Lindy West, writer for Jezebel, wrote: “If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why Am I Getting So Many Rape Threats?” The debate on YouTube she references between herself and Jim Norton was good, and raises some good points. As Jim says, “once you start saying things are off limits in comedy, then where do you draw the line? It’s either all ok, or none of it is ok.” I tend to agree with Jim in that nothing should be off limits, but I believe in holding comedy to a higher standard through our laughter, being introspective of ourselves what we find funny, and recognizing that sometimes just because you can say something, and that some people will likely laugh, doesn’t qualify it as good humor. The result of some humor, whether intentional or not, is to comfort and console people’s degrading views – making it acceptable to them, and to culture at large. I think they could have delved a bit deeper into a few things, especially the roles of a comic, and the humor / mind of an audience.
So what is the role of a comic? To make their audience laugh. To be provocative. To speak truth to power. Critically examine and make fun of culture and society. To feel a sense of relief to make people laugh about the terrible things that we normally can’t laugh about. I remember Jon Stewart talking about why he didn’t postpone his show after 911, arguing that in the midst of tragedy is the most important time for comedy. Yet comics are people too, they are not devoid of flaws or bigotry. Comics, and other social critics do not automatically have deep wisdom and insight that allows them to critique social norms yet not be susceptible to those same forces that form and shape the views of society of that which they are critiquing. That withstanding, I think most comics do have good insight into people, into situations, into themselves, and recognize the impact that humor and a microphone can have. I love comedy, which is why I’m being critical about it. We are always the most critical about that which we enjoy the most. I think humor is the best way to deal with life, laughter keeps you healthy, and also some of the best social critiques I’ve seen was delivered through the medium of comedy. People are united by laughter, not by anger. *Certain kinds of laughter. Even popular phrases in the English language differentiate which kind of laughter we are referring to: ‘laughing behind someone’s back’, ‘laughing all the way to the bank’, ‘a laughing stock’. All of these are situations that laughter is a negative response, not a positive. So why would laughter in a comedy club be any more pure?
Going back to the notion of the audience. Lets face it. People are awful. They laugh at awful things. Jim Norton says – “it’s ok as long as you are funny.” We live in a society where people not only find rape jokes funny, but literally are able to laugh and joke about raping a girl, while watching it take place. How does this even become acceptable? The teenage boys from the Steubenville Ohio high school football team were not vile criminals as we would like to believe rapists are. They were raised in a culture that made it easy to justify their actions to themselves, and on national news as well there was pretty split coverage, despite graphic videos of the incident that claimed that it was the victim’s fault, ignoring the low bar of personal responsibility of not being a rapist and videotaping it. Or the 11 year old that was gang raped in texas by 18 guys, it was covered in the NYT as being a result of what she was wearing. My point is this. If people can’t even look at the same completely horrific incident and say – yeah, that is pretty awful; then how in the world are we supposed to take away the nuance of comedy to be able to laugh appropriately about such things. Chappelle quit the Chapelle Show, after calling his audience stupid in Sacramento and having a ‘moral dilemma’ with the way he began to perceive how his staff and audience were receiving the racial humor of the show. Gender humor, race humor, queer humor. etc. It’s a very tricky line to balance. Writing about the Boondocks and a new show about Uncle Ruckus – David Brothers remarks, “Removed from that context, Ruckus isn’t much but a white supremacist’s wet dream.” America is a deeply racist, sexist, homophobic society, and lets not pretend that they are not. Why are we giving these people the space to laugh about things they know they probably shouldn’t?
Making people laugh at jokes that play to stereotypes can help not only reinforce them, but make those same people feel better for holding such beliefs. I think this is true in not only comedy shows but in ordinary conversations as well. A coworker tells a gay joke that makes you a little uncomfortable, – do you call them out on it, laugh awkwardly, or just stay silent? These are great moments to let people know that it’s not okay. Silence is complicity. Why should someone being homophobic make everyone around them uncomfortable, rather than the person who said it? Jim Norton finishes his conclusion with that comedy makes people laugh for an hour about horrible things, and then they walk out of there with opinions no different than what they walked in with. No event is static . We are constantly re-evaluting, reinforcing, challenging our beliefs – often unconsciously. This is a subtle process that is ongoing a thousand times a day, from the moment we wake up, the things we read, see, hear, at work, matching up against our past experiences, ideas, comparing, changing, shifting. And people’s attitudes and ideas do shift. Not likely overnight, but through a buildup of interactions, responses, and critical insight in which satire can help facilitate that change. Or it can reinforce it.
If the true goal of comedy – as Jim says, is to be able to walk out of that room and feel relieved after laughing about horrible things, then lets make jokes that actually do uplift people making them laugh at the sorrow of the world, not remind them of it.