The late George Carlin once said, "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”
Comedians have always struggled to find the balance between satire and offensiveness. But in today’s climate, crossing the line - however it is defined from week to week, month to month, or year to year - can inspire controversy and consequences.
Let's take a look at some of the comedians who have pushed the envelope and ask the big question: Did they go too far?
Michael Richards spent years as the beloved character Kramer on NBC's popular sitcom Seinfeld, which ended its run in 1998, before he tried his hand at stand-up comedy again in 2006. However, his set at the Laugh Factory in LA fizzled when he responded to a heckler with the N-word, followed by a bizarre racist rant that was caught on tape. He later apologized and met with civil rights leaders.
Andrew Dice Clay has always courted controversy, with audiences never really sure whether his over-the-top, xenophobic, and misogynistic stage persona is a satirical character meant to be hated - or simply a heightened version of the man himself espousing real views. His jokes about using women as sexual objects, and others that disparaged immigrants and various races (he once referred to Asians as "urine-colored"), have rankled critics over the years. Saturday Night Live cast member Nora Dunn and booked musical guest Sinead O'Connor even refused to appear on the episode he hosted in 1990.
Louis C.K. is known for controversial jokes that walk that line between poking fun at racism, sexism, and other third-rail issues in ways that leave audiences unsure whether to laugh, applaud, or groan. But during his 2015 appearance as the guest host on Saturday Night Live, many thought he went way too far with a monologue that seemed to make light of child molestation. And that wasn't the first time: One of his most infamous jokes was about homocidal pedophiles, arguing he understands why they do it because it would just be too awkward to return the kids to their parents afterwards.
The general public mostly knows Daniel Tosh because of his Tosh.0 comedy series that ran on Comedy Central for 11 years, until November 2020. And while he often pushed the limits on that show, his more spontaneous stand-up performances at comedy clubs have drawn even more controversy over the years. Tosh perhaps drew the most ire when he appeared at the Laugh Factory in LA in 2012. He told a female audience member heckling him about an earlier joke making light of sexual assault that it would be funny if the guys sitting around her raped her right then and there. Accounts of the incident made it to Tumblr, The Daily Beast, and other news outlets.
Ari Shaffir is never one to shy away from saying things that will offend the masses, but many accused him of going too far after he tweeted on the day of Kobe Bryant's death in a helicopter crash in 2020 that it was a "great day," because he hates the Lakers. He also implied that Bryant, who was acquitted on sexual assault charges years earlier, had been able to get away with rape, which led to a firestorm of gig cancellations and even death threats.
Roseanne Barr has been a trailblazer in comedy, not only as a woman, but also as someone who brought working-class comedy back to TV with her hit sitcom Roseanne (1988-1997). And although ABC brought Roseanne back for a second run, briefly reinvigorating Barr's career, her return to glory was short-lived when she sent a tweet saying that Valerie Jarrett - a former adviser to President Barack Obama - is what would happen if "the Muslim Brotherhood and the Planet of the Apes had a baby." Jarrett is Black. ABC canceled the show almost immediately - later bringing back the cast (sans Barr) for a spinoff called The Conners.
Maher is no stranger to controversy, with ABC cancelling his late-night show Politcally Incorrect in 2002 following his comments disputing depictions of the 9/11 hijackers as cowards. But in 2017, he flippantly used the N-word on his HBO show Real Time, and the backlash was immediate, prompting him to invite rapper and actor Ice Cube on the show the next week to school him on why it wasn't okay for Maher, who is white, to use such a term - no matter what the intention.
Kathy Griffin has often told jokes that go right up to the line. She seemed to relish making mostly serious news anchor Anderson Cooper blush on CNN's New Year's Eve special every year - until she was fired and pretty much blacklisted after posting a picture of herself holding up a fake, severed head of then President Donald Trump. The Secret Service even got involved. Griffin has since climbed back and continues to tour the country, but she still no longer rings in the new year with Cooper.
Sometimes known as the "lovable queen of mean," Lisa Lampanelli has never been shy when it comes to jokes that touch on race, gender, and sexual politics. She effectively retired from stand-up in 2018 - which essentially ended her long run as a feared insult comic. In 2013, Lampanelli got in trouble for tweeting a picture of her and Lena Dunham with the N-word in the caption. She later defended herself because she said the word ended in "a" instead of "er" and therefore was meant to denote friendship rather than function as a slur.
Amy Schumer didn't name her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer (2013-2016) to NOT offend people. Her approach to controversy is usually to point out sexism or other ills with sometimes self-deprecating - but also extremely biting - satire and social commentary. Many have accused her of racism for jokes like this: "I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual."
In 2019, Shane Gillis was a little-known comedian who got his big break being cast on Saturday Night Live. But the dream gig was short-lived after people unearthed a video podcast in which he made comments deemed anti-Asian and homophobic, getting him canned from SNL before the season even started.
In 2013, the Comedy Central series The Jeselnik Offensive was canceled because of a joke that many, including network executives, thought went too far. Anthony Jeselnik appeared to celebrate the death of Adam Strange, a New Zealand man killed while swimming, by throwing a "Shark Party!" complete with dancers in shark costumes. The bit garned more outrage when Jeselnick put a picture of Strange on screen and remarked, "Let's not forget the man who made this all possible. Smile, you son of a b*tch."
Gilbert Gottfried's reputation as an edgy comedian was on full display when in 2011 he tweeted out jokes that made light of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami that killed thousands, losing a lucrative gig with Aflac as a result. And in 2001, only a few weeks after 9/11, he joked at the Friars Club in New York City that he couldn't get a direct flight because the plane had to stop off at the Empire State building. The audience apparently wasn't amused.
Dane Cook's star seems to rise and fall with the prevailing winds. The comedy veteran has made his share of controversial jokes over the years, including comments in 2012 that made light of the horrific mass shooting that occurred at a movie theater in Aurora, CO. Cook suggested the movie - The Dark Knight Rises - was so bad that someone would have said "shoot me" anyway. He later apologized for being insensitive.
Ross has made a name for himself by emceeing several Comedy Central roasts of famous people. Although most of his cringey insults are all in good fun, he rankled many during his 2012 roast of Roseanne Barr when he made a joke about the horrific mass shooting that had occurred only a month prior at an Aurora, CO, movie theater. Even Barr said it crossed a line - and Comedy Central cut the joke from the broadcast. Ross was unapologetic, arguing that people should be more worried about the guns than jokes about them.
Where to start with the original "shock jock"? His constant rants about masturbation? His sexist obsession with porn stars? The numerous fines he racked up from the FCC for profane rants? Stern has made a litany of comments that offended multiple groups - but his appearance as satirical superhero "Fartman" at MTV's Video Music Awards in 1992 - in which he bared his buttocks and simulated flatuence onstage - seemed to offend just about everyone and is largely blamed for scuttling a planned Fartman movie.
Sarah Silverman's silver tongue has joked about everything from religion to abortion, and she's seldom worried much about who she might offend. In one resurfaced tweet from 2009, for example, she asked whether it's still child molestation if the kid "makes the first move." In 2019, a Baptist minister in Florida wished for her untimely demise because of a joke she made about Jesus in 2005. Silverman shared the video, arguing that she wanted to leave evidence in case someone actually targeted her.
Dennis Miller's recent libertarian and conservative bent that fans didn't sense as much in his earlier work has turned him into more of a niche comedian, different from his heyday status as host of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment in the 1990s. Miller's skepticism of the #MeToo movement, "safe spaces," and what he considers coastal elites are well known, but he also delves into senstitive areas. In 2014, for example, he reportedly said during a standup routine in Hollywood, FL, that "Arabs will go to the moon when the Israelis set up camp there."
Big Jay Oakerson
Big Jay Oakerson doesn't mince words - and he doesn't really care whose feelings he destroys as he comments on everything from race to physical appearance (he once said that Seal wants to get kissed by a rose only because "his face got kissed by golf cleats"). Another favorite is picking out men in the audience to ask about their penis size, bringing the spouse or partner into the conversation as well, and relishing the awkwardness that ensues.
Michelle Wolf was a rising comedian known for blunt and edgy assessments of the modern world when the White House Correspondents' Association plucked her out of relative obscurity for its annual fundraising dinner in 2018. While then President Donald Trump didn't attend the dinner and sent his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in his place, Wolf didn't hold back, not only laying into Trump, but also openly accusing Sanders of lying to the American people as she sat silently on the dais.
Ever since Michael Che began co-hosting Saturday Night Live's recurring "Weekend Update" segment, he has courted controversy with jokes that seem designed to elicit groans as he grins at the camera. He has made light of Simone Biles's mental health struggles, derided the sexual "friction" of post-menopausal women and purposefully misgendered Kaitlyn Jenner, just to name a few.
Chris Rock has made a career out of jokes that make people uncomfortable, often forcing audiences to confront their own biases about race and other controversial matters. But his comments at the Comedy Cellar in New York City in 2017 - at the dawn of the #MeToo movement - landed flat when he told the crowd he doesn't hire women because they might falsely accuse him of sexual assault. The crowd reportedly booed, with Page Six reporting that several women in the audience called him a "sexist pig."
Jim Jefferies catches the most flak for his comments about women (he has acknowledged past misogyny, and says he has cut back on those jokes even though they still surface), but this Aussie has tried to be an equal-opportunity offender over the years. He calls people who believe in God "stupid," and millennials "the worst people who have ever been on our planet." He also briefly impersonated an Asian waiter in his 2020 Netflix special.
George Carlin not only gleefully rattled off the seven dirty words you can't say on television (thereby ensuring those rants would not appear on television - at least before cable), but he also constantly ruffled feathers around politics, religion, and dozens of other touchy subjects. In 1990, he argued that "rape can be funny" during a standup special by asking an audience to "picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd," prompting a posthumous backlash decades later.
Joan Rivers's career was built on insulting people (she usually punched up, targeting the rich and famous), but whether she was onstage fat-shaming Elizabeth Taylor or snarkily ridiculing fashion choices on E!'s Fashion Police, she never apologized and always pointed out that she made just as much fun of herself, often joking about her own plastic surgeries. She also blazed big trails for women in comedy, which helped inspire the hit HBO series Hacks. Still, some balked at her infamous comment during Fashion Police that drew a parallel between Heidi Klum's outfit and the Holocaust.