A Theory of Change

Or, why comedy clubs are weird.

A Theory of Change

Let’s dwell for a minute on the unique cultural role of comedy clubs. There’s really no analog for them in other creative and creative-adjacent fields: a discrete physical location that functions simultaneously as talent incubator, workshop, workplace, and A-list social club. Famous actors do not return to regional theaters to hash out their new movies; global pop stars do not test their new songs at tiny concert venues; public intellectuals don’t go back to their first publisher's office to spout their latest opinions, then stick around for a few drinks. Comedy clubs, by contrast, routinely host a steady flow of workers and audiences from a fairly heterogeneous mix of race and class backgrounds. If you went to a certain Manhattan comedy club earlier this month, you could’ve seen Dave Chappelle, Pete Davidson, Sam Jay, Shane Gillis, and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of, all on the same night.

Or, if you were in Austin, you could’ve seen Joe Rogan laugh off the latest controversy about him at Vulcan Gas Company, the same venue that stood by Rogan’s friend Tony Hinchcliffe after he called Peng Dang a “filthy fucking little ch—k.” (It is also the venue whose producer said Hinchcliffe’s tirade wasn’t racism, it was comedy.) “This is a political hit job,” Rogan said of the video compilation of him saying the n-word throughout the years, per The Hollywood Reporter. “They’re taking all this stuff I’ve ever said that’s wrong and smushing it all together. It’s good because it makes me address some stuff that I really wish wasn’t out there.” Over the following days, he released podcasts with Akaash Singh—a comic who’s dabbled in transphobia on the show he co-hosts with Andrew Schulz—and Dave Smith, a Nazi sympathizer with longstanding complaints about “anti-white bigotry.” But that’s okay, because it’s been years since Rogan did the actually racist thing of saying the n-word, which actually wasn’t racist in context, don’t you know.

There are reasonable debates to be had about the influence of figures like Joe Rogan on American culture. I don’t think there can be any debate about their influence on comedy. When powerful, popular comedians—people who make lots of money for everyone around them—do bad things and get away with it, they send the message to everyone else in the industry that those things are good. This is the message that’s been going around comedy for many years, though it’s certainly not a one-way vector from the Joe Rogans to everyone else: bookers and venue operators also have a hand in fostering the political economy of their workplaces. As I’ve documented in this newsletter, though, comedy is swiftly outpacing the broader white backlash sweeping through our politics and culture. That hate speech is bad used to be a fairly uncontroversial assertion; in recent years we’ve seen the industry close ranks again and again to defend comedians who engage in it on the biggest platforms in the world. It’s no coincidence that many of these comedians are good friends—you’ll recall Rogan and Dave Chappelle’s mid-pandemic residency at an Austin barbecue joint—nor that they’ve used their prestige to protect and rehabilitate figures like Louis CK and Jeff Ross, who at this point enjoy free rein throughout comedy spaces. The rule they’re enforcing is that they get to do whatever they want, and you don’t get to complain.

Again, there are reasonable debates to be had about whether Joe Rogan’s actions or Dave Chappelle’s actions warrant national controversies. In comedy, these things have real material ramifications. How can we possibly make progress toward racial equity when vast swaths of the industry believe it’s not racist to say racial slurs? How can we move toward gender equity when no one is willing to do anything—anything—to keep sexual abusers out of their workplaces?

I am, as usual, depressing you. This is why I wanted to raise the unique—and, in my opinion, fascinating—nature of comedy clubs, where the industry’s elite still routinely mingle with its lower classes. It seems self-evident to me that if bigotry did not fly in comedy clubs, comedy would have fewer high-profile bigots. Alas it does fly, so there are loads of high-profile bigots. And people trying to be like them. And people trying to be nothing like them. And people afraid of them. And people who hate their fucking guts. All in the same spaces, drinking the same well drinks, serving the same audiences, each possessing the power to tip the first domino.

Obviously there’s no easy solution here, one where nobody has to put their career and reputation on the line. What I would like to propose is simply that when someone is so rich and powerful that you can’t possibly use their wallet as a pressure point, you’re not out of hope. You just have to figure out what pressure points are still available. Comedy is full of people for whom wealth and creative success are not enough; they also need to be loved and respected by everyone around them. If you can make them feel unwelcome in their little social clubs, I daresay you can change them. And if you can change the culture of those little social clubs altogether, well, then you can change everything.