Being offended by a joke is narcissism – stand-up comedian
He describes himself as a good man with a vicious sense of humour. He’s young, brilliant and provocative. We had a serious talk about humour with stand-up comedian Daniel Sloss.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Stand-up comedian Daniel Sloss. Hey, it's great to have you with us today.
Daniel Sloss: Thank you so much for having me.
SS: Alright. So, Daniel, my impression is that humour, it's like a perfect mirror of the reality that we're living in. And let's say if we take American stand-up comedy, for instance, the word ‘sex’ said on stage could once land you in jail, and if you're swearing, it could cost you heavy fines, etc. Then it became totally fine to talk about all those things in the most frivolous of manners. And society was gradually loosening up, the humour was becoming more jiggy as well. And what are we seeing now? Would you say that we're seeing a reverse trend right now?
DS: I really don't subscribe to the narrative that comedy is being censored. I think people are just being yelled at because of the internet, they're just being yelled at with more volume. My jokes aren't necessarily more offensive, and people aren't necessarily more offended. But it's just now we live in a world where a joke that would just upset – let's say, you're in a comedy club with 100 people in it, you do a joke that would normally only upset 20 people. One of them films it, puts it online with no context and then a bunch of people who weren't at the comedy club who weren't in attendance, who've got none of the background information, they get to pile on from the part of the internet where they're hiding and choose to take it the wrong way. And it feels like you know, this is what cancel culture is -the people yell ike [this] “I've been cancelled! I’ve been cancelled!". Unless I’m being naive, especially in comedy, I don't see anyone that's been actually fully cancelled. Like everyone that did get cancelled is now on-tour, they've got a book deal off the back of it, you've got so many people that go, ‘Oh, I got in trouble for this joke’. Andt you just seem to get more… I don’t know… more publicity out of it. But maybe that's just my skewed view.
SS: Well, because I've watched your sets and you're hilarious, by the way –
DS: Thank you very much.
SS: But you’re really free in the way you joke about religion and #MeToo, and sex and death. So you've never really got the feeling that you're walking a tightrope with your jokes?
DS: Oh, no, I definitely do. Like I know there's a social line here with the audience that, you know, I like to find out where the line is and I like to push it and see how far I can go over it. And if I do go too far over it, I bring the audience back.
[Fragment from Daniel Sloss’ Live Show ‘DARK’ on Netflix]
I've upset a great number of people with my comedy before, but I don't necessarily think that it's because more people are getting more sensitive. I think it's because the audience is bigger, more people are watching comedy now. It's become, as you said, very, very popular. People want to do it. So you've got people who don't understand the nuance of comedy. And they go and see a comedian like Jim Jefferies, or Bill Burr, or, you know, me and they hear the jokes and they hear the trigger words – they hear ‘sexual assault’, they hear ‘paedophilia’, they hear ‘religion’, ‘drugs’, whatever their thing that upsets them. And they just don't know how to take it. And even before, like when those people didn't enjoy your jokes, all they did was complain about it after the show to their friends, and then maybe send you a death threat. But back then you had to write like a death threat on a bit of paper and you had to find out where they lived, whereas now you can just do it online. I don't feel that audiences are getting more sensitive. In fact, I'm more shocked by what I can get away with now because I'm always told how sensitive people are. And then you go on stage and I do jokes about rape and religion and people are like, ‘Oh, it must be so dangerous’. No, not if you do it well, like you know –
SS: It’s so interesting you say that because, I mean, I spent a fair amount of time in the States. And I mean, I've seen how people used to joke there 20 years ago and how they joke now and when I turn on Late Night shows, – I mean, those are like some brilliant guys like Fallon and Kimmel and Colbert, – and I compare how they used to joke even like five years ago and now and I kind of feel bad for them because it's like they're left with nothing to joke about but Trump, like there's nothing else they can joke about. And then you have some extreme cases like the Charlie Hebdo killings or like the beheaded teacher, you know, who dares to speak about it, but all of that isn’t tied to humour. And like before, before this whole new ethic and this #MeToo movement came into and the BLM and all that, I mean, I guess people would get offended, but like, what's the point if I get offended, because no one's there to stand up for me. And now I feel like, everyone's so empowered, and they're like, ‘Well, if you offend me, you're going to pay for that!’
DS: Yes. That's a very, very interesting point and I agree with you. So people are more empowered to be offended, but I think I'm just very much of the opinion of genuinely if I offend you so f****** what? If I genuinely sort of offend you, upset you, are you going to let me have that power over you in your head for the rest of your day? All right, then. I always find it so amazing, like the naivety of people who are offended by jokes. First of all, I think being offended by a joke is one of the most narcissistic things in the world. And this is coming from a professional narcissist. But to be offended by a joke is to sit in a comedy club, and to see a comedian who has done this one joke, minimum for 500 times all over the world, all over the country, you as an individual, you sit down, this comedian goes on stage and makes a joke about diabetes, or disability or whatever thing affects you and because it does affect you, you think this comedian took time out of their day to write a joke specifically to upset you, when they don't even know who you are.t's just a joke. This is a joke...All over the world... to sit there and go ‘I'm offended by this joke, they must have done this just to affect me’ is a level of self-centeredness that I genuinely admire. And also… you know, I don't like offending people with my comedy. Sometimes it happens. It's just one of the things that comes from talking about certain subjects. And if I accidentally offend an audience member, I'm upset and I'll make measures to maybe change the wording of the joke because... – I don't want to accidentally offend people. I don't want to offend people, I don’t want to upset.
SS: In your Jigsaw set there is this idea of yours that humour is like art, and certainly, humour can be seen as a form of art itself, it’s open to interpretation, right? So if you get offended by some of it, you should always remember that's how you saw this, it’s not necessarily that I meant it. Do you mean to say that comedians shouldn't really be seen responsible if their jokes get under someone's skin? Is that the point we're making?
DS: No, I think it depends joke to joke. I don't think there's a blanket rule there. I believe that there can be accidental victims of jokes. Like, for example, in my past, – it’s just a very small example, – but when I was younger, before gay marriage was legalised in Scotland, I was doing a bunch of pro-gay material. And whenever I was just doing pro-gay material, I was talking about gay men and like, ‘This is what gay men are like, this is why I support them,nd this is why I support gay marriage’. But every time I was talking about equal marriage, it was always men and gay men I would use asexample - just because I’m a man. So of course, that was the language I was using. I did a show down somewhere in London and there was a young girl, she was about 13 or 14, she was very, very nervous, her dad asked, ‘he's got a couple of questions for you…’ And I spoke to her afterwards and she said, ‘You do all this pro-gay material, but you don't do any pro-lesbian material. Is that because you don't believe that lesbians should have the same rights as gay men or what is it?’ And, of course, the answer is no, it was just my language. I just use the word ‘man’ because I'm a man. But because I had in that moment accidentally left out her, I accidentally upset her - that's an accidental victim. And that changed – all it takes is for me when I'm talking about relationships is to say ‘your partner’, it's a simple word change, it’s not me being censored, it's not me being f****** sensitive, it's not the world shutting me down in the internet. No, no, it's just somebody went, ‘Hey, hey, this is how I interpreted that joke’, and me going, ‘F***, I didn't mean it to go that way’. So I'll make sure that in future iterations of the joke I endeavour to make it more accessible, like if I'm intentionally trying to upset people – great, but sometimes, you know, it's like a shotgun, you fire a shotgun in a direction, you might hit more people than you intend to.
SS: Daniel, you know, I've been talking to a lot of comedians lately, and most of them actually agree, probably like you, that there are no off-limit topics in humour. But there can be off-limit jokes. First of all, do you agree with this? And if you do, then what is an off-limit joke for you? What would you say, if there is such a thing?
DS: I don't think any topic is off-limits. But there's topics that I would not go anywhere near: trans stuff, I wouldn't go anywhere near that, I'm not trans, I was born a man, I identify as a man, I don't know what it's like to be trapped inside of a body that you don't recognize as your own. I've not enough research, I've not done any research into it. So my opinion on it is not important, it's uneducated, it doesn't need to be out there in the world. If I wanted to do jokes about trans stuff – I should be allowed to, of course, and I am allowed to, and I can say whatever I like about it, – but for me personally, I've got nothing to add to the conversation. I've got nothing new to say or I don't have any fresh takes. And I don't have any insight into it. It’s not my world. But it was, you know,for so many years before I did the show X, I'd always heard, you know, the thing that rape jokes are never funny, you should never joke about rape. And I've watched comedians like, you know, f****** Sarah Silverman has some of the best rape jokes in the world. And people say rape is never funny. You go ‘No, of course, rape is never funny. But [to make] jokes about things is to take power away from them’. And if it comes up from the right angle, if you come at it from the right area, and you're aiming at the right target in the subject, then you can, as long as you talk, at least in my opinion, if you talk about something openly and empathetically enough, and the audience understand that you are coming from a place of if not love, at least a place of non-hate, then then you're free to talk about whatever you want to talk about. But people are always going to be offended. They just are.
SS: Do you feel like we live in a time where humour needs to be defended? I tell you why I'm asking because you certainly have your very precise stance on how things stand and you don't feel like you're somehow restrained in the way you should joke about things. But a lot of other people I've spoken to they're like, ‘Yeah, these times are coming’, maybe more in America than over there where you are. But sooner or later, they always reach us, including this new ethics thing. So let's say if, you know, this human sort of… or society evolution reached a point where we'll be like, ‘Maybe it's not okay to joke about this and this’, what do you do then?
DS: Then I f****** joke about it.
SS: Because in America, it's already happening. I'm sorry to bring this up a lot, the example of America, but it does seem like everything, the trends that start there, usually gradually come all the way to Europe and spread around the world. If you joke about something that is considered inappropriate, you just lose your job. I mean, obviously, you're not going to go to prison, but no one's going to book you anymore, no one's going to watch, you’re hated, that's it, like your concerts are cancelled, etc. That's what I'm saying. I mean, yeah, you can joke about it. I mean, this is your choice that no one can take away, but you'll be risking losing your career.
DS: That’s where I don’t necessarily think you will be risking your career because you say this thing and you upset all of these people, but there's also an audience for that. Let's not pretend the same people that are offended by these jokes are the same people that vote for Donald Trump. Like there's always a market. I think what happens a lot of the time when it comes to certain comedians is when they say that they're cancelled, they mean that the mainstream audiences won't watch them anymore because they said something horrific. You know, there's plenty of right-wing comedians, and there's some genuinely really good ones too. And they're over in the UK, there's some decent right-wing comedians. But then there's plenty of s*** ones and they all say, ‘Oh, you know, the reason I'm not successful is because, you know, I say all these unpopular things’. And you go, “No, no, there's people out there who have the same opinions as you’. And I know that's true because I am also under a right-wing government. So let's not pretend for a f****** second you're oppressed or that you're being silenced. Your opinions aren't popular with mainstream comedy fans, and that's fine, go find your own audience but don't complain when they are all stupid racists, like, don't be upset by the crops that you cultivate.
SS: Well, let me ask you this. Do you feel like there is such a thing as a monopoly for certain jokes? I'm going to explain what I mean. For instance, it's appropriate for black people to joke about BLM. But if you're not black, then it's deemed racist if you joke about it. Or for Jewish people to joke about Holocaust, I mean, you know, it's okay thatSacha Baron Cohen does it because he's Jewish, but if someone else did the same thing he was doing it would be perceived in a completely different way; or, like, for a woman to joke about menopause, that’s okay, but like if a man jokes about menopause, then it's sexist. Do you know what I mean?
SS: Is there such a thing as a monopoly for certain jokes? Can you overstep it?
DS: I think you can. But like, for example, if let's say, God forbid, my dad dies next year, right? You come to my dad's funeral, I invite you along, I'd love you to come, it would mean the world to me if you came to my dad's funeral. He always spoke about you. You come to my dad's funeral, if I make a joke about my dad being dead you’re allowed to laugh at it, because that's my pain, it's my f****** struggle. My dad's dead, I don't know how to handle it, and at this moment I make a joke, you know, about my dead dad. You laugh at that, that's fine. My pain, I shared it, we struggle together. If you come to my dad's funeral, and you start making jokes about my dad dead, you’re a p**** because it's not your pain, it's not your experience there. Maybe p**** is a bit of a strong word there. But you know, I think it's about where you come from, you always have to analyse where you are, and who you are, when you make a joke. Like when I was doing the show X, when I was talking about sexual assault and stuff – I'm not a woman, I'm a straight white man, I've got a quite an easy life. And that's not to say obviously that men can't be sexually assaulted. Of course, they can and there's a lot of male survivors out there and their plights and their struggles are as valid as that of women. But you know, what I was talking about a struggle that wasn't my own. Look, I've not been sexually assaulted but I was talking about the sexual assault of a friend. And in that, talking about that, I could very, very easily upset people in the audience who had been sexually assaulted because I didn't go through their experience, I could have said the wrong thing. Where I’m coming from is a more ignorant place. And when survivors said to me during the early performances of the show, ‘Hey, you said this and that was wrong, that was s***, we didn't agree with that’, I changed it because that was me going, ‘Okay, look, I'm still trying to make jokes and I'm standing firm that I can talk about this, and I can make jokes about it’. But I've also got to hold my hand up and admit that I'm also deeply ignorant of it so I might say the wrong thing. So I don't think it's necessarily a monopoly. Like there's definitely the hypocrisies out there. But if you go to a comedy club in New York, there are lots of white comedians doing jokes about black people, black people making jokes about white people, men making jokes about women. Maybe I've been lucky, maybe I'm just not experiencing this censorship myself. But I've not seen a lot of it.
SS: You know, stand-up is mostly this observational type of humour, right? When you talk about things that supposedly occurred to you it's very therapeutical in a way like, you know, it's almost like if you were religious, it's like a confession to your public about your deepest inner fears and thoughts. But our daily routine doesn't always give us that many topics to laugh about in the sense that you need tragedy or complexity in order to joke about it on stage. Does a stand-up comedian have to deliberately be cruising for a bruising from time to time at least to be able to make joke about it after? Or do you just make it up in the end?
DS: You've touched on something which is like one of the really – I don't think it's sociopathic part of being a comedian, but I think it's definitely a f****** weird thing, which is, whenever something bad happens to you, whenever there's a tragedy that goes on in your life, you obviously experienced the sadness in the mourning or whatever the emotion is, but there is always that bit at the back of your head that goes, ‘F***, this will be good to tell on stage though!’ In a way, it makes those moments easier - just knowing, ‘Hey, a bad thing happened to me, this will be funny on stage later’, and then that instantly makes it easier to process. And so yeah, maybe there probably is a little bit of vindictiveness. I definitely in my younger years made some stupid decisions purely based on the fact that I thought it would get me a story I could tell on stage.
[Fragment from Daniel Sloss’ Live Show ‘Jigsaw’ on Netflix]
SS: Well, let's say I want to be a stand-up comedian. Give me a couple of quick tips. How do I bring down the house? Like, a lot of people say like, you can't learn how to joke, but I'm sure you can.
DS: I think you can. But the main thing to learn is how to be yourself on stage.
SS: What if being myself means like just being quiet and observant? I don't think that would make people laugh if I go on stage and just stand there saying nothing. Just give me like a few tips, like one, two, maybe three.
DS: Okay, get on stage as much and as often as you can, doesn't matter how big or small the audience is: you have to get used to being on stage, that's just being comfortable on stage, and the audience is simultaneously the smartest people in the room and the dumbest c**** in the world in the sense that if you are nervous, they will know you're nervous within a second. And if you're nervous on stage, they're like, ‘If he or she is nervous, why should I be comfortable, or why should I trust them to be good?’
SS: What if I'm nervous, and I actually emphasise on the fact that I'm nervous and I'm very honest about it and joke about it – would that work?
DS: Yeah, absolutely. It's a real thing in British comedy for this sort of like beta-style comedy of... the self-effacing, you know, ‘I’m nervous, I’m this...’You can absolutely make it funny, but that's, you know, if that's who you are then it's your job to make that funny to the audience or to make it relatable or to find those... – Even if you are weird or quiet, you have to find the things that do relate you to the audience or on the other side, the things that make you stand out so much that they find that amusing.
SS: Alright, Daniel, it's been really great talking to you. I've had a lot of fun –
DS: I’ve had too.
SS: And I wish you all the best of luck with all your future endeavors. And I hope we won't come to the point where we all need to defend humour. I hope these strange times will sort themselves out.
DS: And when it comes to defending I'll be on the f****** frontline. Okay, I’m a big bleeding heart liberal but when it comes to free speech, it's across the board.
SS: Thank you so much. Good luck with everything.