I’ve often argued that the current social and political bent of the comedy industry is largely the result of podcasting, which has allowed comedians to build large, loyal audiences in walled gardens. Lately I think there may be another important part of the story, one we’re only starting to see the full effects of. This isn’t my own theory—Humorism reader Jim H put it to me thusly in an email back in July:
During that in-between time when comedy clubs needed to be open in order to survive, but a lot of people still (understandably) feared COVID, I think the people who came out to the clubs leaned conspiratorial and right wing. As a result I think comedy performed a sort of Darwinian shift to suit them.
I think this is a hugely important observation. A few years ago everything shut down. Then it reopened, slowly, even though it wasn’t really safe to reopen. The people who returned were mostly people who didn’t particularly care that it wasn’t safe to reopen. While more cautious people stayed home, these comedians performed in front of audiences who also didn’t care that it wasn’t safe to see live comedy. We were all there, we all saw this. We watched everyone flood to Texas and Florida and all manner of seedy little clubs across the country. We watched SNL come back before the vaccine and we watched Lorne Michaels run the show while literally sick with Covid. This all just happened.
A number of comedians thrived during this period. They honed their craft, grew their fanbases, established or reestablished themselves as salable talents, and came to dominate the field. Some, like Andrew Schulz (who got a venue to waive its vaccine requirement for him) and Tim Dillon (who once berated a Covid nurse in his audience), are now playing massive venues around the world. Some, like Louis CK and Bryan Callen, are credibly accused or even confessed predators who used the pandemic to power through their scandals and reemerge as headliners. Some, like Tony Hinchcliffe, are racists. Some, like Tom Segura and Dave Smith, are transphobes. One is hosting SNL in three weeks. All of them are profiteers who got where they are by risking countless lives, including those of their own fans.
It can be difficult to remember this now, in February 2024, when so much of the world asks us to pretend there isn’t still a pandemic and perhaps there never was. But there is, there was, and it was deadly, real people died, and we all had to make consequential moral decisions, some difficult and some easy, either way they were ours to make, and we’re all still responsible for what we chose. In comedy as in everything else, I fear, we live in a world run by and for people happy to choose death.