OK so I’m gonna avoid talking in detail about where this little rant is coming from, instead we’re gonna keep things a little broader but also more personal:
stand-up comedy was something I grew up loving. comedy central felt like an outpost of strange, wondrous things back in the very early oughts to a kid with very little exposure to anything that would be considered “hardship” or “actually strange things”. but there’s this explicit combination of crafted narrative and vulnerable intimacy with my favorite kind of stand-up that I found addictive.
like one of my favorite acts, one that pops back into my head from time to time, is Zach Galifianakis’s 2001 set on comedy central presents. it is weird, and a little jarring; he knows he comes off as a strange dude and leans into it, with long wordless piano sequences between shotgun-quick jokes constantly heightening the tension (and somehow therefore becoming their own joke that generates more laughter as the performance goes on).
but: the target of the jokes is always Zach, it’s always him wanting to do or having done strange things or feeling like he looks strange or reacting poorly to bad life choices. it is a bit weird to say that “he” is the joke, actually — it’s the character he’s constructed who’s inevitably the thing being laughed at. but the “laughing at” is soft, it’s empathetic. we laugh because we recognize something familiar in his strangeness; this is like how great fiction works, where specificity draws on universal emotion.
you can find lots of much smarter people than me talking eloquently about “punching up” versus “punching down”, the idea that targets of comedy (when it’s targeted, when it’s meant to have bite) should be power structures and not the vulnerable. to which I say yeah, sure, I agree with that well enough. but it’s also worth thinking about what that even means, the premise that comedy is punching at all — that it produces violence or can enact something.
I don’t really think it does, most of the time.
I think comedy is a conduit for the generation of an in-group. the universal thing any of those in-groups have in common is that they’re laughing at the same thing — if we can laugh together, we can live together, that sort of thing. tribal formation is weird this way in modern society: there’s many things far more niche and seemingly unrelated to identity that cause tribal identification these days, so comedy to me seems almost traditional by comparison in the way that it lets you see yourself as part of a larger group. (this is the power of the live studio audience, whether it’s a stand-up show or a sitcom or SNL or whatever)
from there we have to ask how the in-group is defining itself. is it exclusionary? what are the characteristics of inclusion and exclusion? “did you laugh”, sure, but more importantly, did you agree that the thing was funny?
comedy can be a resource for marginalized groups to find power in recognizing each other and identifying with the mishaps and stumbles of navigating modern intersectionality; it can provide an outlet for ventilation of frustrations and genuine fear, released like a pressure valve as a laugh that can make you feel safe and like you belong. it’s super valuable in this way, even if I don’t personally think it has much power to go beyond this. you can “speak truth to power” with comedy to some degree but ultimately the power probably isn’t listening, so if you want the thing to have sociopolitical power it had better speak truth to the audience, too.
so when a white straight dude starts talking about his comedy “pushes boundaries” and is “not afraid to offend people” you put it in this context and you think about what his tribe is, and who he’s really talking to, and what he’s trying to say
jokes that offend the marginalized are just bullying; they aren’t challenging power structures, they aren’t disrupting the status quo, as a matter of fact they’re a reinforcement of the traditional status quo. they let the CHWM in-group feel validated in a world of Twitter where it’s easy for their oversensitive egos to be frayed. comedy like this is exactly the opposite of pushing boundaries. it’s re-setting boundaries.
and it makes me sad and angry to see people misconstrue this. I think the in-group should be defined broadly and be inclusive. the thing that defines whether you laugh shouldn’t be “am I the right ethnic/gender identity to not be upset by this” but just “is this my style of joke-telling”. there’s so many ways to tell very good, very strange, very interesting jokes that let people into your worldview and invite people to understand you, and each other, just a little bit more. there are many ways for this to happen along intersectional lines where the jokes reveal inches of truth about how people who aren’t you have to encounter and react to their world a little differently, and that can be almost enlightening even as it’s also not necessarily too much more substantial than the joke itself
or I guess comedy can also be a very appropriate-for-2018 shithead vacuum where you reinforce that it’s cool to hurt people as long as you can’t see them
you do you, comedians, I guess