When did comedy get so ugly?

Christian Toto Contributor
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Christopher Titus vowed to kill Sarah Palin to stop her from becoming president. Gilbert Gottfried mocked the Japanese following the tsunami which killed thousands earlier this year. Tracy Morgan said he’d stab his son if he turned out to be gay. Comic actor Alec Baldwin called those who disagreed with his recent Huffington Post column “d-bags.” And on any given episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the host says plenty of hurtful things about people who dare to vote for Republicans.

When did comedy get so ugly?

This isn’t the first generation of mean-spirited comics. Lenny Bruce wore down his enemies with a relentless barrage of socially aware barbs. George Carlin in his later years used his agile mind to smite his foes. And didn’t Sam Kinison scream that Africans living in arid climates should simply move to more fertile terrain?

Ugly can be funny. But it takes inspiration and daring to wring real laughs out of anger. Kinison raged without equal and made himself a legend in the process. When Lewis Black is on fire, and his neck veins look like a bicycle inner tube ready to burst, he’s as funny as anyone in his comedy class. But when was the last time Black had to apologize for crossing the line?

Social media makes it easier than ever for celebrities to let their hate flags fly. A comic doesn’t need to visit Jay Leno’s couch or jump on stage at the local Chuckles Comedy Hut to share a torrent of surly shtick. He or she can whip out their iPhone and Tweet to their black heart’s content. There’s no publicist to stop them, no crowd to hiss and cut them short.

Comedians also get burned faster in today’s media culture. The wrong Tweet will find the right journalist or blogger fast, and at the speed of viral it’s damage control time.

That’s what got Gottfried in trouble, and it cost him arguably the easiest gig in America, providing the scratchy voice of that Aflac duck.

Titus shared his Palin thoughts on stage at a taping of “The Adam Carolla Show,” one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes. Titus later served up a half-hearted apology posted to his Facebook page. Talk about closing the social media loop.

Humor remains one of the best ways to let your anger loose without having to defend yourself, no matter the medium. It’s passive-aggressive perfection. Got a problem with what Titus said? Hey, it’s just a joke. Lighten up. Who hasn’t let loose a two-pronged “joke” to a friend or colleague hoping, deep down, to leave a mark? Imagine the temptation for comedians to do the same when they make a living from their wits.

Making matters worse is how thin-skinned people are these days. If John Doe found Titus’s Palin swipe offensive, he can immediately tell everyone he knows with a sternly phrased Facebook status update.

The political landscape offers up easy targets like Palin for the hate-challenged, but it also gives comedians almost too much material to use at any given time. What’s a modern comic to do with Congressman Anthony Weiner, the mad Tweeter? By the time the New York politician made his mea culpa speech, comics had crafted about a thousand jokes about him, from professional stand-ups to YouTube pranksters.

That makes it harder for your average comic to be heard. Going nasty can bump you up to the front of the line in pop culture, but it also means you’re more susceptible to blowback.

The nexus of politics and comedy has never been as important as it is today. Hate Palin? Write a joke about her seeing Russia from her window and it becomes fact, even if it’s not true. And, even if a hateful political jest falls flat, it still can draw sympathetic applause. A mean-spirited Palin riff will inspire spontaneous applause from people sporting a Co-Exist sticker on their car.

Ideological blinders also makes today’s comics susceptible for getting themselves in trouble, fast. It’s easy to suss out Letterman’s take on Palin given his Mama Grizzly-bashing monologues. So when he aimed a joke at one of Palin’s daughters in 2009, he probably didn’t even realize how cruel he sounded.

What the controversial comments made by Titus, Gottfried, Baldwin and Morgan have in common is that they aren’t funny. Comedians can get all red in the face or rant about today’s politicians, special interest groups or Charlie Sheen, but they better make it funny or at least make us think.

Otherwise, nothing will be as angry as the social media backlash to follow.

Christian Toto is an award-winning journalist, film critic and movie blogger at whatwouldtotowatch.com. His work appears in The Denver Post, Box Office Magazine, The Washington Times and The Daily Caller, and he can be heard on the nationally syndicated “Dennis Miller Show.”