Wokeness is killing comedy, and that’s sad.
Take my wife…PLEASE! — Misogynistic
Why did the Chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. — Rank Speciesism, insensitive to those who have lost pets to cars
I don’t get no respect… — Privileged White Boomer whining
I never forget a face, but in your case I’d like to make an exception — Non self-affirming, unattractive shaming.
What’s black and white and red all over. — Don’t get me started
Comedy is becoming very unfunny.
This piece was inspired by two recent unrelated but similar threads I followed on social media. The first one involved comedian Billy Crystal. He was mercilessly lambasted for saying “comedy is a minefield”. In the context of promoting his new movie, Crystal gave an interview in the New York Post in which he bemoaned how rampant “wokeness” and “cancel culture” have rendered virtually every joke fraught with peril. As you can see from the famous jokes I cited above, and by a thousand other examples I could give, it is not hard to find something for someone to be offended by in virtually any joke.
Hundreds of people on Twitter attacked Crystal for daring to challenge the new order. There are now countless groups (or people who have arrogated to themselves the right to speak on behalf of groups to which they don’t even belong) who you may not even obliquely offend, indeed, even innocently offend, upon pain of cancellation.
There could be demands that your bookings be cancelled and your shows be boycotted, or perhaps picketed. Remember what happened to Kevin Hart, whose invitation to host the 2019 Oscars was revoked because of some largely unnoticed homophobic jokes he had told a full decade earlier. He apologized. But even sincere apologies for long-ago transgressions are widely viewed as always inadequate and rarely gain forgiveness.
The second story I followed involved Elon Musk and the cast of SNL. On last week’s show they did a skit involving Musk and some millennials speaking in African-American Vernacular English (“AAVE”). I didn’t really follow the skit or the jargon at the time I saw it, but apparently, people were very offended both at white people “culturally appropriating” the lingo, and ridiculing the “Gen Z” people the cast was portraying. Full Twitter outrage soon followed.
I find all of this deeply troubling. From a very young age I have worshipped comedy as a force for light in an often very dark world. I still remember one of the first moments of sheer joy in my Dickensian childhood as my eleven year-old self literally rolled around on the floor, unable to breathe, upon seeing Monty Python’s Lumberjack Skit for the first time. That skit involves one of a group of very rugged lumberjacks singing about how he likes to wear women’s clothing, just like his dad, while the other lumberjacks sing-a-long with increasing horror.
When some anti-transgender bill was running in the PA Senate, I was the only senator who stood on the floor and gave a full-throated defense of transgender rights. Yet that skit remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Could it run today? Absolutely fucking not.
Around the same age, I used to watch Benny Hill chase women around the woods while goofy music played in the background (he never actually caught one). That would obviously be verboten in 2020. Then there was All in the Family, where characters routinely used racial and ethnic slurs. It was meant to be ironic, but many Americans actually looked up to Archie Bunker. They thought he was like them. Others learned how preposterous bigotry actually looks. The show provoked discussion, debate, soul-searching, plus, it was hilarious. Now the show would be cancelled immediately the first time Archie called his son-in-law a “Pollack meathead”.
Then there is the hilarious scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall involving a split-screen. On one side is the portrayal of a stuffy-WASP family having dinner and on the other is the course, freewheeling dinner at a Jewish home in the Bronx. Is the contrast funny and thought-provoking and revealing? Absolutely. But does it also play on, and even exaggerate ethnic stereotypes? Undeniably. And it’s use of stereotypes joins the comedy of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and many other legends whose comedy would be unacceptable now.
When I shared my concerns about the Elon Musk story on Twitter, someone far more “woke” than most of us could ever hope to be (at least, that’s what it said in his twitter bio) educated me that comedy which plays on stereotypes or makes fun of groups of people is “not constructive”. To me, this captures the issue perfectly. Comedy is not supposed to be “constructive”. Can you imagine how tedious and unfunny comedy that set out to be constructive would be?
I used to be a comedian. I performed stand-up and improv comedy at clubs and theaters for many years in my 20s and 30s, as well doing the occasional stand-up routine at political events. I even performed at the Pennsylvania Press’s Gridiron Dinner for about ten years. I also wrote jokes for others, including some extremely famous people (no, not the Pope. But close!). I never was offered a sit-com, so how good could I have been? Although, I still think I would have made an excellent “wacky neighbor”.
Since I don’t currently make my living as a comic, and thus, there is nothing to cancel me from, I feel liberated to articulate what I think comedy should be:
First and foremost, comedy should be funny. In fact, that’s sort of baked into the definition. There are only a few concepts that our brain finds funny. These include exaggeration, linking together seemingly disparate things, sudden surprise, sudden reversal, traits in others that make us feel superior, and tripping on a banana peel. That banana peel thing is pure comedy gold and can’t fail. But whatever form of comedy you use, the one key ingredient is recognition. There has to be something in our brain for a joke to latch on to. This is why jokes about the details of string theory usually don’t go over that great.
In other words, comedy mostly takes things we are already thinking or wondering about and causes us to notice the thought and then view it in a new way. This can be enormously personally therapeutic, but more importantly, societally beneficial. If someone is…say prejudiced against African Americans to some degree; seeing their bigotry portrayed as silly, or seeing things they may not like about black people framed in the context of a more universal human experience, or even just looking across the club and seeing a black person laughing at the very same thing can really cause a moving of the mental tectonic plates.
What gets people to buy a ticket or turn on their Netflix is the promise of laughter, sure. But it is also the promise of unease. That’s why topical, controversial and even abrasive comics are some of the most popular. Comedy should make us laugh, but also make us squirm. At its best it pulls out of our seat and grinds our gears. It slaps us across the face and wrings us out dry. It is offensive, it is garish, it is outrageous.
In showing us how venal and small and self-interested and inconsistent and fucked up and dumb others can be, it shows us the same about ourselves. Every gender is funny. Every ethnic group is funny, as is every sexual orientation and profession. Left handed people are funny and so are right-handed people. We can find humor in everyone because we are all human. We are flawed and full of quirks, and emotions and hope and dread. After some good comedy, we leave the theater entertained, but also wiser, and smarter, and more thoughtful and hopefully more tolerant.
When Henny Youngman says “Take my wife…please!” It is only superficially a joke about a guy who is tired of his wife’s company. It’s really a joke about choices we’ve made, regrets we have, the feeling of being trapped and of looking for a better future. Who can’t relate to that. Mrs. Youngman is entirely irrelevant to that joke. It’s all about what we’ve made of our lives.
When we shrink and truncate what comedians are allowed to talk about (and still have careers, and still host the Oscars) we are primarily hurting ourselves. If a comedian offends you or makes you mad, good for him! (or her!). What angers you, and what doesn’t, teaches you about who you are. Why would you want to rob yourself of that? It’s OK to be pissed off at what a comedian says. It’s not OK to shut it down. Because how healthy, really, is a society where the edgiest, most probing thing you can talk about is airline food?
Are there lines? Sure. Rank bigotry, unadorned by irony is no fun to watch. Either is mockery of other’s weaknesses, which is perhaps the cheapest form of comedy. But these lines are not best enforced by self-appointed thought police. This is one area where the free market actually works perfectly. If someone is nothing but an unfunny asshole, nobody is going to want to see them.
English writer and politician Horace Walpole said “Imagination is given to man to compensate him for what he isn’t. Humor was provided to console him for what he is”. Comedy is the great equalizer, the best relaxant and the most loyal of friends. We have to stop smothering it under a blanket of political priggishness. Just try to remember that there is no law which requires you to like or approve of every joke. But you do have a remedy. Don’t laugh.