LC#20: The Edge of Comedy
On skepticism, affect, and circulation.
Hello folks, as promised I am keeping up with the new monthly delivery of the newsletter. As it often happens in letdown comedy, I discuss comics whose work I have loved and respected for a long time, trying to question how their message evolves within contemporary culture. This time I discuss why some of the most talented comedians sometimes end up engulfed within anti-PC rhetoric. Let’s have a link break first though.
James Acaster is great and this clip is the perfect intro to today’s topic.
You might have heard Dave Chappelle is currently at the center of much debate after his latest Netflix special The Closer was strongly criticized by LGBTQ+ and trans rights advocates. It’s not the first time the comedian is accused of transphobia, and the special represents a doubling-down rather than a giving in. In particular, Chappelle’s refusal of the formula “punching down” strikes me as exemplary of a trend I’ve been thinking about for a few years now. Instead of delving too much into the special itself (this piece about it by Sean L. McCarthy is very critical, but you can find lots of different opinions online), I’ll try to explain the wider trend below.
A premise, first. As an Italian, there were two main reasons that drew me to loving and studying American stand-up comedy. The first is the critical depth achieved by some of its most notable exponents, which makes them relevant cultural interlocutors beyond the confines of comedic entertainment — think Bill Hicks, with his radical, psychedelic attitude and the long routines about drugs or politics, or Carlin’s linguistic experiments. The other is that stand-up, as a dialectical yet intimate art form, is also an expression of the social and cultural diversity of the context it is embedded within. In this respect, for me and many others Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle represented the first encounters with the African-American experience, narrated in first person and yet expertly woven into wider social commentary. I believe the criticality and situatedness of stand-up are both crucial in elevating it as an art form.
Sometimes, however, one can clash with the other. Going back to the opening example: Chappelle may indeed be the “greatest of all time” (the GOAT) when discussing race and celebrity, but his material on trans and LGBTQ+ people might suck (or, at the very least, be pretty basic). Why, then, is the comedian’s latest special almost entirely dedicated to exactly this topic?
The easy answer (the one that Chappelle himself offers) is that a comedian wants to challenge their audiences by nature. Jokes, as a form of art, are not meant to be taken literally, and a comedian’s focus is necessarily on the contemporary (and Chappelle’s, as he specifies in the special itself, is on white people rather than trans people). That’s all well and good, but beyond Chappelle himself I think there are two further elements to consider here; one more specific, and one more general.
Counter-culture, skepticism, circulation
The more specific element relates to the counter-cultural quality of American stand-up and how it has come to intersect with a certain resistance against political correctness, perceived as a mainstream ideology. In this respect, the refusal of the expression “punching down” is grounded in a sort of “equal opportunity offense” ethos that is well rooted in the US stand-up scene of the 1990s and 2000s. I’m talking about a type of comedy that emphasizes conflict, verbal technique, and often demands a specific type of ruggedness and aggressiveness even from the most self-deprecating comedians. It was brewed in a cultural milieu dominated by overwhelmingly male, predominantly white performers, whose struggle for media visibility often gave way to markedly masculine confrontational dynamics (watch Sam Kinison bullying Bobcat Goldthwait on Stern, or Leary arguing with Giraldo on Colin Quinn). A lot of that scene revolved around and was inspired by the rowdy atmosphere of Boston and New York comedy clubs and was consolidated by radio shows like Stern or Opie and Anthony, where “shock jock” humor was always de rigueur. While many exceptionally talented and influential comedians emerged from it, it is undeniable the locker room quality of that environment (defined by some as a “boys club” after the Louis CK scandal) contributed to the association of edgy comedy with a certain type of aggressive masculinity, as well as consolidating the “women are not funny” stereotype.
Significantly, the archetipal angry, leather jacket-clad comedy underdog that represented the comedy avant-garde of those days identified as an outsider and innovator because he challenged media rules. Rather than racist or sexist rants, the things that got you “cancelled” then were talking about the anti-abortion organizations that sponsored late shows (see this interview with the late Bill Hicks on the “United States of Advertising”) or saying the wrong thing about American foreign policy in the wake of 9/11 (Bill Maher’s famous Politically Incorrect incident).
With the advent of the Internet and social media, however, a lot of media restrictions largely evaporated and the skeptical underdog comedian often decided to migrate online, where he could be found mingling with skeptics of all kinds. This proved like a winning move for some of them: Anthony Cumia (fired from Opie and Anthony because of racist tweets) successfully went on to create the Anthony Cumia Network (later Compound Media); Joe Rogan (perhaps the most direct heir to Hicks’ psychedelic skepticism) has now arguably become the most influential podcaster in the world. No longer an outsider to media platforms (and, in fact, emboldened by new global exposure), the figure we might call “post-Bill Hicks skeptic” evolved alongside something more sinister, continuing to define comedy as a radical form of free speech that came to be more and more often associated with the right and a resistance to the perceived feminization of society. If in the early 2000s Doug Stanhope had Alex Jones (of Info Wars fame) open one of his shows to a modest audience, last year Rogan faced criticism for having him speak to millions of his listeners even after he had already been banned from Spotify for hate speech and calling the Sandy Hook massacre a hoax. No surprise here, as this type of things are exactly the reason Rogan has become a global sensation (the comedian has routinely offered a platform to controversial speakers that range from Jordan Peterson to Milo Yiannopoulos and even Stefan Molyneux). However, while Rogan does occasionally challenge his guests (at least to a certain point), Cumia has gone as far as hosting entire shows by far-right, free speech-obsessed figures like Proud Boys-founder Gavin McInness on his network. If Cumia is more of a proper right-winger with a penchant for misogynistic humor, at the very least Rogan has often been an enabler of anti-feminist discourse. The critical edge of what was once comedy, in these cases, becomes a leaky conduit that allows the circulation of all sorts of stuff. The main content, however, is often the imperative of circulation itself.
Social media, affect, “cancel culture”
This brings us to the general element I hinted to in the beginning: the evolution of comedy in the age of social media. Today, comedy is everywhere — increasingly diverse global audiences have access to the jokes of every professional comedian, not only on Netflix or YouTube, but also as they craft them on Twitter or Instagram; furthermore, communication itself has become imbued with comedic formats like memes, witty statuses, reaction GIFs, and so on. This multiplication of comedic media has led to a social explosion of comedy that makes it harder and harder to separate the craft from regular life, making the line between questionable jokes and hate speech blurrier and blurrier. This is true for regular users (like that woman who lost her job for a bad Twitter joke on her way to Africa), but also for working comedians (here the “cancellation” of prominent figures like Roseanne Barr over tweets is relevant, although perhaps more standard given her level of exposure). Content creators may not be subject to top-down editorial guidelines as much (and that’s why every comedian now also moonlights as a podcaster), but the convergence of professional/personal communication, routine “context collapse”, distributed tone-deafness, and overall immediacy ushered in by social media make comedy a more culturally fraught vessel than ever before, one that perhaps demands a different level of responsibility (or a much higher tolerance to criticism). While more free than ever to talk non-stop, suddenly the skeptic is questioned.
This has engendered the evasive cultural object known as “cancel culture” — something whose existence has been debated far and wide, but which undoubtedly represents an affective focus for a significant chunk of the comedy community.
On one hand, communities that were once marginalized see themselves increasingly reflected in the personalities and topics of comedy; on the other, more and more layers of comedy-related discourse make some industry favorites self-conscious (see Gervais, now Chappelle) and the phenomenon becomes more and more central within their poetics, turning their act into a self-affirming loop. In this respect, the most striking irony about comedians who pivot or re-pivot their comedy onto free speech rhetoric is they denounce others for being too touchy about their feelings, while also becoming increasingly susceptible to criticism themselves (as rich and famous as Chappelle is, the fact he has to address the LGBT community for an hour means he does cares about what they say about him).
As “feminist killjoy” theorist Sarah Ahmed writes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion,
“emotions are not ‘in’ either the individual or the social, but produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as if they are objects. [they] create the very surfaces and boundaries that allow all kinds of objects to be delineated. The objects of emotion take shape as effects of circulation.” - Ahmed (2014, 10)
As a cultural object, then, “cancel culture” exists insofar as it is circulating and elicits emotions all around. Regardless of whether the comedians rumored to be “cancelled” actually lose their job or simply get criticized on Twitter, media discussions of this object have created a short-circuit between the two great traditions of American comedy as a space for both the expression of diversity (now encompassing and giving voice to a much wider human spectrum) and the exercise of radical free speech (comedy as a sandbox for challenging, often outrageous material). Beyond trans or white people, then, I suspect it is the spectre of this object that Chappelle is teasing in his special.
This is somewhat disappointing to me. Firstly, because I enjoy Dave’s material on other topics more; as Natalie Wynn (aka Contrapoints) says when commenting on The Closer, the comedian should drop his trans routine for the sake of comedy itself: having limited himself to summary considerations about it, he doesn’t have anything interesting (anything challenging, to use the term reiterated by James Acaster in the warm-up clip above) to say about the trans experience.
Also, I see Chappelle as a very different comedian than Joe Rogan or any other sprawling content creator/free speech guy on the Internet. Not just because he keeps more to himself, but also because in the past Dave has demonstrated to be above the aforementioned content-blindness, the imperative of circulation for circulation’s sake. Back when racist stereotypes did not seem to be a problem on TV, it was Chappelle himself who basically cancelled his own show by turning down a 50-million contract for the third season of his Comedy Central hit. As he explained in a later interview with Oprah, one of the reasons was he realized the stereotypes he was enacting in his sketches were making people laugh the wrong way. A few Netflix specials and several millions of dollars later, however, the same subtlety is not granted to the depiction of trans people — “I’m not saying it to be mean, I’m saying it because it’s funny”. Situated criticality also means understanding the time and space you are occupying; in an age of endless circulation, however, the critical edge of comedy risks flattening into the horizon.