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I recently read an essay published in The Walrus titled "The Comedy Culture War," wherein the author argued that stand up comedy is changing. Or at least I think so. I find essays around these types of subjects can be hard to follow. Not to be rude, but I often find it hard to follow what the exact thesis is. The basic points made were that the scene is changing, and tough luck for anyone who doesn't like it.
But does anybody really care that the scene is changing? I don't. I only care if I'm gonna be forced to find something funny that just isn't funny to me. If other people find it funny, that's great. Just like if somebody doesn't find a comedian I like funny, I don't care either.
A person's sense of humour is deeply personal. It's only cultural to a certain extent, but it's much much more personal. My brother and I have drastically different taste in stand-up. How? We grew up in the same house, have the same parents, our ages aren't that far apart. We watched the same comedies growing up. There is some overlap, but we definitely have a different sense of humour. So what gives?
What I also don't get about this Walrus essay is that I don't know if there is anybody around who thinks it isn't changing, of course it is. Comedy, like any art, is always changing, and those changes are based on many factors, both within the art form and its relationship to a million other external factors. If you have a great bit about something very controversial like say, a school shooting, that albeit works most of the time in various audiences despite its controversial subject matter, you'd still likely shelf it for a while if a school shooting had just occurred and was all over the media.
The same thing happened with coronavirus. When it first starting sprouting up around the news cycle, but was still a rather distant problem, comics were joking about it left and right, on stage, off stage, twitter, you name it. Once the virus hit closer to home, just about anybody alluding to a joke about it would get "roasted" or "absolutely slammed" online.
Funny enough, however, now that we are months into a lockdown with little end in sight, jokes surrounding coronavirus are all over the place again. We have become able to joke about it again after being inundated with it for so long.
That is precisely what has happened with the latest string of stand-up specials that are taking aim at woke culture. Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, and Ricky Gervais are without fail the three names you'll see attacked in any essay, article, or tweet of this kind.
Those are the big three they are obsessed with, and it makes perfect sense. Why? All three specials were hilarious. Humour, not a big thing in stand-up these days. In fact, a strictly funny comedian is quite resented in many circles of today's culture. At the very least, they are referred to as cowardly for not using their platform to address the sociopolitical issues of the times, say the way Richard Pryor or George Carlin did.
Pryor and Carlin are often used as reference points of comedians that aged well across time, yes, because they were funny and they put the jokes first. If it happened to touch on a social issue that was more by coincidence than anything else, they weren't preaching.
Seinfeld comes under a lot of heat, too, although activists begrudgingly hit a wall once they realize that Seinfeld isn't even the least bit edgy. He just happens to be extremely successful and meet the criteria of the current boogie-man. His show was about 'nothing,' remember? Oh wait, that is cowardly, I forgot. God forbid somebody put years of work into eventually providing you with an hour of care-free humour that allows you to escape the harsh realities of the world.
So here's the part where I get really confused: Do you want mainstream acceptance or not? It was a lot more clearly laid out back in the days of punk culture. They were just punks, and f-you for not getting it. That's was whole point. With this new wave of comedy, they seem to really want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be both fringe and feared while simultaneously lamenting the fact that they may lack broader appeal.
In the first part of the essay the author describes going to comedy clubs a few years back and, "gritting my teeth in the audience as bro comics rattle through lukewarm bits about their girlfriends talking too much or shopping obsessively. In this brand of comedy, women are, at best, aliens to be theorized about by the Jerry Seinfelds of the world; at worst, we become the objects of violent fantasies."
I don't buy this at all, I've spent countless hours in comedy clubs and open mics and the only time where you might see a bro's lukewarm material about women being the objects of his violent fantasies is quite rare, and what's more interesting still, is that it would bomb anyway.
That's the part about stand up that makes it so great, it self-regulates. Just like how on the other end of the spectrum, Rotten Tomatoes initially refused to allow the internet at large to review the latest Chappelle special, Sticks and Stones. Upon its release, only selected 'pros' could give it a review, all of which gave it a terrible review, in at a laughable 0 percent. But unfortunately for those opposed, the stadiums were sold out night after night and people continue to communicate even offline. The word was out and the jig was up. That special now has an audience score of 99 percent, up from its previous rating of from the pros of zero. That's a pretty big margin of error, if you ask me.
However, later in that same essay, the author recounts a night at the club where she watches Hannah Gadsby, writing, "I saw Gadsby perform the bit at Vancouver’s Orpheum theatre, I noticed a woman across the aisle go still, her face screwed up in an expression of discomfort and anger. I saw the same reaction from a man in front of me when Gadsby did a blistering bit about golf." So I'm just wondering if that is a good thing that these people were uncomfortable, or not? Or perhaps, more likely, they just didn't find it funny.
Take even the cover art for the essay, it's an essay lamenting how people can feel isolated at a comedy show and how that is tragic, yet the artwork seems to suggest that so long as the criteria is reversed, than it's perfectly fine and almost something to revel in.
Or are we just back to the whole idea about how sense of humour is deeply personal anyway?
In short, all I'm trying to say is yes, you're right. The scene is changing. Better yet, it's expanding to include more people, and that's a good thing. The more perspectives at play, the better. However, one thing I can't do is just laugh for the sake supporting someone else's journey so that I may therefore stand on the right side of history. I'll laugh if it's funny, why wouldn't I? It's rare enough to have a good hardy laugh, so why would anyone deprive themselves of that simple and uncontrollable joy for some political reason? That's ridiculous.
So for this new wave of comedy that is coming to shake things up and shut up the old guard of Gervais, C.K. Seinfeld and Chappelle (the one that got away), to you I say good luck. I'm mean that earnestly, the more successful people there are in the world the better a place it will be to live. The undisputedly funnier a comic gets, the less likely they will be able to be ignored.