Apparently stand-up comedy is dead and none of us will ever laugh again
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
About a year ago I attended a comedy show at Comedy Bar here in Toronto. It was just a fun night out for me and a couple of friends and we saw a show featuring three comedians who were touring together. Two of these guys were hilarious. The third was not.
Among the jokes he attempted: some good old casual racism, even-more-casual sexism and at least one dig at the LGBT+ community. Don’t get me wrong either, these jokes weren’t a clever commentary on these complex topics. The subjects mentioned were the butt of the joke.
When we, the audience, didn’t respond with uproarious laughter, we were treated to a tirade about how comedy is dying and that pretty soon comedy clubs would be raided by police, comedians rounded up and arrested. My eyes have never rolled so hard. I may have done permanent damage.
This comedian couldn’t seem to see that his touring partners literally just showed him that comedians can still be successful and make an audience laugh without doing so at the expense of marginalized people.
This seems like a pretty simple concept. But in recent years there has been a defensive cry from some in the stand-up community: Political correctness and so-called 'Social Justice Warriors' are killing stand-up comedy.
People these days can’t take a joke
It’s no surprise that this is a popular position to take among older male comedians. These men, who have built their careers by playing in the comedy space allotted to them (and pretty much only them), have the most to lose in this new politically correct era.
In a 2015 interview with ESPN Radio Jerry Seinfeld said he thinks “PC-nonsense” is “anti-comedy”. He accuses the younger generation of not understanding words like ‘racism, ‘sexism’ and ‘prejudice’. Thankfully we have the embodiment of Dad Jeans to set us all straight.
In response to Seinfeld’s comments many (primarily male) comedians rushed to agree with him. People like Chris Rock, Russell Peters, John Cleese and Patton Oswalt all have made comments that amount to “People are too sensitive these days. Everyone’s looking for a reason to be offended.”
The argument goes that stand-up comedy should be a completely uncensored art-form. However this isn’t about censorship. It’s actually about entitled comedians going completely unquestioned. This sentiment is reactionary and defensive.
The Louis CK Problem
There’s probably no better example of this entitlement than Louis CK and his current attempt at a comeback. After being ousted from the industry for sexual harassment allegations (allegations that he then confirmed), this monster recently began quietly workshopping new material. The man once heralded as stand-up comedy’s most prolific genius has decided to attack teenage survivors of gun violence and the trans community (among others).
Stuart Jeffries, writing for The Guardian, notes CK’s comedy before the allegations “[poked] fun at the inequalities of American society, while simultaneously acknowledging the ways they benefited him.” Post-allegations, however, he’s refocused on those inequalities and embraced them to try to reassert his former position of power.
But as Jeffries reports, CK “seemed to react with horror at a new world that threatened his unexamined patriarchal mindset.” He feels well within his rights to attack some of the most vulnerable members of our society, completely unquestioned.
His response to criticism from his audience and the media: “Fuck it. What are you going to take away, my birthday? My life is over, I don’t give a shit.”
Well, by all means then.
Just because you're a piece of shit, then you obviously have the right to try to drag the rest of us down into the toilet with you.
Of course, you aren’t going to find any of the star comedians listed above rushing to CK’s defence. However, the argument they present—that questioning comedians is akin to a full-blown attack on freedom of speech—is what allows this entitled bullshit to persist.
If anything is killing stand-up comedy it’s this completely unchecked toxic attitude.
Evolution strikes again
Fortunately, not everyone in the comedy community feels this way. Jeffries notes “there is a new generation of comics retaliating against the old template of comedy.” And thank god for that.
As it turns out, this generation doesn’t see punching down as their ticket to the top.
You don’t have to look much further than the success of Hannah Gadsby’s recent Nannette to see this new attitude in play. A Vulture article called it “a deconstruction of stand-up specials, as well as several generations’ worth of straight male-crafted opinions on ‘what good comedy’ is and what ‘great art’ is.” Gadsby rejects the old status quo in comedy and advocates that stand-up can’t, and shouldn’t, continue on the way it has been.
Gadsby is not alone. Nicole Byer has said “People like PC culture to be the culprit, but I don’t think we’re being PC, I think we’re trying to understand other people’s experiences.” Similarly, Cameron Esposito agrees, “Stand-Ups who protest about being policed for political correctness ... are only revealing how little understanding they have of other people’s experiences.” Even Sarah Silverman observes, “I think, as a comedian, if you’re not changing with the times – not just second-guessing what the kids want to hear but growing and changing as a human being, living an examined life – that will reflect in your comedy.” These comedians are speaking against the defensive arguments of their predominantly older, male peers. And none of these women are having trouble selling tickets.
And just in case you think this point of view is exclusive to women, people of colour and queer-identifying people (you know, just a teeny, tiny fraction of the population), let’s look to John Mulaney and Paul F. Tompkins. Mulaney dismisses the notion that the Seinfelds of the world are refusing to do shows on college campuses because students are too PC, noting these comedians are actually refusing to do colleges because those gigs don’t pay as well. And Tompkins has said comedians “should be very diligent getting points across so they don’t just drop a shitty exploitative joke.” That’s literally all anyone is asking for. These two white men, at the top of their game, also happen to be perfect examples of how you can still be hilarious without being an asshole.
For many, this isn’t even a conversation about “politically correctness” in the first place. These comedians are simply embracing comedy that more sensitively considers the experiences of others. It’s not a difficult concept.
But is it funny?
In The Guardian Jeffries asks, “Can you be woke and funny?” Is there humour to be found in a time after #MeToo and Black Lives Matter?
Of course there is.
First of all, ‘woke’ or ‘PC’ or whatever the hell you want to call it, doesn’t have to be ‘nice’. There seems to be some growing concern that comedians are being forced to be inoffensive and thus, unfunny.
In an Independent article from 2018, Jessica Brown states “Social change is causing a new divide between those who think that comedy shouldn’t offend, and those who insist offending is at the heart of good comedy.”
But the clash here isn’t between offensive and inoffensive comedy. It’s between comedians who go out of their way to offend groups of marginalized people in the name of good comedy and those who don’t.
If you think being nice is a requirement in order to not attack entire subsets of people, Michele Wolf’s Nice Lady should be the starting point for your re-education.
And second, comedians have proven time and time again that they can find humour in almost any situation. The difference is that now they’re embracing the experiences of everyone. This new era of comedy allows for new perspectives, new stories and new jokes.
This is why people like Kumil Nanjiani, Ali Wong, Matteo Lane, and many, many others are finding receptive audiences. They’re offering sets that we haven’t seen repackaged a million different ways over the past forty years.
And the good news is, this means there’s now something for everyone! You aren’t going to find every comedian hysterical, but with more inclusivity, more and more audiences are going to find someone they can really relate to. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
In truth, stand-up comedy seems more accessible, and therefore, more alive than ever before.
Make it matter
Ultimately, the decision rests in comedy fans. We need to put our money, views and likes behind this new generation of comedians who are attempting to make the world a better place with laughter (truly an uphill battle in the hellscape that is the world in 2019).
This may have always been the goal of comedy, but we need to be more thoughtful and purposeful about the comedy we consume. We need to seek out comedians who deliver on the promise above—especially while we’re mindlessly scrolling through the comedy titles offered on Netflix. We have the power to choose who will lead this revolution.
And with any luck, the only thing that will die off is the outdated form of stand-up—where hurtfulness supposedly equals hilarity.
That can stay dead.