Has insult comedy gone too far?

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Apr. 16—MINNEAPOLIS — Comedy can be a dangerous business, especially if you try to have some fun at Jada Pinkett Smith's expense.

Minneapolis comedian Emma Dalenberg didn't watch the Oscar ceremonies on March 27 during which Will Smith slapped Chris Rock after the comedian made a joke about the actor's wife. Dalenberg was too busy organizing the Underground Roast Battle, where stand-ups take turns ripping one another with the kind of material that would make Dean Martin raise his martini glass.

Insult comedy, which could range from going after someone's bad breath to sexual orientation, may not be popular among some celebrities. But people like Dalenberg have kept the tradition alive and well in the Twin Cities.

"I don't want to dissect whether that joke was offensive or not, especially since it's coming from someone like Chris Rock," said the 22-year-old comedian. "It all comes down to us wanting to make you laugh and sometimes the way to do that is by roasting people. I don't know if it's human nature, but people think it's funny."

That was certainly the case with the Battle's sold-out crowd, bursting into laughter at the comics' deadly zingers, at the Crane in Minneapolis last month:

"You look like you run a support group for Lyft drivers with three stars."

"He got fat off the candy he used to lure children off the playground."

"You look like the only Black person who would call for a manager."

There were no physical assaults. Instead, comics fist-pumped and hugged one another after every round.

"The expectation is that your opponent is going to say anything and everything to get a laugh," said Dontrell Townsend, who won the event with a stage persona of a trustworthy babysitter. "That's OK, as long as it's funny and somewhat true."

National headliner Dave Attell and his opening act Ian Fidance ended their show at Acme Comedy Co. last week by swapping put-downs.

"Comedy is in your blood," Attell said to the fellow New York-based comic. "You are the product of a clown rape."

But the insults weren't limited to just one another. Both stand-ups spent time targeting audience members, particularly those seated near the front. Attell took particular pleasure in poking fun of a group that works at Trader Joe's.

That kind of interaction — known in the stand-up business as "crowd work" — has been the calling card of established names from Don Rickles to Lisa Lampanelli.

"It's one of the most accessible forms of stand-up," said Nate Abshire, who won a national roast contest in 2020 with fellow Minneapolis comic Bryan Miller. "You may have someone who doesn't speak a lot of English or understand a lot of references. But if you point to a guy in the front row and say, 'You look like Jason Momoa ate a beanbag chair,' he's going to get what you're saying."

Incorporating fans can backfire. Walkouts and menacing glares are always a possibility. Good comics figure out quickly whether to back off or slide the stiletto in even deeper.

"It's a huge art form, making fun of someone and not being hurtful," said Twin Cities comic Joey Hamburger, who admits that he sometimes crossed the line early in his career. "You never really know what an audience member is going to be sensitive about."

Among the most sensitive targets are celebrities. And that includes fellow comics.

Eddie Murphy, who sent up James Brown and Bill Cosby early in his career, boycotted "Saturday Night Live" for years after cast member David Spade made a joke about his fading career. Joan Rivers, the Queen of Mean, was pulled from covering red carpet events after stars complained about her less-than-fawning questions.

Organizers for the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner got so much blowback after host Stephen Colbert incinerated those at the black-tie event that they hired the non-threatening Rich Little the following year. Ricky Gervais may have gotten huge ratings every time he hosted the Golden Globes, but he also alienated a significant number of A-listers.

"Celebrities can be very sensitive," said Hamburger, who also is the co-founder of Sheep Theater. "They spend tons of time cultivating their image. But they should be made fun of, 100 percent. They're paid extremely well. It comes with the territory."

But it's still possible to go too far. Oscars co-host Amy Schumer recently shared some of the jokes she wasn't allowed to use during the live broadcast with a Las Vegas audience. According to the Hollywood Reporter, one evoked the deadly on-set shooting near Santa Fe, New Mexico, involving Alec Baldwin.

Few in Hollywood think Will Smith's reaction to the joke, where Rock wondered whether Jada Pinkett Smith was preparing for a "G.I. Jane" sequel, was justified. But several, including actor-comedian Tiffany Haddish, believe Rock went too far because the Oscar winner's wife suffers from alopecia, a disease that causes hair loss.

"I'm used to roasts. I grew up on Comedy Central," said a comic who regularly performs under the stage name Sol during Uproar Comedy's open mic at Bryant-Lake Bowl and Theater in Uptown Minneapolis. "But Jada didn't consent to people laughing at her disability. And Black women are already the most disrespected group in the country."

Rock's apparently ad-libbed line wasn't brilliant. But was it cruel?

"If you look at what he said, it doesn't really insult her. It just points out that she has short hair," said Louis Katz, who performed at Acme earlier this month. "But people get offended by the very fact that you're talking about a subject that's serious. They're turned off before you even get to the joke."

But it's unlikely the Oscar incident will threaten the future of insult comedy. Dalenberg is already planning another roast battle for June.

Audiences will continue to roar — and stew.

A heckler last week loudly shared her displeasure during Fidance's insult-heavy set.

"I'd rather you yell, 'Shame on me,' the comic said from the Acme stage, "than come up here and slap me in the face."

Will Carpenter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's Arts and Entertainment/Features Reporter. He can be reached by email at wcarpenter@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3135. Follow him on Twitter @will_carp_.