Stop Defending Shitty Comedy

« January 2019  


It’s been a solid couple of months for comedians “getting in trouble” for saying stupid or offensive shit, so I’m probably long past due for another explanation and exploration of jokes, and how they reflect on people who tell them.

Let’s label what we’re talking about here Offensive, Dark, Controversial, or Transgressive comedy, or ODCT+. Because that’s what we’re talking about here, and most of the people talking about it in the public discourse don’t understand shit about it.

First and foremost, ODCT+ is a STYLE of comedy. A variety of it. Which means it’s not inherently good or bad just because it’s offensive, or transgressive, or otherwise is or claims to push the boundaries of conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong, and a lot of transgressive ideas are transgressive because they’re bad, cruel, and/or hurtful.

The first question when considering ODCT+ material is: Does The Comedian Believe What They’re Saying?

This is the result of two factors. One, whether or not the comedian believes what they’re saying, and two, how good they are at accurately conveying that. Are they being sarcastic or hyperbolic? Are they playing a character to explore a larger point or just because they think the character’s funny? Or are they just saying what they think? And trying to connect with an audience that thinks the same thing?

Take, for example, Kevin Hart, who joked a while back that “Yo if my son comes home & try's 2 play with my daughters doll house I'm going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice 'stop that's gay'."

Did he believe that? Probably. The three clues that he believed that? No supporting material around the tweet that he was, say, playing a part in order to expose how ridiculous the attitude he expressed is. The thing he’s saying is a widely-held and commonly-expressed belief from a bunch of other fathers from his generation. And, in his various statements and sortapologies afterward, he never said “I didn’t really mean this” or “I don’t feel this way anymore”.

Same with Louis CK’s leaked set. There’s nothing about it that screams “These are not my personal views!” In the case of the preferred pronouns bullshit, he’s just mad about people having them. With the Parkland stuff, it’s less clear that he feels that way, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

If you think the comedian believes what they’re saying, then you move on to “Is Someone Who Believes That A Bad Person?” That’ll depend a lot on your own personal definition of bad person. Me, I think deeply entrenched and normalized homophobia and transphobia make you a bad person. Not irredeemably bad - I’ve worked to overcome mine over the years, after all - but bad enough certainly to require you try to redeem yourself. Something neither Hart nor Louis seem to be interested in.

And that’s their choice. If 2018 has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a hefty audience for the beliefs of bad people. But if you’re going to court that audience, you’re going to exclude a different audience and possibly turn off people in a position to ask you to do things.

What if they don’t believe what they’re saying? Well, it gets more complicated. Then you have to look at the joke and figure out what it is, who it’s aimed at, and why it’s being told. That can be tricky. Let’s look at Louis CK’s Parkland joke again. ACTUAL QUOTE TIME!

”Testify in front of Congress, these kids, what the fuck? What are you doing? Cause you went to a high school where kids got shot, why does that mean I have to listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn't get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I gotta listen to you talking?"

The core of this joke is The Kids These Days They Bother Me Get Off My Lawn. Middle-aged curmudgeon confused and angered by the new generation doing things differently than he did, and since what he did was right, what they’re doing must be wrong. That’s fine. It’s hacky, it’s boring, but it’s not inherently the view of a bad person.

But look who it’s aimed at. School shooting victims trying to prevent more school shootings like the one they survived. That’s a tough sell, to put it mildly. If you want to get away with that target, you’d better be making a hell of an interesting point in a hell of an interesting way. And he’s not.

And he knows he’s not, because he puts that line about the “fat kid” in there. He knows he has a high bar to clear for the material to work, he knows he’s not going to clear it, so all he can do is lower the bar by demeaning his target to make them seem like they deserve his attacks. And the way he does that is shitty, both comedically and ethically.

The joke’s not bad because the Parkland victims are “off limits”. It’s not bad because it’s transgressive, or because it goes against the mainstream idea that these kids are decent people. It’s bad because it’s a bad joke that needs to be propped up by a belief that’s legitimately expressed by politically-motivated conspiracy theorists for the same reason CK uses it - that if you convince people the Parkland activists are undeserving, you can get away with taking shots at them, whether it’s to get a laugh or undermine gun control measures.

I think people who do shit like this are bad people, and I manage my future support and purchasing and viewing habits accordingly. Or, as David Axelrod apparently thinks, I engage in “de facto censorship” frowned upon by centrist concern trolls who in no small part are culpable in the rise of neo-Nazi fascism in America. Sorry.