Comedy and morality: Satire, censorship and dirty words



12 March 2015


United States Studies Centre

What’s the relationship between comedy and morality? Is there one? Should there be?

That’s the question explored in this talk, which looked at professional humour’s role in defining, and defying, society’s moral boundaries.

From the satirists of ancient Rome to last night’s “Daily Show,” comedy has never been shy about taking on the moral issues of its time. In satirising and illuminating society’s hypocricies and immoral behaviours, though, comedians are frequently accused of “crossing the line.” Generally, they don’t care. George Carlin: “It's the duty of a comedian to find out where the line is drawn and then step over it.”

But one thing is sure: wherever you draw it, your line won’t be in the same spot as your neighbour’s. So how do we as a society decide when comedy goes too far?

The talk by David Misch explored these questions by examining satire, taboos, and censorship. The talk looked at W.S. Gilbert, W.C. Fields, Steve Martin, the Russian Orthodox Church, “Charlie Hebdo,” Billy Wilder, Monty Python, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and two outrageous “Saturday Night Live” sketches written by United States Senator Al Franken.

A significant point of discussion was Mel Brooks’ musical (and book and movie) “The Producers,” a touchstone for controversy from the moment it appeared. To some a hilarious put-down of Hitler, to others a horrifying diminution of the Holocaust, what Brooks actually achieved is still hotly debated.

The talk didn't presume to find “answers” to any of these issues but tried to discuss the questions in a way that gets people to examine their assumptions and presumptions, and realise that comedy’s relationship with morality is as complex as morality itself.

Misch’s talk and the ensuing discussion was a great entrée for our new American Studies undergraduate unit of study, Stand Up USA: American Comedy and Humour. The unit’s coordinator, Dr Rodney Taveira, moderated the talk and was on hand to answer any enquiries about the unit.


  • Dr Rodney Taveira
    Dr Rodney Taveira
    Senior Lecturer in American Studies, and Undergraduate, Honours, and Postgraduate Coordinator, United States Studies Centre

    Rodney Taveira is a Senior Lecturer in American Studies, and Undergraduate, Honours, and Postgraduate Coordinator at the United States Studies Centre. He was awarded his PhD in English from the University of Sydney in 2010 and has published on contemporary American fiction, book reviews, and television, and the interrelation of cinema, photography, painting, and literature.

  • David Misch
    Screenwriter, Author and Director

    David Misch visited the US Studies Centre in March 2015. Among Misch’s TV and movie credits are the Emmy–winning Mork and Mindy, the Emmy–losing Duckman, the Emmy–besotted Saturday Night Live, and the Emmy–ineligible The Muppets Take Manhattan. In addition, Misch is also a playwright, songwriter, blogger, lecturer, and stand–up comic.