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Going too far for a laugh

Why did the comedian cross the line?

It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke. But for comedians, it's not a laughing matter. Recent onstage incidents involving Dane Cook and Daniel Tosh have made headlines creating a debate of just how far a comedian can go in his act. What is the mythical "line" and is it OK to cross it?

Comedian Clark Jones of Auburn Gresham said Cook and Tosh crossed the line with their jokes.

But he's glad they did.
"That's what they're supposed to do," said Jones, 29. "It's one of the last places where there's real freedom of speech. I love I can say whatever I want and that you can do whatever you want with it."
Jones said he doesn't think comedians should be worried about encountering controversy. If he thinks something is funny, he wouldn't be afraid to try it, including a breast cancer joke he once made that "definitely shocked" the audience.
"No one in the audience was laughing at all," Jones said. "Even if you think it's funny, someone will always take offense at something. Sometimes we don't know if it's too far until it's out there. But usually when it's something real good and you know you have that itching, then it's something you have to say."
Comedian Will Miles, 29, of Bucktown, agreed nothing is off-limits because of artistic rights. But it isn't necessarily good to take advantage of.
"There is no such thing as too far, but as a comedian you have to make sure that your material makes the audience want to watch you again and spread the word," Miles said. "If you can fill clubs across the country with crowds who like rape jokes, then by all means keep making rape jokes. Comedy is an art, but it is also very much a business."
IO's Ben Johnson, 32, of Ukrainian Village, said whether something crossed the line or not depended on the context of the joke.

"There's not a clear border where something is over the line, it's more like an invisible dog fence that shocks the crap out of you," Johnson said. "Basically, the more difficult a subject you're dealing with, the more artfully you have to deal with it."

Johnson had mixed feelings of the media's coverage of the incidents.
"If you say or do something that people don't like you should be accountable to it," he said. "But it's unfair because the coverage is usually so casual about dismissing the creative process. Comedians say things. That's just their medium and sometimes they're going to say the wrong things just in the interest of trying things."
Miles said it's not fair for comedians to be defined by one joke.
"A person who wasn't at the show and didn't understand the flow of the comedian's set that night has no right to generalize that comedian's brand of comedy," Miles said. "One aside and one new joke aren't meant to make national headlines. But in the world we live in today, everybody is given a voice via the Internet, and every showcase set for a famous comedian could potentially be a news story."
Recently Bill Maher told Politico he would never apologize for anything he said and no comedian should. Other comedians like Patton Oswalt and Jim Norton came to the defense of the comedian's right to say anything onstage.
Jones said he doesn't even believe the comedians' apologies.
"They're doing it because they have to," Jones said. "I don't believe they're sorry. It's something they have to do. The thing about comedy, going over the line is not a cardinal sin in the community. It won't get you ex-communicated. Apathy or joke thievery are the two cardinal sins in the comedy world."

In the end, Johnson said comedians should only worry about being themselves and leave the judgment up to the audience.
"If (the comedians are) irresponsible douchebags, then that's a viewpoint they're exposing and not everybody has to like it."

Scott Bolohan is a RedEye special contributor.

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