The Comedy Problem

One little slap and standups got scared

Spotlight on microphone stand on stage

I’m the wrong person to write or talk about the Will Smith slap because I legitimately don’t care even a little about rich and famous people having hissy fits.

But in the fallout of what I assume was the best reality TV moment in years — another thing I don’t pay attention to — there’s been a lot of vomit-inducing discussion about What It All Means and Putting It Into Perspective. I also generally abstain from that conversation, especially in cases where the answer is “There’s no takeaway here because it’s a famous person having a hissy fit and literally nobody should care.” 

There is one take, though, and as I’m still seeing it a week after the hissy fit in question, I can’t leave it alone. For a group of people concerned, mostly, about making other people laugh, comedians (and their attendant fans) need to take themselves a LOT less seriously, because holy shit guys, y’all think you’re doing something you’re really, really, realllllyyyyy not doing.

From emotional posts from comedians to fans suggesting Will Smith murdered comedy to venues half-threatening audiences about performer safety, there were some incredibly wild posts floating around basically suggesting that comedy is a sacred duty that must be protected and … no, I swear, I’m not telling a joke here.

There have been some bold truth-tellers in the comedy world, and as always, I’ll do the alpha and omega of the bunch, one George Carlin. He didn’t pull punches, he told things like they were and he was an asshole — but a real asshole, cantankerous and unvarnished, not “I’m a dick because I want to be a dick” which has sort of become the modern, less-interesting type. But more importantly, Carlin knew who had the power and those were the people he went after. His legendary “7 words” bit wasn’t just about wanting to say fuck; it was about TV producers getting the vapors over things people said (and never getting the vapors over any number of other horrendous things they were just fine with letting on the air). He saw bullshit and he called it out.

But there’s one George Carlin and there’s a million comedians who are not doing that AT ALL. I’m sure Dave Chappelle thinks he’s got the zeitgeist nailed by punching down at the trans community but Carlin would never. Louis CK making jokes about how the libs have canceled him (for sexual assault, mind you) shortly before winning a Grammy? Hell, Chris Rock going after a familiar target with an extremely shitty and outdated joke? If anything, he should have been slapped for making a GI Jane reference 25 years after the movie came out. Jeff Foxworthy? The puppet guy? Bill Burr? John Mulaney? None of these people are doing anything other than trying to make people laugh, but they all seem to think they’re Frodo carrying the world’s burden up Mount Doom.

I should note here that I am cursed — and it is a curse — with the comedian gene. Unbidden, my mind is always coming up with snappy comebacks and good retorts even at times when I am desperately trying not to be funny. It is the worst, and I consider my greatest comedy success the times I’ve bit my tongue to not say something dumb and/or inappropriate … and I’ve failed that test a few times, too. 

Now, I would never do standup because it seems like it’s an awful time filled with just the worst people. But I can’t help but notice how many standups have spent the past few years offering grave warnings about the dangers of cancel culture and how it’s clouding comedy’s future. I’m not going to go down the dead-end street of “cancel culture” again, but I have to say I question their motives just a little bit. 

They talk about not offending people and choosing words carefully as some sort of nightmare scenario that dooms comedy. First of all, you don’t have to be a history major to know how silly that is; what played for big laughs in the ’50s wasn’t what worked in the ‘70s, and that had changed by the ‘90s, and isn’t the same today. Even before audiences got “woke” or whatever, a stand-up comedian who took the stage with a spinning bow tie, fake teeth and Charlie Chan-level racist jokes would have gotten a pretty frosty reception in 2010 compared with the standing O they would have received in 1955. Things change! 

But really, the overreaction is even funnier than that because comedians have spent so much time lamenting being careful with their words that they appear to have forgotten that comedy is almost entirely about choosing words carefully! What else is a joke but a cleverly designed series of words, chosen specifically to elicit a reaction? Even the simplest of old-school jokes — “Take my wife … please” — is artfully constructed to subvert expectation. When perhaps the most famous joke of all time has a punchline of “The aristocrats!” there needs to be a pretty well-built setup to make that work. Comedians of all kinds basically spend their entire careers trying to tinker with wording for maximum impact. Which is to say: They’re already careful with their words! That’s the whole bit!

That audiences don’t want racist, sexist, homophobic or mean jokes as much now as they once may have is not a death knell for comedy. It’s a challenge that good comedians — and good writers and good actors — can make work. And by the by, there’s a TON of space for a new Carlin type who is willing to poke the woke audience a little bit and subvert the complaint rather than just endlessly make it over and over again while signing even larger Netflix bonus checks and going on Fox to lament how nobody will let them speak in public any more. (Stay tuned for my new special “Cancelled III: This Time It’s Personal.”)

I do believe that social media has made comedians more nervous about comedy — but not necessarily for the reasons they’ve stated. Watch any big story break on Twitter and there are thousands of jokes being made within minutes … and some of them are really good. Call it the “SNL” problem: It’s hard to have an awesome joke a few days later when people have already seen six versions of it already on social media, some of which are funnier than the professional one.

But ultimately, these are people telling jokes and trying to earn laughs. This isn’t inventing vaccines or putting people on Mars or reversing climate change. The world isn’t gonna stop spinning ’cause somebody missed a joke opportunity. It’s just not a big deal, and it makes comedians’ insecurity ultimately kind of laughable. Who could have guessed that comedians’ biggest problem — taking themselves too seriously — would also be their funniest bit?

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About Clever Name Here dba "Black Rod" 94 Articles
Vell, Clever Name Here just zis guy, you know? Sometimes funny. Often annoyed. Once I saw a blimp.

31 Comments

  1. the overreaction is even funnier than that because comedians have spent so much time lamenting being careful with their words that they appear to have forgotten that comedy is almost entirely about choosing words carefully!

    I think there are a ton of successful standups who have given up on that part, which is hard, and they rely on the easy stuff — persona, catch phrases, old jokes.

    I remember reading a profile of Steve Martin who decided to give up on his shows when he realized people weren’t coming for the humor anymore, they were coming to relive routines they already knew.

    He had the good sense to move on to movies, writing books, and art instead of cranking out more of the same.

  2. I am with you on all the agita over The Slap.  I literally couldn’t possibly care less if I tried, really, really hard.  Of course, like you, I also knew this would be A Thing That Needs To Be Discussed for fucking weeks on end.

    • I did not watch the Oscars but I can understand the shock of seeing it happen in the moment. I didn’t watch a ton of NBA games in 2005 but one night just before I was going to bed I caught the last few minutes of a game that turned out to be the Malice in the Palace and afterwards I sat there slack-jawed for about an hour trying to process what the hell I’d just seen.

      But I knew there would be a plethora of horrendous takes from the Smith thing; what I didn’t anticipate is every comedian basically putting themselves on the cross about it and about their divine duty to blah blah blah, and it’s like man, you guys should learn to take a joke.

  3. I don’t understand why The Slap is getting this much traction, especially in this age when all of us are supposed to have the attention span of a fruit fly. A streaker interrupted David Niven when he was presenting an award, and Marlon Brando dispatched a Native American woman to go up on stage and publicly renounce the award he was given, and I don’t think either event was dissected in thousands of outlets for days on end. I think the response was “Streakers are weird” and “Marlon Brando is weird” and people moved on pretty quickly.

    Although this is ever green in my mind:

  4. Thus far I’ve only seen men complaining that the slap is the end of comedy. I’m sure there might be women and nonbinary folks too complaining, but I haven’t seen it yet.

    Which is just telling because female comedians get threated with rape and death fairly regularly as just part of the job apparently and somehow a slap between 2 adult men is the end of comedy. A high school friend does stand up locally and she had a scary as fuck stalker for fucking years and it was just a job hazard basically in how people she worked with considered it.

    • It’s mostly men, for sure. I’ve heard a few women compare it to the amount of abuse they get … but I’ve also seen a few getting the vapors over it like male comics, too. Plus there’s Amy Schumer’s really f’n weird “The real Oscars issue was I couldn’t tell an Alec Baldwin killed someone joke” which is definitely adjacent to the “comedians think they’re heroes” problem!

       

       

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