I have two conflicting views on offensive jokes. The first is that the comedian should have the freedom to discuss anything and that it’s not up to any one person’s feeling of offence to police comedy.
A long while ago, I was once performing at a gig where I mentioned a subject near religion. A heckler shouted that I couldn’t mention that. I retorted that I could. She went on to explain there was an article in the paper about there being rules about what you couldn’t have a go at in comedy. I retorted that I was a professional comedian and knew what I was doing, which got a round of applause from the audience…
… the other comics probably smirked at the open mic act describing himself as a professional… but I wasn’t going to explain to the audience the nuance about being semi-pro/slightly paid for my time.
The point is that I have told jokes in the past which I defend my right to have told in that context. And I have told jokes in the past that a more grown up, wiser, me would never tell now. And I’ve seen comedians touch very delicate subjects, which shouldn’t be brought up in polite society, to devastating effect.
Nothing should be off limits.
But that doesn’t mean your joke is worth telling, or indeed is a reasonable thing to be using the platform of the stage to deliver.
If your jokes cause offence, you need to own that.
So Why are Jokes Offensive?
When you bring a subject up to make a joke, you’re asking the audience to pull up their feelings about that subject. They need to do that to react to the punchline. If it’s an emotive subject and your punchline is not especially strong, the subject is bigger than the punchline and people are more likely to be unhappy than delighted by the punchline.
In short, if it is a big subject, the joke needs to be bigger.
Every joke has a subject and an object. Who is the target of the joke? Often the problem isn’t the subject matter, but what we are asking the audience to agree with as a target.
You can make a joke about rape if the target is the rapist… see earlier about whether it is worth it… but if the target is the victim…?
Comedy is intended to get an emotional reaction. The laugh is an instinctive emotional outburst. It is not a surprise, then, that done badly it can cause the emotion of offence.
In short, don’t blame an audience for being offended if the root cause is that you have written ill-thought-out weak jokes.