How raised awareness about racial issues might impact the DC comedy club scene

Paris Sashay is performing at an Underground Comedy show at Big Hunt in January of 2020. (Photo by Victor Cruz)

The serious issues of racial equality and police brutality are common in conversation now, but should comedians be concerned about taking topics too far?

Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have recently come under fire for past blackface sketches, which have served as a reminder for comics to balance a fine line between being edgy and politically correct.

“Part of standup comedy is about free expression,” General Manager of the Comedy Loft James Gaghan said. “Comedy can be a celebration of different viewpoints — if it’s harnessed correctly.”

Sean Joyce, the founder of Underground Comedy, said the D.C. area is very educated and liberal, and there haven’t really been issues with comics crossing lines playing around with racist ideas.

“That type of comedy didn’t succeed in the city already,” Joyce said. “Comics were already very aware of racial topics and very sensitive to audience perception of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.”

All live shows are on hold because of pandemic restrictions but when they resume, Joyce doesn’t expect jokes about race will be off limits.

“I think the audience is going to be ready to hear more about racial issues,” he said.

Gaghan believes it’s the responsibility of venues to know their audience and to be conscious of who they book.

“Because if we book somebody and we aren’t paying attention to what their content is, we can’t really on the back end say, ‘You can’t talk about this material,’ because we didn’t do our due diligence on the front end,” Gaghan said.

Lauren Woodfork, a former standup comic in D.C., said no topic should be off limits in comedy, but comics should evolve with the culture.

“You can definitely take bigger risks if the joke is manufactured well enough,” she said. “It’s not necessarily about avoiding taboo topics, it’s about making us laugh at a familiar topic in a new way.

Comedy should evolve with the culture. Comics wanting to transcend the era in which they perform can’t really do that if their perspective never changes.”

WTOP’s Rob Woodfork contributed to this report.

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