'Black Monday' Writers Explain Their Rules for Off-Color Jokes

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Erin Simkin/SHOWTIME
[This story contains spoilers from episode three of Showtime's Black Monday.]
Taking place as it does on Wall Street in the 1980s, it’s no surprise that Showtime’s Black Monday is populated by characters whose outlook and sense of humor ranges from mildly suspect to outright offensive. The opening scene of Sunday's third episode features the comedy's most risqué jokes yet during an exchange between traders Mo (Don Cheadle) and Keith (Paul Scheer).

First, Keith makes a casual reference to his foray into autoerotic asphyxiation, noting that he learned the technique from “my friend in that band, INXS.” The line is a stinging reference to the death of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who died 10 years after the show takes place in what was ruled a suicide. Within minutes, Mo has fired back with an equally thorny reference, bragging that he’s “as good as dating as Michael Jackson is at dating kids.” Even by the politically incorrect standards of the show’s period, it’s a striking one-two punch of below-the-belt humor.
“It’s just a gut feeling per joke,” co-creator David Caspe tells The Hollywood Reporter of finding the balance between appropriately un-PC and genuinely offensive humor. “Inevitably, there are going to be some that hit and some that are too far, and you have to find the line. We don’t ever want to offend anyone, that’s not the business we’re in. A lot of the time, it was trying to figure out: Who is the joke about, and is that punching up or punching down?” Decisions about what to include and what to cut were made collectively among the writing staff and actors, Caspe explains, “and generally if any one person in the group thought something was too far, then we just didn’t do it. We figured if there’s 10 of us talking, if it’s too far for one person then it’s probably too far for 10 percent of the audience watching.” Of the INXS joke in particular, co-creator Jordan Cahan acknowledges, “that one’s right on the border.”
Given the collaborative and improv-heavy nature of the production, the actors often had as much of a say in which jokes made it in as the writers. Per star Cheadle, jokes were regularly thrown out for going too far. "Every day, every scene, every episode. You should hear the jokes that didn’t get in. Things where I was like, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. I can't say that. That's too much.’" But while he's fully in support of political correctness in general ("I think being PC is just basically not being an asshole"), Cheadle also points out that the show's milieu demands a certain level of offensiveness. "If these characters were PC, it wouldn't make any sense, and it would be untruthful for the time."
Caspe and Cahan were conscious of the fine line they were walking in satirizing an aggressive, misogynistic culture without glorifying it, and developed certain rules to that end. Strip clubs are regularly referenced but never actually shown on screen, Cahan says, “because we worried that would make us part of the problem.” A similar logic was applied to hate speech: “Which characters are allowed to say these things? We have these internal rules: Paul Scheer’s character Keith is our most overtly misogynistic character from the pilot onwards, and that’s really because it’s a shield for him to hide his own sexuality. That was one way for us to reflect the era accurately, but do it for a character reason and not to be a bro show making jokes that we find distasteful.”
Another way in which Caspe and Cahan drew that line was by having characters sometimes take an unexpectedly modern view on the period they’re in. During the same scene as the INXS and Michael Jackson jokes, there’s a specific reference to “the rape scene from Revenge of the Nerds,” wherein Robert Carradine’s character has sex with a female classmate while wearing a costume that leads her to believe that he is her boyfriend. Although depicted as consensual, the scene has since been re-examined as deeply problematic. “It’s insane how inappropriate [that scene] is,” Cheadle says. “These are popular movies for kids, and there's a scene where one of the guys sleeps with another guy's girlfriend in a Darth Vader mask and she thinks he's her boyfriend and he's not. He's basically raping her! This was family entertainment! One of the fun things about the show is to look back on that period and skewer a lot of those things, and hopefully people remember that and juxtapose it to where we are now.”