Thursday, July 2, 2015

"THAT'S NOT FUNNY!" The Manufactured Crisis of Politically Incorrect Comedy

A spectre is haunting comedy—the spectre of Political Correctness.

If you're reading this, you're either a former reader of my Daily Dirt proto-blog (1999-2006), or you've followed a friend’s link from some form of social media, which means that you’re probably pretty savvy regarding current events, and you don’t need me to tell you about the PC war on comedy being waged by self-appointed Social Justice Warriors the world over.

The most recent eruption involves comedy ‘It Girl’, stand-up comic Amy Schumer. In a recent, otherwise laudatory article in The Guardian, TV critic Monica Heisey wrote: “For such a keen observer of social norms and an effective satirist of the ways gender is complicated by them, Schumer has a shockingly large blind spot around race.” As evidence, Heisey points to a couple of jokes in which Schumer suggests that Mexican men are a) hard workers and b) sexually aggressive.

When Schumer took to Twitter in a half-hearted attempt to defend herself against the racism charge, the aptly-named online entertainment blog Vulture swooped in to publish a rebuttal, in which Schumer’s racial jokes were criticized as having “no big reveal, no clever moment of redemption where the audience member has been edified on the machinations of American race relations.”

Because, as we all know, it’s every comedian’s dream to edify the audience on the machinations of race relations in America. Which works out great, because now, apparently, it’s also their responsibility.

When news of Schumer’s digital spanking started spreading across my Facebook news feed like a rash, I initially experienced a wave of déjà vu. Didn’t we just go down this road, like, a week ago?

Then I remembered, no, I was probably thinking of the time Jerry Seinfeld told ESPN that many of his comedian friends no longer perform at colleges because the crowds have become too PC.

This prompted a self-described “politically correct college student” to write an open letter to Seinfeld—the world’s most successful stand-up comic—in which fingers were wagged, tongues were clucked, and Seinfeld’s point was proven beyond Caitlyn Jenner’s 5 o’clock shadow of a doubt.

Wait… no! It wasn’t Seinfeld! It was Tina Fey! The veteran Saturday Night Live performer and one-woman media empire about whom a recent Flavorwire-by-way-of-Vulture (again) editorial declared that “race” is Fey’s “biggest blind spot” (again), “because the act of mocking something automatically implies that the comedian has, or thinks she has, the authority, objectivity, and distance needed to mock it.” They even go so far as to criticize this quote by suggesting it could be “used as a negative example of intersectional feminism in a gender studies seminar” …as if that somehow counts as a negative.

Or… hold on a second. Could I actually be thinking about the time The Internet collectively decided to pour over every last Tweet ever twatted by Trevor Noah, the comic chosen to replace Jon Stewart in The Daily Show anchor chair? Said “Twit-hunt” revealed a handful of jokes implying that some Jewish people have succeeded in the entertainment industry, and that some fat chicks are funny to look at. Remember? That mini-scandal prompted Patton Oswalt to unleash an epic 53-part Twitter-based take-down of Noah’s self-appointed PC shamers. And then the shamers went after Oswalt, and round and round we go…

On the other hand, perhaps I’m thinking about that one time when “hashtag activist” Suey Park tried to get Comedy Central’s Colbert Report cancelled over the satirical, faux right-wing pundit’s satirical, faux charity, the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”, which itself was a parody of NFL franchise owner Dan Snyder’s establishment of the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation”. That Park’s campaign could itself serve as evidence for certain pre-existing negative stereotypes about the Asian sense of humor was, no doubt, completely lost on her.

In many ways, I suppose, ‘twas ever thus. Only nowadays, I would argue, it’s more so. But why?

In his excellent 2014 documentary “That’s Not Funny”, which you can watch for free on Youtube, Mike Celestino blames a familiar boogeyman: the Internet. Using the 2013 incident when The Onion sparked outrage with an Oscar night Tweet about 9-year-old Best Supporting Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, Celestino explains:
“The Onion started out in 1988 as a cult comedy fake newspaper circulating around the college campuses of cities in Wisconsin and Illinois. After the launch of its website in 1996, it found its way into the homes of comedy fans across the United States and the world. And now, after the explosion in social media over the last decade, The Onion’s articles are shared, re-blogged and re-tweeted by hundreds and thousands of people. And while those people might be sophisticated comedy aficionados, with tastes for edgy satirical social commentary, many of the friends and family they’re sharing the jokes with are not.”
Celestino concludes with a couple rhetorical question of his own: “So now The Onion has to answer to armchair critics and soccer moms who have no interest in or understanding of what satire even is? How does a joke wind up in the hands of someone for whom it wasn’t intended?”

His half-defeated reply: “Well… yeah. That’s a part of being a world culture. The world has an opportunity to react.” Celestino goes on to say that, as a liberal, he’s devoted to the idea of “safe spaces” where people don’t have to be constantly on their guard, worried that they’re going to be attacked or ridiculed. However, he also says “it’s a little unreasonable to expect your safe space to be EVERYWHERE.”

And therein lies the rub.

Mel Brooks famously said that “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” John Cleese believes that the best comedy requires transgression against taboos, and as such always risks offense. At the peak of his powers, Steve Martin put it succinctly: “Comedy is not pretty.”

From George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television to Chris Rock’s genuinely dangerous meditation on the differences between black folks and “niggers”, comedy is never so effective as when it’s bumping up against, or crashing through, psychosocial barriers, whether or not those barriers are mandated by law.

One of the themes you may have noticed running through many of the above PC critiques of “offensive” comedy is the implied notion that the critics, themselves, are in possession of razor sharp, sophisticated comedy chops. So much so, in fact, that they feel qualified to lecture some of the world’s funniest people about what makes for truly great comedy. It seems as though they want to have their fair-trade, gluten-free, vegan “cake”, and have it taste good, too.

In other words, they desperately want to be in on the joke. 

And in a strange way, they are, because while comedy is definitely a shared, group experience, it is not 100 percent “inclusive”. It almost always requires an Other, an "out" group for those who "get it" to reflexively position themselves against. 

And that, dear reader, is what these critics represent. The necessary, archetypal, ultimate component required for any truly successful and transcendent comedy: the Square Left Out of the Joke.


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