A Thankless Job

Sometimes comedy is just too hard a job for comedians.

A Thankless Job
Image via the Golden Globes/Youtube.

I love the ritual that happens whenever a comedian fucks up in a highly visible way and a small army of their peers defends them by explaining that it’s just too hard not to fuck up. Right now it’s happening with Golden Globes host Jo Koy, but it’s happened before and it will surely happen again. In the wake of his disastrous monologue we’ve heard from comedians like Kevin Hart, Michael Che, Howard Stern, Laurie Kilmartin, and of course Koy himself that hosting an awards show is a thankless job, A-listers are just too tough of a crowd, they're humorless, they're cold, they're soft, Hollywood simply doesn’t respect comedians. Even if this were all true, so what: the job is to do a hard thing, and we’ve all seen people do it well. These reactions seem to reflect the cognitive dissonance that afflicts so many famous comedians (and non-famous ones, for that matter), who treat the audience as the ultimate judge of quality when it’s on their side and as a bunch of oversensitive snowflakes when it’s not. The comedian is never responsible for his failures; he is, in fact, their victim. 

What really gets me is how rarely these defenses strike the obvious, inoffensive middle ground: somewhere between “it’s the audience’s fault” and “it’s the comedian’s fault” is the plain fact that comedians just can’t practice for this audience in the way they can practice for every other audience. One trains for a nationally televised standup special by touring the country, for big corporate gigs by performing smaller corporate and club gigs, for a club full of tourists by playing bars full of locals, for a bar full of locals by playing mics full of comics. There is no analogous way to get your 10,000 hours in as an awards show host, no room where you can go up five times a night, seven nights a week and tell jokes to the most famous people in the world. One can draw on institutional knowledge from past awards show hosts and writers, but there will always be a degree of unalloyed risk. Even talk show hosts who broadcast to millions every night are performing to rooms full of regular people.

This is not an affirmation of the whining from Hart and Che and Koy that these audiences are simply hostile to comedy. Clearly they are hostile to bad comedy, but that's as it should be. It is possible to make good work within formal constraints, and the formal constraint in awards shows is that they do not meaningfully allow for a dry run or A/B testing: some higher-than-usual amount of failure is therefore baked in, which calls for a certain ability to roll with the punches, to lean on a funny personality when jokes don't land. In art as in life, you can take risks intelligently or you can take them foolishly. The greater the risk, the more intelligence it requires, intelligence being an umbrella that includes care, respect, and a certain humility before the prospect of disaster. (See: Anthony Jeselnik, Conner O’Malley, Jo Firestone.) Koy ran aground because he failed to understand his audience, and more damningly he failed to understand his relationship with his audience as a relative outsider—someone who couldn’t simply show up and offer light jabs in the form of late-night style one-liners.

In other words, it's not that the audience is humorless, exactly, but that it has a sense of humor one cannot gain a feel for in advance, and which requires a level of intuition that's increasingly rare in Koy's generation of comedians. To see what a little more self-awareness looks like, you need only watch John Mulaney’s performance at the Governors Awards, one night after Koy bombed:

This is admittedly many more words than I intended to write about the Golden Globes, something I will haphazardly speculate that you, like me, don’t consider very important. I suppose what interests me is how symptomatic these discourses are of broader anti-intellectual strains in comedy, where responses to negative feedback increasingly take the form of hostility to the audience and the art itself. There’s a popular understanding of risk as something one should be rewarded for whether it pays off or not; there’s a pervasive attitude towards laughter as proof of merit that makes successful comics short-circuit when their jokes fall flat. (How delightfully ironic of Michael Che, for instance, to complain that celebrities are too sensitive to be made fun of.) Perhaps this is easy for a keyboard warrior to say, but it strikes me as trivial for anyone with a basic respect for comedy to look at Jo Koy's monologue and recognize that even if he had a high bar to clear, he wasn't exactly aiming for it. I’m reminded of a common response to criticism of late night shows and SNL, which is effectively that their poor quality is a result of the difficulty involved in making them, even as that difficulty is consistently rationalized as essential to their supposed high quality. SNL writers need to work 16 hours a day in a Mafia-like culture because that’s what it takes to make great comedy; half the sketches suck because they were written and produced in six days by overworked writers and actors. Please can’t you be so kind as to grade some of the industry's highest-paid professionals on a curve?

What irks about all these excuses is how they ask us to ignore common sense. That a job is difficult or exclusive is all the more reason to do it well, to be honest about what it means to do it well, and to be clear-headed when one does not. I wonder what kind of critical conversations we might be having about comedy if its biggest practitioners could only admit when they fuck up.

A few interesting developments of late:

-AICE, Second City’s teachers’ union, announced a strike, then reached an agreement with the theater’s management after more than 700 days of bargaining. The agreement now goes to the union’s membership for ratification.

-The Onion Inc. Union, whose contract expires at the end of this month, delivered a strike pledge to management at G/O media. 

-I’m a month late to this, so thank you to the reader who sent it my way: Karen Jones, an elected official in Santa Ynez, California, was arrested on federal charges over her alleged participation in the Capitol riots. This past June, she described her involvement during a standup set in a live recording of Tony Hinchcliffe’s podcast Kill Tony at Comedy Mothership, Joe Rogan’s comedy club:

After a short stand-up set on the Kill Tony live podcast, Jones is interviewed by the hosts, comedians Tony Hinchcliffe and Theo Von. “We’re meeting a real one tonight, ladies and gentlemen,” says Hinchcliffe. 
Jones ― a two-time candidate for county supervisor who currently serves as vice president of the Santa Ynez Valley Community Services District ― says she, her husband, and three friends had RSVPed to a “permitted event” at the Capitol and were within their rights to enter the building. 
“I have been to the Capitol multiple times on a weekday, and there has never been any reason not to go in,” she said. “I didn’t do anything that I thought was illegal.” Jones emphasized she only entered the “public” section of the building on January 6 and never a “private office” or other “restricted area.” Watch the full exchange here. 
Cell phone video from that day shows Jones leading a first wave of protestors, which had just fought its way through a line of police, in the Pledge of Allegiance on the Capitol steps before it breached the eastern doors. Security camera footage then places Jones and her husband in the Rotunda as officers are grabbed and beaten nearby.
Jones also told the podcast hosts that FBI agents visited her home shortly after the riot, though federal records show she has not been charged with any crimes. Jones said one of the three friends who joined her “is a very well-known starlet from a TV show in the ’80s whose name I can’t say” because authorities have not yet identified her.

Tony Hinchcliffe, you will recall, is the wildly popular racist whose podcast has recently featured the likes of Stavros Halkias, Mark Normand, Ari Shaffir, Shane Gillis, Howie Mandel, Tim Dillon, Ron White, Dave Smith, Pauly Shore, Greg Fitzsimmons, Duncan Trussell, Sam Tallent, Joe List, Roseanne Barr, Kurt Metzger, Matthew Broussard, Dave Attell, Jeff Ross, Bert Kreischer, Whitney Cummings, Eddie Pepitone, Punkie Johnson, and Ali Siddiq. Theo Von, a serious contender for Fewest Brain Cells In Comedy, recently cozied up to Tucker Carlson. And Rogan, of course, is the anti-trans activist and anti-vaxxer who took advantage of the pandemic to colonize the Austin comedy scene with racist and Covid denialist right-wingers. 

So, you know, I can’t say the Karen Jones comes as a huge shock. But it’s still edifying to see what kind of person is drawn to this milieu—and what sort of welcome they receive. 

Keep it going for your host!

Humorism is fully reader-supported.

Leave a tip