Comedy

Sketch of George Carlin smiling while holding his fists up

A tradition in comedy says: Always punch up, never punch down. That is to say, don’t attack people who are already marginalized.

Punching Up, Punching Down – The Good Men Project

But slapping someone in the face and saying it’s comedy isn’t enough.

Why Punching Down Will Never Be Funny

Suddenly, even the most powerful people in society are forced to be fluent in the concerns of those with little power, if they want to hold on to the cultural relevance that thrust them into power in the first place. Being a comedian means having to say things that an audience finds funny; if an audience doesn’t find old, hackneyed, abusive jokes funny anymore, then that comedian has to do more work. And what we find is, the comedians with the most privilege resent having to keep working for a living. Wasn’t it good enough that they wrote that joke that some people found somewhat funny, some years ago? Why should they have to learn about current culture just to get paid to do comedy?

The price of relevance is fluency

Comedians who can’t/won’t do a simple analysis of power are failing their calling. They fail their remit as comedians.

Power and Punching Up

A lady just thanked me for being the first comedy show she went to where the comic didn’t make fun of people with disabilities. That made me very happy then very sad.

@RonFunches

His targets are underdogs, and comedy traditionally has picked on people in power, people who abuse their power.

Women and gays and immigrants are kind of to my way of thinking underdogs.

George Carlin Interview – On Comedians Who Pick On The Underdogs – YouTube

The real difference is that comedy shows or segments that are legitimately funny always punch up. Instead of wasting their time going after people who are typically in the minority, they go after people with tangible power that’s being abused. A basic tenet of humor — and I mean real basic, we’re talking ancient Greece here — is that your best stuff will come from going after people bigger than you.

The same trouble crops up when we have broader discussions about social justice or minority rights, particularly on platforms like Twitter, where it’s easy to drop a pithy line without context. So much of the anger around, say, black people asking to not be killed by the police comes from people who are at no substantial risk themselves of being killed by the cops. Men who send women sexist comments, cis people who refuse to understand a trans perspective, white people who become angry when people of color don’t watch their tone — it’s all presented with that “it’s just a joke” slant, as if a joke can blur any clear insult. The reality is that it’s actually about making sure a historically ignored group stays ignored or maligned.

In the last few years, there’s been plenty of concern-trolling over whether comedians and comedy can still be funny if everyone is so easily offended by the work. The argument is that audiences are more sensitive, less willing to “take” a joke, and so the art form suffers for it. But this fundamentally ignores that making fun of the weak has never been funny. George Carlin talking about the seven words you can’t say on television was funny because he was taking on an establishment with arbitrary rules. Amy Schumer making a rape joke about Hispanics isn’t funny because there’s no analysis of where the power is. The same is true of how we talk about social issues online: What worth is there in getting angry when you’re going after people who have nothing to give you? The mistake is always in thinking that power is being taken from you, rather than realizing that people who have routinely been Othered are simply trying to give themselves power.

But slapping someone in the face and saying it’s comedy isn’t enough.

Why Punching Down Will Never Be Funny

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about laughter. Laughter as power. Laughter as luxury. Laughter as empathy. Laughter as beauty. Laughter as philosophy. Laughter as complicity. Laughter as division. The current political moment has been in one way a lesson in how easily jokes can be weaponized: Jokes can win elections. Jokes can insist that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, lol nothing matters. Jokes can contribute to the post-truth logic of things. They can lighten and enlighten and complicate and delight; they can also mock and hate and lie and make the world objectively worse for the people living in it-and then, when questioned, respond with the only thing a joke knows how to say, in the end: “I was only kidding.”

Trump Mocks Christine Blasey Ford; The Rally Loves It – The Atlantic

There’s a constant complaint from people in positions of power, mostly men, who keep making the ridiculous assertion that they’re not able to speak in public. What they actually mean is they no longer understand the basis of the criticisms they face. And it’s a phenomenon we see from so many people who have a public platform, whether they’re CEOs or comedians or other cultural figures.

Some of this is a familiar issue: the powerful think that ordinary people have no right to criticize them. There’s nothing new there, and certainly a lot of the dismissive reactions are simply these people thinking that they’re better than their critics, and so don’t have to listen to the pushback. But even those who think they should still be at least pretending to take feedback from the public are mystified by what they’re hearing.

But there is something new that’s also helping cause all this fuss: the rate of change in culture is increasing.

Suddenly, even the most powerful people in society are forced to be fluent in the concerns of those with little power, if they want to hold on to the cultural relevance that thrust them into power in the first place. Being a comedian means having to say things that an audience finds funny; if an audience doesn’t find old, hackneyed, abusive jokes funny anymore, then that comedian has to do more work. And what we find is, the comedians with the most privilege resent having to keep working for a living. Wasn’t it good enough that they wrote that joke that some people found somewhat funny, some years ago? Why should they have to learn about current culture just to get paid to do comedy?

Here’s the thing, though: It’s not that hard. It’s not difficult at all to ask people how they want to be identified. It’s not tricky to listen to what people are saying about their concerns and their issues, and to try to understand what that means about how culture is evolving. It’s not hard at all to be humble about unfamiliar aspects of society and ask for information in respectful ways, then take those responses into consideration going forward.

And in fact, that’s the simple price of continued cultural relevance. If someone wants to maintain power in culture, all that’s required is a sincere and honest engagement with those who are granting that power through their attention and support. All it takes is a little bit of curiousity and some basic human decency, and any of us who are blessed with the good fortune to have a platform will get to keep it, and hopefully to use it to make things a little better for others.

The price of relevance is fluency

Satire is meant to ridicule power. If you are laughing at people who are hurting, that’s not satire, it’s bullying.

grow fins, go back in the water on Tumblr

Shame

I built a career out of self-deprecating humor. …And, I don’t want to do that anymore. Because, do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself or anyone who identifies with me.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette – Netflix

But in the course of the hour-long set, which was filmed at the Sydney Opera House (Gadsby has also been performing at the SoHo Playhouse, in New York), “Nanette” transforms into a commentary on comedy itself-on what it conceals, and on how it can force the marginalized to partake in their own humiliation.

“Nanette,” Reviewed: Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix Standup Special Forces Comedy to Confront the #MeToo Era | The New Yorker

None of those jokes about women’s bodies give any room for women to experience their own body.

You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes : Hannah Gadsby

The closet can only stop you from being seen. It is not shame-proof.

And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette – Netflix

…find a love for identity politics…so that we can draw battle lines between those who want shame to grow on trees and those who want to overcome it.

Video Episode 310: Live from the New York Comedy Festival 2018 @58:30 | Harmontown

The Spectacle of Cruel Laughter

CW: Trump, bigotry, abuse, suicide

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era.

The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

Ford testified to the Senate, utilizing her professional expertise to describe the encounter, that one of the parts of the incident she remembered most was Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughing at her as Kavanaugh fumbled at her clothing. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford said, referring to the part of the brain that processes emotion and memory, “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” And then at Tuesday’s rally, the president made his supporters laugh at her.

The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully. It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.

The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

Tuesday the president of the United States, his crowd cheering him on, mocked a citizen who has come forward to claim herself as a victim: of violence, of misogyny, of laughter itself.

And so Donald Trump has managed to find yet another way to say the quiet thing out loud: This is a moment, for some, in which cruelty and comedy have become indistinguishable. This is a moment in which a vote for a Supreme Court nomination has become a proxy battle in a far greater war-one whose skirmishes, it seems, will be fought through petty jokes and easy mockeries. A moment in which so much comes down to the question of who will get the last laugh.

Trump Mocks Christine Blasey Ford; The Rally Loves It – The Atlantic

“One detainee told us, ‘I’ve seen a few attempted suicides using the braided sheets by the vents and then the guards laugh at them and call them “suicide failures” once they are back from medical,’” the inspectors said in their report.

Inspectors Find Nooses in Cells at Immigration Detention Facility – The New York Times

Their cruelty made them feel good, it made them feel proud, it made them feel happy. And it made them feel closer to one another.

 The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

Further reading,

Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they