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Oh Good, We’re Still Talking About the “Sanctity of Comedy” 🙄

There’s been a lot of mansplaining about comedy this week, so I’m just going to spend this newsletter shutting it down, if that’s okay.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Oct 29 2021

11 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

If you thought for even a minute that Dave Chappelle’s thoughts on trans people didn’t matter, the fact that we are on, what? Week three of the discourse about his Netflix special, The Closer, is probably good evidence that the opposite is true. Lots of people have very effectively explained just why Chappelle’s jokes aren’t ‘just’ jokes, so I don’t think I need to restate what has already been said, but this week, the discourse has morphed into a more general lament about the state of comedy and I definitely have some thoughts about that.

In Chappelle’s latest rant about how he has been unfairly cancelled (which was delivered to what looks like a packed audience of fans, just for the record) he snarkily asserted that Hannah Gadsby, who has criticized both Chappelle and Netflix over the transphobia in The Closer, is not funny, playing into the lingering stereotype that women are incapable of grasping humour. And David Zucker, the writer and director of comedy classic Airplane! as well as other, um, classic films like BASEketball and Scary Movie 3 through 5, just wrote a meandering op-ed about how he could never make a movie like Airplane! today because ‘wokeism’ is ruining comedy. But it’s funny (though not funny haha, to be clear): despite what they think, these dudes aren’t scoring points in a debate about free speech. Instead, all they’re really doing is being precious about their privilege.

Don’t be fooled; we’ve been talking about what comedians are ‘allowed’ to say for literally ever

First of all, we're not in some new and terrible period of censorship where comedy is under attack. Broadcasters, audiences and lawmakers have been telling comedians what they’re ‘allowed’ to joke about for years. According to Clean Comedians, a U.S. talent agency that helps clients book clean comedians for events, in the 1920s, “comedy abounded with racial stereotypes… but sexual language and obscenity was frowned upon. While many comedians swore up a storm off stage, they were what would later be called ‘fun for the whole family’ onstage. Clean comedians were the norm… While there were many ‘off color’ entertainers to choose from, the general public appreciated the clean comedians. In fact, local papers promoted ‘Clean Bills’ which referred to shows where good clean fun was guaranteed. These shows were packed with big variety without the vulgarity.”

While I’d argue that blackface and racist jokes are actually very vulgar, the larger point—that comedy has always occupied a fraught space where the ideal of free speech clashes with cultural mores around propriety and decency—still holds true. I mean, in 1964, Lenny Bruce was convicted of violating New York's obscenity laws and was sentenced to four months in a workhouse. During his trial, huge celebrities spoke out in his defence, sparking a national conversation about freedom of speech. Just a few years later, George Carlin, who was clearly influenced by Bruce, was charged with violating Wisconsin’s obscenity laws after performing a bit about the seven words you can’t say on television: Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. (And as an aside, doesn't this list sound almost… quaint? Tits!) The court battle over his joke eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled to uphold the Federal Communications Commission’s power to regulate language—and therefore decide what counts as indecency.

In fact, as author Kliph Nesteroff argued last week, “comedians have more freedom of speech today, not less” (emphasis mine). In addition to the obscenity laws that saw comedians literally arrested for saying rude things, he points to the Irish and Italian immigrants who protested when comedians mocked them at the turn of the century and Black and Jewish Americans and Indigenous people who did the same in the early 1900s, not to mention the softer but arguably more powerful influence of corporate America. While “comedians resented interference… if it meant advancing their career, they went along with it,” he pointed out. “The Tonight Show was created in 1954 and became an important stand-up showcase. For seven decades, comedians have willingly eliminated the f-word without screaming about censorship or accusing hosts such as Johnny Carson of tyranny.”

Dave Chappelle and David Zucker aren’t actually concerned about the ‘sanctity of comedy.’ They just want to maintain their privilege

And I guarantee that Chappelle and Zucker know Nesteroff is right. Chappelle might wink at the idea that he has been ‘cancelled,’ particularly through his claims that Untitled has been dropped by film distributors and pulled from film festival lineups, but since he has booked theatres in 10 cities to screen it and is selling tickets through Live Nation, it’s hard to see how he has actually been silenced. Not to mention, the CEO of Netflix has literally chosen to side with Chappelle over his own employees—and, I’m willing the bet, the wishes of the company’s media relations department.

So, what are men like Chappelle and Zucker actually complaining about when they rant about wokeism ruining comedy? A decline in their power and privilege, and likely some anxiety over a corresponding rise in prominence, though maybe not actual power, for marginalized groups, including members of the LGBTQ+ community. These men are not worried about imprisonment; they’re worried that their perspective is no longer the most important (or prevalent) one in comedy, and they’re couching that concern in arguments about censorship and free speech.

But as Roxane Gay pointed out weeks ago in the New York Times, while most reasonable people believe that “art should be made without restriction. Free speech reigns supreme. Sometimes good art should make us uncomfortable, and sometimes bad people can make good art,” that doesn’t mean art, and particularly comedy, is exempt from scrutiny. In fact, “comedy is not above criticism, even if the most famous, wildly wealthy comedians will keep insulting those who question them,” she writes. “It’s just laughs, right? Lighten up. All criticism is forestalled with this setup, in which when you object to anything a comedian says, you’re the problem. You’re the one who’s narrow-minded or ‘brittle’ or humorless [sic].”

Image: Giphy

I actually wonder how much of this framing is rooted in anxiety over the increasingly mainstream acceptance of feminism, because the rhetoric Gay identifies is so gendered. That would make sense, right? Over the past two decades, it has mostly been feminists, many of them racialized, who have taken up the mantle of critiquing comedians, especially those who rely on racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia in their acts.

Newsflash: Cis men aren’t actually the comedy bosses they think they are

While this has been necessary, it unfortunately also played into long-standing ideas about women’s inherent unfunniness, which was a widely accepted opinion for literal decades 🙃. Back in 2007, Christopher Hitchens wrote a ridiculous essay explaining why women just aren’t as funny as men are, and while most of it was utter bullshit, I think he stumbled upon some genuine insight when he wrote, “male humor [sic] prefers the laugh to be at someone’s expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste.” This type of thinking obviously comes from a binary understanding of gender, and the idea that women won’t laugh at someone else’s expense is pretty silly, but I think what he’s actually explaining is the prominence of disparagement humour, which as academics Karolina Koszałkowska and Monika Wróbel explain, "elicits amusement through the denigration, derogation, humiliation, victimization, or belittlement of individuals, social groups or ideologies. Typical examples of such humor can be found in sexist, racist and anti-gay (homophobic) jokes." He's also highlighting how a small group of people can create a framework that normalizes a certain approach, even if it's not the only, or even best one.

Both Chappelle’s recent comments about Gadsby and the essay Zucker wrote continue the tradition of assuming cisgender men are the natural arbiters of humour—which does make sense, I guess, because for decades that’s who decided which comedians got hired, promoted, awarded and praised. But that’s changing, and it’s clearly making Zucker, at least, uncomfortable. In his piece, he recounts the feedback he received on his latest script, which he describes as “a spoof of the international-spy-thriller genre, featuring a terrific female character.” “In talking about her training, she says, ‘I turned myself into a killing machine, had a breast reduction to fit into the Kevlar vest.’ Talk about a mild joke,” he says. “This one’s pure oatmeal, but it raised red flags among the super-timid. One of the executives who read it at the studio gave feedback, saying she was ‘not sure if that kind of comedy will work in the marketplace.’ If I had been required to submit to this kind of abject cowardice on Airplane!, Julie Haggerty would never have uttered the line to Bob Hays, ‘I remember when I used to sit on your face and wriggle,’ or gone on to blow up a blow-up doll in, shall we say, a compromising position. Yet this is how decisions about filmmakers’ destinies are made today.”

Image: Giphy

Zucker is bemoaning the watering down of comedy—but what he actually experienced is data-informed decision making. According to film data researcher and analyst Stephen Follows, comedies have the second-highest percentage of women in their audiences (54%), after romance (59%). And among 15- to 24-year-olds, who find PG-13 and R-rated comedies most appealing, “there’s a relatively high number of young women in the crowd… So, the demographics suggest that films should be targeted either at very general audiences, with a G, PG, or PG-13 rating; or at teens and young adults with a higher rating (probably R). In both cases, appealing to women and men is key.”

So maybe that (female, obviously) exec wasn’t too cowardly to greenlight Zucker’s derivative joke. Maybe she just understood who her audience actually is, and wants to serve them so they’ll keep spending money on her projects.

Not every comedian is holding onto the past

In his column, Nesteroff argues that painting criticism as a precursor to the death of comedy is a long-standing tradition: “In 1903, the Topeka Capital predicted the death of comedy: ‘The final upshot [of protest is] to strip comedy of its most engaging and popular features. If the raid should extend to all sorts of people caricatured in the theater and in print, then goodbye to comedy.” But the good news is, not every male comedian buys into that argument. Back in June, Katt Williams argued that if comedians can’t figure out how to make jokes without demeaning entire groups of people, they might just not be very good comics, which I personally found hilarious. Eddie Murphy has apologized for using homophobic slurs and joking about AIDS, and now characterizes those bits as “ignorant.”

Even Carlin, who built a whole act around ‘obscene’ words, understood the difference between tearing down people who have power and cruelly mocking those who don’t.

What's more, there are plenty of comedians, both professional and amateur TikTok types, who are both hilarious and actively dismantling the disparagement humour framework. I mean, Hasan Minhaj, Ali Wong, Nicole Byer, Ronny Chieng, Cameron Esposito, Ryan Ken, Zainab Johnson, Ziwe…?

So yeah. Maybe we’re not the ones who don’t get the joke.

And Did You Hear About…

The Gossip Reading Club, a newsletter that dissects past celebrity gossip. I devoured the most recent post, which looks back at a brutal Esquire profile that played a huge role in shaping public opinion of Miles Teller.

As A Manager Alison Green’s excellent response to the managers in her inbox complaining about job candidates ghosting them 👻

This absolutely spot-on piece about the depressing familiarity of Edward Rogers calling Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri “arrogant.”

True crime rotting our brains, as per Gawker.

Roxane Gay’s (very accurate) takedown of too-dark prestige TV and movies. As in, the lighting is literally too low and we can’t see wtf is going on.

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