By BEN R. WILLIAMS
I was talking to a fellow the other day and he made a pretty bold statement.
Comedy, he said, is dead.
He argued that “cancel culture” and “woke culture” have ruined comedy. You can’t joke about anything anymore without offending someone and having your career taken away from you.
This is an argument I’ve heard plenty of times before. Even Dave Chappelle, a brilliant comedian I love dearly, has railed against cancel culture.
But I don’t buy it. Cancel culture hasn’t killed comedy. In fact, I’m not sure cancel culture even exists.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, I consider myself something of a student of comedy. I love the rapid-fire genius of the Marx Brothers and the slapstick of the Three Stooges. I consider HBO’s “Mr. Show with Bob and David” to be the pinnacle of the sketch comedy form. I think the first nine (or maybe ten) seasons of “The Simpsons” are probably the most perfect comedy creation of all time. I’ve lately fallen in love with the wholesomely hilarious “Joe Pera Talks With You” on Adult Swim. I even love the patience-grinding anti-comedy of Neil Hamburger, Tim Heidecker, and Eric Wareheim.
These are but a few of my comedy bonafides. Laughter is something I take very seriously. Comedy, to my mind, is a bit like an automobile: you don’t have to understand how it works to appreciate it, but if you do understand how it works, you might come away with a deeper level of appreciation.
Allow me to explain.
Those who say that comedy is dead usually point to one of two examples: “Blazing Saddles” or “All in the Family.”
These two beloved creations, they say, could never be made today. People would be up in arms. There would be riots in the streets. “Blazing Saddles” features too much racism, while “All in the Family’s” Archie Bunker spouts almost nothing but racism, sexism, and homophobia.
My initial counter-argument would be that if these creations were so terribly offensive, they probably wouldn’t still be airing on TV every week. But there’s something deeper to be explored here.
The reason 1974’s “Blazing Saddles” works is not because racism is heaped upon the African-American Sheriff Bart, who has been deployed to protect the Old West town of Rock Ridge; it works because Sheriff Bart is the smartest guy in the room and the people heaping racism upon him are morons (or “the common clay of the new West,” if you prefer). Bart is never the butt of the joke; the racists are.
Similarly, “All in the Family,” which ran for nearly the entirety of the 1970s, indeed features a deeply-prejudiced, narrow-minded patriarch played to perfection by Carroll O’Connor. Archie Bunker says and does some pretty offensive things throughout the course of the series, but the writers make sure we’re not laughing with Bunker; we’re laughing at him. We’re laughing at his ignorance and his blinkered worldview. And we especially laugh when Archie’s preconceived notions blow up in his face in unexpected ways.
One of the most famous comedy axioms is the idea of “punching up” vs. “punching down.” In a nutshell, the idea is that a comic or comic character should only insult people of greater power and influence than themselves. Punching down — that is, insulting people with less power and influence than the comic — generally ain’t funny. It’s uncomfortable, and worst of all, it’s lazy.
I firmly believe that there are no sacred cows in comedy. Anything and everything can be the subject of a joke. But the caveat is, the joke needs to actually be funny. It needs to be clever. And if the target is a marginalized or relatively powerless group, the joke needs to find a way to acknowledge the target without punching down at them.
If that sounds hard, it’s because it is. Comedy is hard. It’s easy to make someone cry; if you want to make them laugh, you’ve got to put your back into it.
Earlier in the column, I said that cancel culture doesn’t even exist. That may seem like a bold claim, but just consider the case of Dave Chappelle.
Chappelle’s most recent Netflix special, “The Closer,” debuted on Oct. 5. It was immediately met with backlash from the transgender community due to jokes Chappelle made at that community’s expense, with some folks even calling for the special to be removed from the streaming service (a call I personally disagree with, for the record, even if I’m not a fan of the jokes that prompted it).
Does this outrage mean that Chappelle has been cancelled? Is he, as many have claimed, a victim of cancel culture?
Well, considering that he got paid in excess of $20 million for the special, and considering that he was also nominated for a Grammy award just this month, I somehow think his career will weather this particular storm.
Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I am not opposed to offensive comedy. In fact, I’m strongly in favor of it. Comedy doesn’t necessarily need to offend, but personally, all of my favorite jokes are unprintable in a family newspaper.
How, then, is it possible to thread the needle? How is it possible to be a filthy, offensive comedian while never punching down?
To answer that question, I will defer to one Mr. George Carlin, the towering comic genius who was actually once arrested for being too offensive on stage.
In 1990, Carlin appeared on Larry King Live, and Larry asked him about Andrew Dice Clay. For those who don’t remember, Dice was enormously popular in the early 1990s for telling jokes that were derogatory towards women, minorities, gay people, the disabled, and basically anyone who wasn’t a straight white guy wearing a leather jacket. Today, Dice is best known as an answer during a game of “Trivial Pursuit: 1990s Edition.”
When asked about Dice, Carlin had the following to say:
“I would defend to the death his right to do everything he does. The thing that I find unusual — and it’s not a criticism so much — but his targets are underdogs. And comedy has traditionally picked on people in power, people who abuse their power. Women and gays and immigrants are kind of, to my way of thinking, underdogs. … I think his core audience are young white males who are threatened by these groups. A lot of these guys aren’t sure of their manhood because that’s a problem when you’re going through adolescence. … Women who assert themselves and are competent are a threat to these men. And so are immigrants in terms of jobs. … There’s a sharing of anger and rage at these targets.”
The folks who are railing against cancel culture, wokeness, and political correctness have plenty of supporters. But after taking a hard look at those supporters, I’m not entirely sure who would want them on their side.