So PC: Comedy, Offense, and the Market

We have two related articles today about political correctness, if you want to call it that, although maybe we could just call it treating people with respect. In The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan says colleges are being too safe and not taking risks when they hire comedians to do shows on campus.

“They wanted comedy that was 100 percent risk-free,” she says, “comedy that could not trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student. They wanted comedy so thoroughly scrubbed of barb and aggression that if the most hypersensitive weirdo on campus mistakenly wandered into a performance, the words he would hear would fall on him like a soft rain, producing a gentle chuckle and encouraging him to toddle back to his dorm, tuck himself in, and commence a dreamless sleep—not text Mom and Dad that some monster had upset him with a joke.”

Well, yeah, sometimes that is what people want. I don’t see why being racist or sexist is the only way to be funny, or even a way to be funny. I agree with Flanagan that comedy is sometimes about risk, but there are ways to be risky that don’t hurt people. Risk can lie in form and format, in the way a comic inhabits the physical space, in any decision she makes. Flanagan seems to equate risk with saying politically incorrect things, and that is far too simple.

When she talks about “performers whose desire is not to soothe an audience but to unsettle it,” I’m reminded that what soothes or unsettles people is highly contextual and personal. Straight white men with money and power have been soothed their whole lives, all of history, and I bet hearing jokes at the expense of other types of people is soothing to some of them sometimes. I bet comedy that makes us question those power dynamics is unsettling to those who are used to being soothed, and soothing to those who are used to being unsettled. I have heard before that the purpose of writing (though it can be applied to any number of fields) is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Surely this can be a purpose for comedy, too, and that’s what I see in, for example, Hari Kondabolu’s work.

I wonder whether the college circuit is a little different from other places people do comedy, or even fundamentally different. I don’t think of a club or arena or other venue as having values. Schools, though, usually try and have a party line of some sort, and some accountability to someone. There is usually some good in trying not to hurt people.

Flanagan admits that colleges “have every right to hire the exact type of entertainment that matches their beliefs.” Yes! She goes on to say, “Still, there’s always a price to pay for walling off discussion of certain thoughts and ideas.” Yes again! But deciding not to hire a certain comic doesn’t mean a college is walling off discussion. It may mean they value the discussion, so much that they know a performance isn’t a discussion. At the same colleges that choose not to hire people with hurtful humor, meaningful and challenging discussions are going on in classrooms, in dorm rooms, in cars, on the sidewalks. Because when we have an actual discussion, we can hear each other, not give the microphone to one person who chooses what we hear about. If some of these comics were open to having a forum after their show, this would be a very different story. They could talk about why their comedic risk included the particular choices they made, how they hoped it’d be received, what their point was. They could hear what it meant to people and decide whether to tweak or ditch that bit next time. Then people would learn about comedy and taking people seriously and each other!

Side notes: I hate Flanagan’s idea that racially-themed frat parties are the free-speech movement of today, and I wish she wouldn’t keep referring to college students as “kids” and others as “grown-ups.”

At Bitch, Leela Ginelle responds to the Atlantic article. Mostly she says what I’d like to say, so I’ll just let you read it.

Both of these pieces are part of a worthwhile and important discussion about what free speech means, what constitutes censorship, and the idea of protecting people from certain ideas and language. Seems to me like Flanagan is encouraging people to take a joke. But “Come on, I was just joking!” has been too long used as an excuse to hurt people, not think about how our words affect others, and basically live in a self-centered bubble of privilege. People should be able to decide what is funny to them, not be told to “take a joke” when the joker has all the power. That’s what Flanagan doesn’t seem to see and what Ginelle does see.

Sandler vs. Samberg

I forgot how I found this, but it’s a podcast about Jewish culture, from Tablet magazine. Each episode has many segments; this one has a few interesting minutes about Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg as shorthand for Jewish humor. Sandler was/is sometimes very focused on his Jewishness, epitomized in the Hanukah Song, while Samberg doesn’t say much at all about it, or at least never needs his characters to state it outright. It’s about explicit vs. implicit Judaism. Pretty good stuff, and also there’s a visit from A.J. Jacobs, who is the best, and Elna Baker from This American Life!

Here’s the episode. Enjoy.

Saying Yes

My friend Jenny wrote this a while back. It’s a good introduction to how humor, specifically the concepts of improv, can help us live well and do good work. With humor, we are more open and flexible, less fearful of failure because we know failure is part of every life. Improv is a whole world of ideas like this, and humor in general shares some of the same emphasis on looseness and taking risks. A quick read with big implications.

Laughter and the Critic

Here’s a good essay by my friend Johannes from grad school. It’s about a lot of things:

-how humor is not enough to carry a novel–but then, no one thing is.

-how hard it is to write/talk/think about humor like we do about other art forms.

-how funny writing is rarely considered for big prizes or real critical examination.

The final line is perhaps a corollary to the court-jester phenomenon: not only does humor allow us to speak truth to power, it helps us handle our own and others’ pain. This is tricky, because one of the worst things is humor at the wrong time, but one of the best things is humor at what may seem like a bad time but is actually the best time. Some of the most hilarious people I know are pastors. And I don’t mean silly-sweet-funny. Their humor is sarcastic, sharp, and dark, and I’d bet it comes partly from hours at deathbeds, sickbeds, counseling, and being there for some of the worst moments. When we spend time in these parts of life, humor is one of the ways we make it work.


KimKar on WaitWait

Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! is a highlight of my every week (except when they do the shows that are just collections of clips from other shows, because see above, I’ve already heard them all). It’s one of the best things on NPR, partly because it doesn’t act too much like NPR (which I adore). The humor includes fart jokes and sex jokes, and it makes us all feel like friends. They don’t have sacred cows, and they don’t take themselves too seriously.

So when I read this, I didn’t know what to make of it. And I still don’t. I don’t see how Kim Kardashian is qualitatively different from some of the other guests they have had. Just a few weeks before her, they had Clay Aiken and Tony Robbins. Granted, they’ve also had Bill Clinton (best Not My Job ever!), but it’s not like all the guests are a certain type of famous or accomplished. The variety is one of the coolest things about the show! And they treat everyone pretty much the same–making fun of them. Again, no sacred cows.

Why was it KimKar who set off this firestorm? I don’t know. But here we have an example of how humor can make people especially mad. We’ve all had the experience of one line going too far and hurting someone’s feelings in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable conversation. For some NPR listeners, Kim is that one line.

The best part of this story, though, is the aside that the NPR ombudsman gets at least one email every single Monday complaining about something that happened on Wait Wait. That is straight-up beautiful. If those emails ever stop, the show will no longer be itself. It will not be relevant, and it won’t be pushing people’s buttons, which is in its DNA. May we all have something in our lives and in ourselves that pushes the limits just a little, that pisses of just a few people, that reminds us we are present and not taking ourselves too seriously.

Amy Schumer’s Feminism, via Sojo

Sometimes people use humor to question the status quo, the use of power, and various -isms. It’s a court-jester thing, you know, how the jester was often the only one who could get away with telling the truth instead of simpering before the king. It’s only possible because the jester wraps that difficult truth in silliness, ludicrousness. It’s only possible because the jester isn’t initially taken seriously. He does not pose a threat. The jester will never rise to power by speaking the truth. Instead, he uses a different kind of power. My kind of guy.

Or girl, in this case. I’ve been really impressed with Amy Schumer’s work this season. Later posts will address why, though you can probably guess if you’re familiar with her sketches. I was also impressed to see this article, in Sojourners which is a surprising and delightful place to find it, questioning the questioner. Jamie Calloway-Hanauer wonders if Schumer is really the “feminist savior” she is sometimes hailed as. By focusing mostly on questioning beauty standards, is she not keeping the focus on beauty standards? And by emphasizing that she is a cool girl with bro-friendly style, is she maybe pandering to those very bros? It’s all very nuanced–like, if that’s her personality, no duh she’s not pandering, she’s being herself and that’s awesome–but totally worth examining. These questions are why No, Seriously exists. When we see humor being wielded well to get shit done, we want to see what else it can do.

Mark Peters’ Best Joke Ever @ McSweeney’s

Ah, McSweeney’s, that lush garden of hipster irony and verbal artistry with a tender heart. Over at the internet tendency, there’s a column going that is perfect No, Seriously material. Mark Peters knows how to look at humor and think about why it is funny, without taking away the funny in the process. Best Joke Ever is a treasure for us all.

Here’s the first one I ever read, the one that made me think, “This is what I wish more people would write about!” It’s on Jack Handey. It even touches briefly on the way humor can call out wrongness when nothing else can.

Here’s the best one I ever read, yet, on Sarah Silverman, the cute factor, the shock factor, and dirty jokes that turn out to be clean. Perfect example of line-by-line examination.

Here’s the list of all of ’em, to be addressed here later.