Controversial Jokes That Got Comedians Into Serious Trouble

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Constitution, but even free expression has limits — and these comics all came under fire with authorities for testing those limits. While some of the commentary that got them in hot water wouldn't even ruffle feathers today, it got some comedians fired, arrested, and one even sentenced to prison. Even though humor is subjective, it's safe to say that there was hardly anything funny about the consequences these comics faced for jokes that went wrong.

Kathy Griffin's Trump stunt

In May 2017, Kathy Griffin posed for a photo shoot in which she is seen holding a replica of President Donald Trump's head covered in ketchup, to give off the impression that he had been beheaded. Griffin's controversial shoot went viral on May 30, 2017, and she didn't expect the flood of backlash she received.

Griffin apologized in a Twitter video, telling her followers, "I sincerely apologize. I am just now seeing the reaction of these images. I am a comic, I cross the line. I move the line, and then I cross it. The image is too disturbing. I understand how it offends people. It wasn't funny, I get it. I've made a lot of mistakes in my career, I will continue ... I ask your forgiveness."

It was too little too late: Griffin's tour dates were pulled from venues, she lost an endorsement deal with Squatty Potty, and CNN fired her from their annual New Year's Eve broadcast. Even Trump went after her on Twitter.  In a press conference on June 1, 2017, Griffin played victim by revealing that she was being investigated by the Secret Service over the photo and alleged that Trump and his family were trying to ruin her life

Dieudonne's Charlie Hebdo commentary

In January 2015, French comedian Dieudonne was arrested for a Facebook post he wrote immediately following the mass shooting in Charlie Hebdo magazine offices, in which 12 people died. Dieudonne's post read, "Je suis Charlie Coulibaly," which translates to "I am Charlie Coulibaly," referencing Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four people in a Kosher market in Paris weeks before. His post has since been deleted; he followed up with another (via NPR) that read, "Whenever I speak, you do not try to understand what I'm trying to say, you do not want to listen to me. You are looking for a pretext to forbid me. You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am not any different from Charlie."

It wasn't the first time authorities penalized Dieudonne: He'd been fined for anti-Semitic remarks and other hate speech numerous times previously, and in 2013, the French government tried to shut down his shows.

It's important to note that free speech laws differ in France than in the United States: The French justice ministry told the Associated Press (via NPR) that the arrests of Dieudonne and 53 others for their language following the attacks was "to protect freedom of expression from comments that could incite violence or hatred ... no one should be allowed to use their religion to justify hate speech."

Most of Lenny Bruce's material

Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity numerous times between 1961 and 1964 for using profanity in his jokes. His first arrest, in San Francisco in October 1961, was for using, among other things, the word "c**ksucker" during a performance; he was later acquitted. (George Carlin shared a cab with him and was arrested for not showing ID to police.)

After that, police monitored him closely, busting him twice in Los Angeles and once in Chicago for his language in 1962. Bruce was ordered to leave England after a performance in London in 1963. He was arrested two more times, both in April 1964, for allegedly using more than 100 obscenities in his Cafe Au Go Go performances in New York City, then again in California.

Bruce had lawyers, psychiatrists, media experts, art critics, and several celebrities (including Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Dylan, Paul Newman, and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen) in his corner, but a court found that he'd still violated obscenity laws, declaring that his material was "obscene, indecent, immoral and impure within the meaning of the [New York] penal code." He was sentenced to four months in the workhouse (a prison for petty criminals to perform manual labor). He died of a morphine overdose before he was able to appeal his conviction.

New York Gov. George Pataki posthumously pardoned Bruce for his final two offenses in 2003, and likely appropriately so — he set the tone for today's comics and martyred himself and his own career for it.

George Carlin's seven dirty words

George Carlin had so much controversy surrounding a bit from his 1972 album Class Clown that the Supreme Court got involved.

Carlin was arrested for obscenity in July 1972 for performing now most famous "Seven Dirty Words" joke at Milwaukee's Summerfest, one of several times that joke would get him cuffed — but that wasn't even the biggest issue it caused.

In October 1973, New York radio station WBAI played Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" bit at 2 p.m. A listener, John H. Douglas, heard the joke on WBAI while driving with his young son. Douglas filed a complaint with the FCC; the FCC warned Pacifica, WBAI's parent company, that any complaints would be taken into consideration when renewing the company's broadcast license. After an initial win for the FCC in court in 1972, an appeals court overturned the decision, citing censorship concerns and seeking a narrower definition of "indecency" to prevent infringement of free expression. However, when the case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1978, the Court ruled in favor of the FCC's decision to monitor language and content between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. to prevent children from being exposed to profanity.

Carlin later said, "I wouldn't have changed anything I did if I had known there were children in the audience ... I think children need to hear those words the most because as yet they don't have the hang-ups. It's adults who are locked into certain thought patterns. I find it kind of funny to be hassled for using [them] when my intention is to free us from hassling people for using them." To this day, the words Carlin listed still can't be said on broadcast radio or TV.

Bill Maher's N-word debacle

Bill Maher crossed a lot of lines in his career, but perhaps none so serious as the one he crossed on Friday, June 2, 2017. While chatting up Republican Sen. Ben Sasse on Real Time With Bill Maher, the comedian described himself as a "house n—er." This led to widespread backlash, with many calling for Maher to get fired.

HBO told The Hollywood Reporter in a statement, "Bill Maher's comment last night was completely inexcusable and tasteless. We are removing his deeply offensive comment from any subsequent airings of the show."

Maher apologized after the incident, telling press, "Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I'm up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn't have said on my live show.   Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry."

While Real Time hasn't been cancelled (yet), it wouldn't be the first time Maher's mouth cost him a lucrative gig: he was previously fired from Politically Incorrect in June 2002 for saying the United States' post-9/11 bombings were "cowardly."

Katie Rich's Barron Trump slam

Saturday Night Live writer Katie Rich came under fire in January 2017 when she tweeted, "Barron [Trump] will be this country's first home-school shooter." She apologized when she received backlash, tweeting, "I sincerely apologize for the insensitive tweet. I deeply regret my actions & offensive words. It was inexcusable & I'm so sorry."

The White House Press Office issued a statement after the tweet went viral, telling press, "It is a longstanding tradition that the children of Presidents are afforded the opportunity to grow up outside of the political spotlight. The White House fully expects this tradition to continue. We appreciate your cooperation in this matter."

Rich was suspended indefinitely after the incident. While many were outraged at Rich's tweet, Community and Adult Swim co-creator Dan Harmon actually offered Rich a job and defended her vehemently to press.

Stephen Colbert's Redskins satire

In March 2014, Stephen Colbert came under fire for a tweet from The Colbert Report account, which referenced a segment in which he satirized the Washington Redskins' having a Native American charity with "Redskins" (which many interpret as a slur) in the name; but without context, the tweet, which read "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever," caused a slew of uproar. Internet activist Suey Park launched a "#cancelcolbert" hashtag and Twitter blew up in outrage against Colbert, even though he wasn't the one who tweeted it. The Colbert Report wasn't actually canceled; Colbert addressed the controversy on his show and eventually went on to host The Late Show.

Gilbert Gottfried's tsunami of backlash

In 2011, Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the voice of the Aflac duck after tweeting several flippant comments about the tsunami in Japan. The since-deleted tweets included (via CNN), "Japan called me. They said 'maybe those jokes are a hit in the U.S., but over here, they're all sinking.'" Another said, "I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said 'is there a school in this area.' She said 'not now, but just wait.'"

Gottfried had voiced the duck for nearly 10 years, but was canned. Aflec said in a statement, "Gilbert's recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac,. Aflac Japan – and by extension, Japan itself – is part of the Aflac family, and there is no place for anything but compassion and concern during these difficult times."

Tracy Morgan's hypothetical violence

In 2011, Tracy Morgan told the crowd at a Nashville performance that he would "stab [his] son to death" if he spoke in a "gay voice." The joke was met with an immediate backlash, including from his boss, Tina Fey, who told TMZ, "The violent imagery of Tracy's rant was disturbing to me at a time when homophobic hate crimes continue to be a life-threatening issue for the GLBT Community. It also doesn't line up with the Tracy Morgan I know, who is not a hateful man and is generally much too sleepy and self-centered to ever hurt another person. I hope for his sake that Tracy's apology will be accepted as sincere by his gay and lesbian co-workers at 30 Rock, without whom Tracy would not have lines to say, clothes to wear, sets to stand on, scene partners to act with, or a printed-out paycheck from accounting to put in his pocket."

NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt warned Morgan that he was on thin ice, saying in a statement, "Tracy's comments reflect negatively on both 30 Rock and NBC — two very all-inclusive and diverse organizations — and we have made it clear to him that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated."

Morgan later apologized, saying, "I'm not a hateful person and don't condone any kind of violence against others. While I am an equal opportunity jokester, and my friends know what is in my heart, even in a comedy club this clearly went too far and was not funny in any context."

Norm Macdonald's O.J. Simpson ribbing

It wasn't one joke, but a series of bits about O.J. Simpson that were rumored to get Norm Macdonald fired from Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment. The then-president of NBC, Don Ohlmeyer, a close friend Simpson, reportedly found Macdonald "not funny." Ohlmeyer denied the allegations, but also later refused to air ads for Macdonald's film Dirty Work (1998) on the network.

Daniel Tosh's rape joke controversy

In 2012, a cookie blogger claimed that Daniel Tosh told her friend during a performance that it would be funny if "she got raped by like, five guys right now" (via the Huffington Post). However, other witnesses refuted the claim and pointed out that the context was far different from what the blogger described, and that Tosh personally apologized to the audience member and the club offered her free tickets to return to another show, which she accepted. Still, the blog went viral, and Tosh quasi-apologized on Twitter, writing, "All the out of context misquotes aside, i'd like to sincerely apologize ... the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies."

Michael Richards' N-word rage

In November 2006, hecklers angered Michael Richards ... who responded by screaming the N-word repeatedly. After listening to him rant for about three minutes, many audience members got up and left. Days later, Richards apologized via satellite when Jerry Seinfeld appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman.

"There's a great deal of disturbance in this country, and how blacks feel about what happened in Katrina and, you know, many of the comics, many of the performers are in Las Vegas and New Orleans trying to raise money for what happened there, and for this to happen, for me to be in a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, you know, I'm deeply, deeply sorry," Richards rambled. "And I'll get to the force field of this hostility, why it's there, why the rage is in any of us, why the trash takes place, whether or not it's between me and a couple of hecklers in the audience or between this country and another nation, the rage..."

Seinfeld added, "I'm sure Michael is also sick over this horrible, horrible mistake. It is so extremely offensive. I feel terrible for all the people who have been hurt."

As you might have imagined, his career has pretty much been dead in the water ever since.

Sarah Silverman's awkward Asian slur

In July 2001, Sarah Silverman used a racial slur against Asians in a story on Conan about getting out of jury duty by pretending to be racist. It angered Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, who confronted her on Politically Incorrect.

Silverman told The New Yorker that producers said she couldn't say "c***k" on TV, and suggested she replace it with "Jews." "'Jew' would be funny if I wasn't Jewish, but it has to be offensive, it can't be a self-deprecating thing," Silverman explained.  She added that Aoki came with "two pages of sound bites" and a "crowd of supporters" to the Politically Incorrect taping, which frustrated her because she felt he ignored the context in which she used the slur. "It's not a racist joke, it's a joke about racism ... It's stupid to ever, ever defend your material ... It's subjective."

She later addressed the controversy in her Jesus Is Magic special, telling the crowd, "I got in trouble for saying the word 'c***k' on a talk show ... in the context of a joke. ... Guy Aoki was up in arms about it and he put my name in the papers calling me a racist, and it hurt. As a Jew .... I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media ... What kind of a world do we live in where a totally cute white girl can't say 'c***k' on network television? It's like the fifties. It's scary."

Dave Chappelle's alleged homo- and transphobia

Dave Chappelle's March 2017 Netflix specials drew criticism for allegedly being homophobic and transphobic, most notably for the three controversial bits, including one about Caitlyn Jenner.

"Whenever I see one [transsexuals] on the street I'm like, 'I don't mind them, but man, I miss Bruce [Jenner] ...," Chappelle said. "I heard things on the street in Hollywood, you know you used to be out, see people: 'Hey what's up Kanye, why the long face?' 'N***a, you'll see, I've got two mother in laws now.'"

Despite leaving some viewers miffed, Chappelle never commented on the controversy, and his Netflix deal still stands.

Joan Rivers' Holocaust humor

Joan Rivers peeved the Anti-Defamation League in February 2013 when she made a joke about German supermodel Heidi Klum on Fashion Police, quipping, "The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens."

"Of all people, Joan Rivers should know better. This remark is so vulgar and offensive to Jews and Holocaust survivors, and indeed to all Americans, that we cannot believe it made it to the airwaves," the ADL said in a statement. "Making it worse, not one of her co-hosts made any effort to respond or to condemn this hideous statement, leaving it hanging out there and giving it added legitimacy through their silence. Almost as bad as her original comment is the fact that she sat there doubled over with laughter after saying it."

The statement continued, "There are certain things about the Holocaust that should be taboo. This is especially true for Jews, for whom the Holocaust is still a deeply painful memory. It is vulgar and offensive for anybody to use the death of six million Jews and millions of others in the Holocaust to make a joke, but this is especially true for someone who is Jewish and who proudly and publicly wears her Jewishness on her sleeve."

Rivers never apologized ... which was sort of her thing.