Everything Old Is New Again

(Or: It's probably not edgy if your great-grandfather would have laughed at it. Trigger warning.)

In today's Guardian, Brian Logan writes a piece about the "new offenders of stand-up comedy"—that is, the (primarily) straight white dudez who lace their acts with racism, homophobia, sexism, and rape jokes (jokes about "raping women" are, according to one comic, "the new black on the comedy circuit") and call it ironic, edgy, "challenging taboos," "pushing back boundaries," and other euphemisms for using as humor various forms of bigotry and violence by which they'll never personally be victimized, the sting or threat of which will never even touch them.

Naturally, if you don't find it funny, you just don't get the joke. And, hey, if there are people who think they're being serious when they do totes hilarious stuff like "draw[ing] his eyes into slits to mock the Chinese," it's not their problem.
In fact, most of the comics I spoke to denied any responsibility for how audiences interpreted their work. "If you're doing a brilliant piece of irony and someone takes it literally," says [Richard Herring, a veteran comic who is currently sporting a Hitler moustache for his show, "Hitler Moustache," in which he argues "that racists have a point"], "that's not your fault. It's their fault for not being intelligent enough to get it."
Small comfort to marginalized people who are targets of the bigots whose prejudices are overtly condoned by rooms full of "enlightened" people having an "ironic" chuckle at racism. Well, we didn't mean to give the impression we think violent prejudice is okay! Oh, that's all right then.

Call me a humorless feminist scold (I know you will!), but I find it remarkably pathetic that Herring defends his material with an expectation that people too fucking ignorant to understand the basic concepts of "equality" or "consent" be sophisticated enough to discern the subtle nuances of privileged wankers ostensibly laughing at bigots/rapists because they find bigots'/rapists' expression of their hatred funny, but not bigotry/rape itself.

Logan veers in the general direction of a discussion of privilege—
[Y]ou will see very few minority ethnic comedy audiences in Edinburgh – or, in my experience, on the mainstream comedy circuit in general… [Brendon Burns, a confrontational Australian comic who, in 2007 painted himself black and dressed up like a Zulu warrior for the poster for his show "So I Suppose This Is Offensive Now?"] proudly says: "Not once has any non-white person accused me of being racist on stage. So I must be doing something right." But this implies that offence is invalid if taken by any party other than the minority in question (as well as overlooking the fact that non-white people make up a small minority of his audience).
—but never quite gets there. In fact, he ends his article with the disappointingly noncommittal shrug: "Offence is clearly in the eye of the beholder"—which is just an attempt at a slightly more enlightened "it's a matter of opinion," though somehow worse, when effectively saying offense may well be justified yet nonetheless disregarded—followed by a redirection of singular responsibility onto audiences to demolish the market for bullying comedy.

Which is a fair point—clearly, a believer in teaspoons and expecting more is not going to argue that audiences don't have a responsibility to reject expressions of bigotry and violence for entertainment. On the other hand, comedians are social commentators—their job is to remark upon culture and its various absurdities and failures, and just because their objective is to make people laugh doesn't absolve them of the responsibility that any professional social commentator or critic with any integrity has, which is to expose, not entrench, the cultural narratives that are damaging to the marginalized, voiceless, and dispossessed.

Absolving comedians of any and all responsibility for their material necessitates deliberately misunderstanding or ignoring what the actual role of a comedian is, what purpose they serve.

It doesn't matter if they don't want that role and purpose and responsibility; that's the trade-off for a public career in which your content is culture. Ignoring it doesn't release one from the responsibility; it merely makes one an asshole.

And, generally speaking, a shitty comic. Because the thing about doing socially irresponsible comedy is that those caverns are well-fucking-mined by now. Even jokes that aren't overtly offensive, that seek to tease out the nuances between being black and white, or female and male, or gay and straight, without elevating one or demeaning the other, are yawn-inducingly tired and hacky. And rarely is a comic, especially a straight white male comic, good enough to do this sort of observational dichotomy material without relying on stereotypes, anyway.

As I've said before, I adore good stand-up comedy, and, because I'm always on the lookout for new comics who can make me laugh until I cry (see: Wanda Sykes, Eddie Izzard, among few others), any time I'm channel surfing and see a stand-up, I'll stop and give them a chance. And if they're doing some "X demographic is crazy, amirite?" shtick, I just flip the channel immediately—because they might as well be telling me: I'm uncreative, derivative, boring, and irresponsible. Don't waste your time here.

The funniest thing I've seen in five years is a bit about Hot Pockets. I've seen that shit 100 times, and I still laugh until I'm weeping every time I watch it. A great comedian can make anything funny.

The irony is that the comedians busily building a career out of ethnic slurs and rape jokes are the same ones who would criticize an uncontroversial comedian like Jim Gaffigan for not fulfilling the promise of what comedy can be when its practitioners are social critics, even as they reject the intrinsic responsibility that comes with that role. It's a conflict that reveals their intention—they merely want to shock, not to change minds—and also the inherent flaw in their delusions of envelope-pushing: Getting people to laugh uncomfortably—or not uncomfortably—at a rape joke without challenging that laughter is hardly revolutionary. Or difficult. Or meaningful.

In which case, why aren't they taking up the objectively more difficult challenge of getting people to laugh at a frozen food item? And why are they lambasting the comedians who do?

It's all just so much laziness. And not a small amount of denial that their allegedly "hip" audiences are all laughing for the "right" reasons.

Dave Chappelle was haunted by the idea that there was a segment of his audience laughing for the wrong reasons. And when he couldn't shake that ghost, he walked away.

Maybe that's the difference between being the sort of comedian whose life will never be different if bigots exist in the world, and being the sort of comedian whose life is very different indeed because there are.

[H/T to Shaker SapphireCate.]

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