“Does anyone remember laughter?”
The Guardian pokes the corpse of comedy to see if it needs bayoneting:
Comedy is in a period of extraordinary flux. The past two years have witnessed the reputations of revered comics, such as Louis CK and Aziz Ansari, implode in the wake of #MeToo allegations. Then there is the culture of unearthing old tweets, with standups being held to account for problematic “jokes” they’ve made online (for Kevin Hart, it even cost him his most high-profile gig to date, hosting the Oscars). There are also increasing fears around political comedy and censorship. This month, Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special was pulled because he criticised the Saudi regime over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, while Michelle Wolf’s searing political set at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2018 led to the board announcing that 2019 will be the first time in 15 years that a comic would not be presenting the event. Elsewhere, Jim Davidson, a man once so vile he was almost immune to judgment, was reported for hate speech, at his own birthday party no less (although no action was taken). The comedy goalposts are shifting and there is a demand that the art form gets more socially conscious. But can you be woke and funny? And are we living in a time of such change and heightened awareness that the two can now never be mutually exclusive?
Jim Davidson is a British comedian. He was reported to UK police by an American citizen for joking she was a Serbian terrorist. At his birthday party. Police did not act. Presumably, if he was on stage when he made the joke he would be in trouble.
“When comedians say: ‘Oh you can’t say ANYTHING these days!’, what they are actually saying is, ‘I don’t know how to be funny without stomping on people.’ Which is fair enough: not everyone has those skills,” says Danish standup and podcaster Sofie Hagen. “But a lot of comedians do and they’re doing well based on that. Hannah Gadsby, Nish Kumar, Sara Pascoe, Mark Watson, Sophie Duker, Mae Martin: there are loads who manage to say a lot of things without repercussions; who are really, really funny while doing it. It sometimes takes a bit of extra work; you have to be aware of your own privilege and you have to educate yourself so you don’t use damaging language.”
The template applied in these articles is familiar: seeking out the narrative-approved comic Hagen, who then lists a bunch of other narrative-approved comics. It’s no different than an article about, say, foreign affairs, citing one ideological ally, who then cites a bunch of his allies, creating the illusion of a consensus among the rational.
One falls out of favor when one strays from the narrative.
But it is not just about laziness; sometimes there is a deliberate attempt to rile. Before the allegations, Louis CK’s comedy was subversive: poking fun at the inequalities of American society, while simultaneously acknowledging the ways they benefited him.
Presumably all the feelings CK might have hurt “poking fun at the inequalities” don’t count. All the euphemistic language demanding this is all just about preserving feelings (a new concern of comedy) obscures the reality: this is the ultimate Who, Whom? calculation. There are still all kinds of people you can tease: whites, men, straight men, and straight white men.
After allegations of sexual misconduct appeared last year, however, the comic seemed to react with horror at a new world that threatened his unexamined patriarchal mindset. According to reports, at a recent New York show CK made jokes about survivors of gun violence and minorities such as non-binary teens. When some listeners appeared shocked, he allegedly responded: “Fuck it, what are you going to take away, my birthday? My life is over, I don’t give a shit.”
The author doesn’t note the set killed. By the way, when will they start policing the violent language of performance? A comedian “kills” on stage or he “dies” on stage. The old line “break a leg” is not only violent but hateful towards paraplegics. Seriously, it’s probably no accident the language of performance, particularly stand-up, is suffused with violence, risk and death. To fail in real time standing alone before a crowd must indeed feel like death itself.
It was as if CK had reacted to the new wave of wokeness by indicting political correctness; he became an almost Trump-like figure, amplifying for shock value and catering to an audience who probably felt as if accusations about him were false or insignificant.
Notice how the audience is inevitably brought into it, for finding the accusations “false” or “insignificant”. The latter is most galling to the woke. But CK is most guilty of not taking his whipping in silence. The Narrative is relentless, insatiable: the worst thing you can do in its eyes is fight back.
If the woke comics were objectively earning their way by being actually funny, none of this would be a problem. The real problem is us–we’re still laughing. We’re the Covington Catholic kids. As they can’t come round for everybody, they have to do what they’re now doing, taking the comics away and replacing them with anti-comics.
They can take away our unauthorized laughter by removing the comedy, but they can’t force us to laugh at their authorized comedy. At least not yet. I am reminded of a “journalist” outing Brett Favre for not clapping enthusiastically enough at the former Bruce Jenner’s ESPN awards show speech.
The narrative-approved comics, like various cultural figures propped up by the Pozz, are the living avatars of the lie. We can’t be allowed to not find them funny. We can’t be allowed to make fun of them.
The old image of the comic standing against the status quo is unwoke, problematic now that the status quo can only be maintained by the social and financial pressure of which this article is a part.
Booting out the unwoke is the easy part. Bringing in their replacements is the hard part
However, there is a new generation of comics retaliating against the old template of comedy. Nights such as The LOL Word (for queer women and non-binary performers) and FOC It Up!, standing for “femmes of colour”, have emerged, along with the new comic voices including Chloe Petts, Jodie Mitchell, Kemah Bob and Sara Barron. Hagen is also emblematic of this new kind of comedian. Last year, she demanded that every venue on her Dead Baby Frog tour was “anxiety safe” (meaning audience members with anxiety could be allowed into the venue before others arrived, or be warned of any words or topics that might be triggering for them), had gender-neutral bathrooms and were wheelchair accessible. She had a positive response from fans, but faced an inevitable backlash online.
“The people who come to my shows, the people who enjoy my standup and my podcasts, they’re on the right side of history. They get it,” she says. “And I know that a lot appreciated it. The negativity I got was mostly online: loads and loads of hateful tweets and comments from people who were never going to go see my show anyway.”
If this follows the familiar pattern of progressive co-optation of culture, after failing to invoke genuine laughter they will try to force it. Failing that, laughter itself will be forbidden.
Laughter is a natural and not entirely understood human universal. It can be faked but it can’t be controlled. They’ll never be able to force people to find this funny and that not. One day perhaps it will be a mere legend, or understood as an ancient barbarity we’ve shucked off in our enlightenment.