic content is mean to shock viewers into acknowledging how hurtful these common assumptions are, because the writers purposefully make Michael appear misinformed and ignorant. Additionally, one can see how Michael’s intent of “stirring the pot” might point to society’s need to talk about race in blunt and honest ways, instead of pretending no one knows what prejudice looks and sounds like.  Nevertheless, viewers are meant to understand that at the end of the day, Michael’s way of going about this conversation is not nuanced, sensitive, or productive.

Some might not understand this use of satire and choose to dismiss the show as problematic; however, what might be worse is an audience that laughs at Michael’s racially insensitive jokes and does not consider them hurtful and disgusting. This is where the danger of satire lies: when a show like The Office purposefully uses stereotypes as a form of exaggeration meant to highlight normative opinions, it is not a guarantee that everyone will “get it.” Viewers might watch “Diversity Day” and impersonate Michael impersonating Indian people. Jokes meant to convey a point, jokes that are not meant to be repeated, might become popular shared knowledge and the punch line of many conversations.

As I watched “Diversity Day,” I acknowledged that this episode might be very irresponsible. While I could see what the writers had sought out to do, I also realize that my understanding of racism and power combined with my interest in comedy put me in a particularly advantageous position. I know I am among those most likely to “get it.” Sadly, I am not too confident about the magnitude of that group. My background facilitates my understanding of the episode, something not everyone can rely on when watching comedy shows. I began to wonder, is it ethical to utilize hard-to-understand satire when discussing topics related to power? Does the epistemic harm that this representation might cause outweigh the benefits?

It is imperative to remember that comedy shows are a form of media, and one might consider media a form of speech. Arguably, then, a creator’s or artist’s ability to express their speech freely through comedic portrayals is a constitutional right. However, what is legally permissible is not always what is most ethical. Additionally, one could say that paying too much attention to the possible harms of any given satirical show could result in over policing of speech. Nevertheless, writers must assess the possible impact their shows might have on audiences. As epistemic influencers, they are responsible for asking, does this have the potential to do more harm than good? The answer to that question has the potential to influence the next Netflix pick.

Is It Acceptable to Joke about North Korea?

On November 4th, it was reported that two Australian men caused quite a stir in North Korea. Morgan Ruig and Evan Shay were already in China on a polo trip when they found out about the North Korean Golf Championships and decided to enter the competition. Though the pair did not explicitly claim to be members of the Australian team, they did not correct the North Koreans who assumed as much. While most are finding the men’s antics entertaining, others are concerned about their underlying mocking the North Korean people and government.

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Open Mike Eagle, Race and Getting the Joke

Not many understand Open Mike Eagle’s humor on its face. The rapper says as much on the opener to his 2014 album, Dark Comedyrapping that he needs to “Add a lol cause nobody seems to know when I’m joking.” Indeed, Eagle’s deadpan style, as well as the density of cultural references and wordplay in his work, can make parsing out a verse’s punchline an exercise in literary interpretation upon first listen.

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