We’ve all heard jokes that were ‘too soon’ or went ‘too far’. Maybe you laughed hysterically or maybe you were offended. We asked a few comedians how they negotiate the thorny side of humour.

Avoid lazy stereotypes

“It’s easy to be lazy because so much comedy comes from stereotypes … but there is more interesting humour found by digging deeper”, says Suren Jayemanne. By focusing on the absurdity of the stereotype rather than the stereotype itself, you can laugh with the subject of the joke rather than at them.

Jayemanne uses the example of Indian taxi drivers. “The reason is because so many of their qualifications aren’t recognised, so the stereotype is one we’ve imposed on them as a society.” So instead of making fun of Indian cab drivers, he jokes about using them as a chance to get a cheap second medical opinion.

For Karen Edwards, the use of stereotypes really depends on the audience. As an Aboriginal comedian, she thinks stereotypes can be relatable. “I use [Aboriginal] stereotypes in front of our own mob and they find it relatable – if blackfellas won’t be offended by a joke then I’ll run with it.”

This means she still avoids the more offensive, lazy stereotypes, “like petrol sniffers – that’s offensive even if it’s said by an Aboriginal”.

Free speech doesn’t mean you should run your mouth

“Some people think free speech in comedy means they should be able to say anything that pops into their head on stage – that’s crazy to me,” says Tom Ballard.

“The big conversation in comedy right now seems to be about political correctness, the restrictions on free speech, how our jokes reflect on us as comedians and which jokes are worth saying”, he adds. “If we’re talking about stuff about which we have no experience … is our dumb joke worth it given the offence it might cause to people who have?”

The free speech defence can also be used as a cop-out, says Bish Marzook. “The people who are calling out the comedians also have the right to free speech – you have a right to say you didn’t find their joke funny.”

“If you have absolute free speech you’re probably restricting other essential rights as well,” adds Jayemanne.

Punch up, not down

Jayemanne explains how comedians have become mindful of not piling on to groups who are already struggling against social issues. “I think because you’ve got a pulpit to speak from, it’s important to be conscious of who the victim of your joke is.”

“You don’t want to be part of the problem,” says Ballard. Sometimes that means thinking carefully about whether your joke is consistent with the kind of society you want to create. Take Islam, for instance.

“I’m not a fan of religion, I’m an atheist – but I’m also a white man in a climate where apparently 49 percent of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration… I don’t want to contribute to the victimisation and abuse of those people.”

Comedy takes topics most people would assume are taboo or tragic and turns it into something cathartic.

I ask whether avoiding punching down meant comedians needed to have a kind of ‘oppression hierarchy’ to know who sat below them on the pecking order. Marzook admits it can be hard.

“I identify as a person of colour and a woman, so I know there are things I can say but I also have a lot of privileges people don’t know about.”

“Just because you’re conscious of punching down doesn’t mean you can’t talk about disadvantage,” adds Ballard, whose last show Boundless Plains to Share focused on asylum-seeker politics. “I wanted to talk about refugees… but in terms of the ‘punch’, it was always about the people in power.”

Are some topics off-limits?

Edwards thinks some topics shouldn’t be the subject of comedy. “No matter how funny, there are certain things I’d never touch. I’m not going to make jokes about babies dying… like all the ‘dingo ate my baby’ jokes – why? It’s too tragic.”

For Marzook, it depends on the context – are you saying something funny and thoughtful?

“The reason I went into comedy is to make a point of what’s happening in the world… I would encourage people to tackle hard issues. If it’s racist or untrue then that’s the problem and someone should point it out.”

Ballard thinks the idea of off-limits topics is “a tired angle”.

“We know comedians like Amy Schumer, Jon Stewart and Chris Rock exist – it’s pretty settled that edgy comedy is possible,” he says.

Even so, at a certain point in his last show on asylum seekers, he couldn’t make jokes. “There were some things about the nature of the system that I simply couldn’t make funny and so the show became more earnest and theatrical. At a point I just had to say this is fucked up.”

“I think an ethical comedian is one who listens and takes seriously the possibility of offence.” – Tom Ballard

Jayemanne thinks comedy needs to tackle the hard stuff, and that people want comedians to do so. “Comedy takes topics most people would assume are taboo or tragic and turns it into something cathartic. If you shy away you’re sheltering people, but humour is such an important tool for helping people deal with difficult topics.”

“It helps make the medicine go down,” adds Ballard.

Listen to your audience and be forgiving

“Comedy is about truth and, to an extent, egalitarianism. It’s a social, communal thing,” says Ballard. “I think an ethical comedian is one who listens and takes seriously the possibility of offending – there are things to be learned from the audience.”

Marzook worries comedians will shy away from serious issues because the costs of getting it wrong can be so severe. “Now everyone is so scared of making a mistake, and they should be, but if the consequences weren’t so severe, like online shaming, losing your job… maybe people would be willing to admit they made a mistake and we could move on.

“I guess it’s just about doing your best.”