‘Black Monday’ Writers Explain Their Rules for Off-Color Jokes

[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 ten 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.”

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