Updated: Oct 29, 2019
As your self-described “asshole” friends on Facebook would tell you, the world of pop culture is a hellscape of roving Thought Police browncoats, sneering at any attempt at comedy, ready to pounce upon those brave souls willing to attempt a joke that falls outside the discerning standards of the Ministry of Wokeness. This nightmare that exists only in the minds of the Piers Morgans of the world was never more real to people who should know better than during the aftermath of Dave Chapelle’s latest stand-up special Sticks & Stones. In the special, Chapelle takes aim, as he often does, at anyone he found deserving. Those deserving, however, apparently included Michael Jackson’s accusers, in a bit that featured no punchline. Paired with mockery of transgender people using one of the most atrocious impressions of a Chinese person that I have ever seen, the reaction to the special exceeded that of any other in recent memory. Legions of people came to his defense, bemoaning the very notion that a person, even one who tells jokes for a living, should be held accountable for the things they say. “It’s just a joke,” says the man who is not the butt of the joke. It hardly matters that the accountability came in the form of mild criticism, having a negligible impact on Chapelle’s career. The purpose of defending a bit, even one as unfunny as Chapelle’s, is to express indignity at the notion of accountability existing in the realm of comedy at all. Comedy, they say, has room for jokes and little else.
That is nonsense, of course, as comedy has long been a way to attack the entrenched power structures that oppress those who are not considered worthy. Many successful comedians, including Dave Chapelle, have done so effectively, calling out bigotry in its many forms. He has historically been especially adept at talking about racism, applying his own nuanced views to navigate a subject most find uncomfortable. But even men as ostensibly enlightened as he can have blind spots, and when they find it necessary to speak on issues they are insufficiently informed about, their tendency to be taken aback at the poor reception is as frustrating as it is predictable. Bill Burr avoided much of the backlash levied at Chapelle, as his own new special, Paper Tiger, was overshadowed by Dave’s both in timing and content. Burr’s notorious ranty style of comedy spearheaded a ham-fisted attack on transgender people as well, headlined by the ever popular “identify as a (insert inanimate object here)” gag that is a staple among the painfully unimaginative transphobic community. This is not to say that transgender people or any member of the LGBTQ+ community is wholly off limits, but if you insist on making them the subject of a joke, the least you could do is make it a funny one. Only the stuffiest of the stuffiest would refuse to laugh at themselves, but trans people have heard that joke before, apparently the only joke that transphobes know. Lifting punchlines from the comment section of a Ben Shapiro video is not just plagiarism, it’s lazy.
Burr’s typically varied political humor has largely insulated him from the total relegation to bitter curmudgeon status now enjoyed by the likes of Adam Carolla, but it is exactly the “kids these days” kind of bellyaching that signals the beginning of the end of a comedic career. When your act blurs the line between comedy and grumbling from your front porch, your 15 minutes are over. The short-lived career of the late Ralphie May is a perfect example. Once people realized he had little material beyond railing against political correctness, it became clear he just wasn’t all that funny.
With the many names of comedians who have found themselves in hot water over their material, it is tempting to think the landscape of comedy has become a minefield too dangerous to explore. Another notch on the proverbial collective bedpost of the Millennial generation, marking yet another Awesome Thing we have ruined for everyone. Listen, many comedians enjoy a tremendous amount of success without raising the ire of the anti-funny brigade. Nikki Glaser followed up a spectacular showing at the roast of Alec Baldwin with a stand-up special almost entirely about sex, yet none of her material was demeaning or disrespectful. Nate Bargatze delivers observational humor with an almost childlike charm without punching down. Hannibal Burress, Patton Oswalt, Katherine Ryan, John Mulaney, and countless others have success year after year often without making anyone a target at all. While they realize comedy is different, they are talented and funny enough that they can evolve with the times and continue to deliver laughs. Those that do not adapt become stuck in their glory days and pretend their jokes are just as funny and their declining popularity is the audience’s fault.
This sentiment explains everything Jerry Seinfeld has done over the last decade, and has never been more apparent than in the case of The Joker director Todd Phillips. Phillips said in a Vanity Fair interview that “woke culture” was responsible for the decline of comedy and totally not his ego-driven attempts at replicating the success of The Hangover. Well, shit Todd, I’d be bitter too if I hadn’t made a person laugh in 10 years. His comments were discredited by actual funny guy Marc Maron and way better director Taika Waititi who both seem to understand that being funny is not a zero-sum game of self-imposed martyrdom. While Phillips has tragically sentenced himself to the graveyard of victims of the Woke Stasi, in reality he simply peaked when mediocre bro humor was enough to make you a household name. The list of people who have managed to make successful comedies since then is too long to include here, but long enough to make a point.
The Big Sick, Booksmart, Always Be My Maybe, Long Shot, and many others prove that while comedy has changed, it is still possible to be funny without trying to piss people off for no good reason. One would think the mere existence of two Deadpool movies would put this absurd complaint to rest. Even when contemporary shows miss the mark, creators have the option of looking inward and examining why their content struck a nerve. This was the case when the team behind Big Mouth responded to criticism of a scene featuring a depiction of bisexuality some people found distasteful. Co-creators Andrew Goldberg and Nick Kroll both acknowledged the error, and neither seemed discouraged from comedy. Why? Because they’re adults and they know how things work. The same is true of the creators of shows like Bojack Horseman which occasionally includes controversial topics and manages to do so sensibly.
As the Phillips interview percolated throughout the internet, so did an interview George Carlin did with Larry King in 1990. In that interview Carlin perfectly encapsulated the problematic nature of jokes aimed at people considered “underdogs.” Carlin specifically mentions women, gays, and immigrants, and it would follow that transgender people would be part of the conversation were he to make similar comments today. Carlin understood as well as anyone that the prime imperative of comedy, aside from just making people laugh, is making privileged people uncomfortable. Some people out there are getting it from all sides. Sure, you can joke about those that are just trying to get on everyone else’s level, but then you’re the guy that makes jokes about the underdog. Good for you.
Shane Gillis, who is apparently a comedian, lost the opportunity to be on Saturday Night Live due to jokes he made in the past mocking Asian people. Certain people find that funny, and it is up to his potential audience to decide if that kind of “material” merits a promotion. After his “thanks but no thanks” moment, Gillis went on to joke about how he’s been reading his death threats in an Asian accent, which makes one wonder how SNL will survive without that genius. Clearly, his brand of humor has been found wanting. People have generally decided that bad accents and impressions are not good comedy, and the reason they were funny in the past is that these groups weren’t really in on the joke. Comedy is not a shield to hide behind while spouting bigotry. There are people worth joking about, and your audience will tell you who they are. Of course, that will tell you something about yourself as well. People will always hold you accountable for the things you say, but you can decide who those people are.
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