Comedians have taken on a very interesting role in the past couple of years. Many of us have grown up with comedians that write a lot of jokes about politics, such as Bill Hicks or George Carlin. Yet today, we have comedians that are dedicated almost entirely to politics, such as Lewis Black, or political satire such as John Oliver and Samantha Bee. Somehow, even comedians who don’t constrain themselves to such narrow topics are now looked to, and looked down upon, for their opinions about the broader political and social climates of our society. Although I do agree that comedy and art can be a helpful mirror, as a tool for introspection on our current culture, I think we do a disservice to entertainers when we look to them to replace the roles previously given to intellectuals, academics and philosophers.
I use to love John Stewart when he was on The Daily Show. I remember when The Colbert Report first launched, Stephen Colbert commented on the fact that his name was plastered around his entire studio with him sitting in a desk shaped like a giant letter C. I remember watching a C-SPAN breakfast interview with Stewart where someone asked if he was afraid Americans got their news from his program. Stewart responded that there is simply too much assumed knowledge to get news from The Daily Show. People have to be informed in order to get the jokes. He claimed his show didn’t report the news, it simply found the funny in it.
I remember laughing at jokes about news reports on genocide and asking myself if such programs really help people to deal with the harsh realities of this world, or if the laughter just helped make people acquiesce to it, in the same way movies about revolution can pacify their audiences. Although Colbert and Stewart left their shows for late night, The Daily Show continues on with Trevor Noah, and there are even more satire news programs today. Is satire news really doing a disservice to its audience in the way it frames political conversations?
“…We’ve got a bunch of really successful shows, making money hand over fist, that are all competing for the same eyes, reliant on corrupt, crazy, sensational things to happen every day to make into theater for their nightly shows. Line up all these shows, and they start to resemble something … they all sound the same. … They all become de facto journalists serving many Americans their news, and they become political actors…” -The Tragedy of Jon Stewart, Coffee Break1
I think the impact of satire news has stretched beyond television and has influenced the way we perceive stand-up comics. Comedians today are held in a very odd esteem in American society. Although most people go to see a stand-up performer for a good laugh, some audiences are also exposed to a comedian’s social commentary. We’ve seen famous comedians called out on their jokes after they leave the stage, with comedy specials sometimes evoking anger over their content. Comedians have historically always tried to push the edges of what’s considered appropriate, and then make us laugh about it. What has elevated the role of the court jester to that of a sophist philosopher, or the intellectual commentator? Social commentary was never their job, and for many comedians, it was simply a byproduct of trying to make their audience laugh.
“…What bugs me about the whole thing is just the idea that we have to take comedians seriously now … we end up treating the medium as if it’s basically a speech … like an expressive speech, and in one case that does treat the comedian unfairly, because that’s not what they’re actually trying to do, but it also just sucks. Like who would want to listen to some rando, who’s probably not all that educated usually, just speak for an hour and a half, and just pine on random subjects without any real through-line … That’s just not interesting. Why would you do that? … There’s something about comedians that they’ve seemed to have gained a new … social position in the last … ten or twenty years, where they’re almost the new go-to public intellectuals…“ -Troy Polidori, Owls at Dawn (podcast)2
For a couple of decades in America, comedians were somewhat untouchable, as far as their content went. Although performances that made their way onto cable and broadcast TV were subjected to the Standard and Practices departments of their respective networks, the majority of jokes from stand-up comedians stayed within the confines of bars and comedy clubs. Except for the occasional bootleg made from a recorder someone snuck in, comedy acts were ephemeral, like other forms of theater. Sure they pissed some people off, but that typically didn’t follow them to the next city or show.
“‘Mr funny man, come here! Hey buddy, we’re Christians, we don’t like what you said.’ I said: ‘Then forgive me.’ Later, when I was hanging from the tree…“ -Bill Hicks3
Dave Chappelle’s return to the comedy scene has brought a lot of controversy with it. He’s been accused of being insensitive and transphobic due to some of the jokes in specials he’s released over the past few years. He’s never claimed to be a political commentator or anything more than a comedian. Chappelle typically avoids interviews4. When he does appear on news programs, he’s interviewed as an entertainer, not as a pundit. He’s never claimed to be anything other than a comedian. However, the criticism languished against him implies that his aim is political commentary, when his intent is to make people laugh.
Joe Rogan, by contrast, is a comedian who also runs a podcast where he frequently interviews a mix of politicians, intellectuals, comedians and entertainers. He explicitly covers politics and society with many of his guests. Because of his decision to interview controversial people such as Jordan Peterson, Milo Yiannopoulos, Roseanne Barr and others, he’s often be labeled as being alt-right adjacent. Although his program is always respectful of the guests he interviews, critics claim that even giving such people a platform is irresponsible. Chappelle and Rogan move in entirely different directions. Chappelle is a Comedian first and foremost, while Rogan solidly sits in the camp of social commentary, by means of interviews with various people. Yet they’re both held to this new emergent standard in the entertainment world.
Some say the backlash against comedians are due to people simply being too sensitive. Others blame the current call-out culture, which rewards people on social media for being able to grow viral condemnation over particular individuals or groups. Often the problematic jokes that are released into the collective rage machine of the Internet are taken way out of context. They’re missing the build up and the cool down that bookend narratives and story. In most of these outrageous out-of-context clips, the audience is laughing.
Despite all these explanations or justifications, the most important one that is often left out: these are comedians. They’re not up there to explicitly talk about society. They are on stage to tell jokes and make us laugh. Content that is problematic may be more of a reflection of society, or even our own projections, rather than direct ill intent.
Ricky Gervais hosted the 2020 Golden Glob awards. His opening hilariously criticized the hypocrisy of Hollywood elites in the entertainment industry using their award speeches as platforms for political statements. This short opening quickly made its way onto news and social media sites.
“…Well, you say you’re woke, but the companies you work for; I mean—unbelievable. Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you? So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. Right? You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So if you win, right, come up, accept your little award, thank you agent, and your god, and fuck off. Okay? It’s already three hours long…“ -Ricky Gervais, 2020 Golden Globe Awards
It’s a humorous statement and makes an interesting point. People who’ve watched clips of the event may experience schadenfreude at the discomfort of the audience members Gervais is calling out. Yet there is a real underlying problem with this entire joke about hypocrisy when one starts to break it down. Gervais has a net worth of around $130 million USD5. He’s criticizing rich people for making political statements, yet he himself is a rich person making a political statement! His wealth is literally the product of the industry and types of people he is criticizing.
This example of wokeness from comedians can be funny, and even self reflective, but it also begins to blur that line between comedy for the sake of being funny and social commentary. Will it drive anger or action, or does making a statement in this context make it easier to dismiss because it’s just a joke? Does Gervais’s own position within a particular in-group or out-group affect the way different audiences perceive this joke? Should it?
If an off-color joke dangerous? Are we so fragile, and so despondent in our hope for a common humanity, that we think crass entertainment will strength the resolve of those who wish to bring harm to society? Do we believe that everyone has a right to a voice, and that sane minds can tell the difference between fantasy and reality; between a stage show and ideology? When an intellectual or a civil rights advocate tells us something uncomfortable, it’s typically to get his or her audience to think and wrestle with difficult issues. When a comedian tells us a problematic joke, it’s typically to make us laugh, but can it also make us complacent?
Comedians should not be our pillars of intellectualism. Yes, they can have critical insights on society, told through the lenses of humor. However, they can also might carry world views that we may wish to abandon. For that matter, we shouldn’t blindly trust any famous academics, pop-culture-science entertainers, actors, authors, intellectuals, comedians or politicians. The world is a complex place; too complex to be broken down into the false dichotomy of left/right politics or us vs them confrontation. Ideas brought to us through comedy, authority, news media or intellectuals should never be blindly accepted or rejected because of the source or the medium. We should always consider the merits of the message itself, as well as why we believe what we believe. We are responsible for making our own choices about those beliefs, without blindly quoting someone just because they claim to be an expert, elegantly make their point, or simply make us laugh.
“What Does it Mean to Care?” – Owls at Dawn, Episode 103. 30 September 2019. Owls at Dawn. (Podcast) ↩
Full Interview: Dave Chappelle Drops Gems While Talking With Gayle King On CBS. 10 March 2017. Comedy Hype. Mirror. ↩