Five More Small Essays About Comedy

On dark matter, time, the right, and more.

Five More Small Essays About Comedy
Photo by Mark Tegethoff / Unsplash
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I. Detected But Not Seen

Whenever I encounter a joke I think is terrible, it strikes me that funniness operates in the manner of certain cosmological phenomena which one cannot observe directly, only through their influence on surrounding phenomena. This effect is most evident in bad jokes—or more generously, jokes I don’t get. Consider Dan Ahdoot’s much-lambasted routine about antiwar protest chants, a dry recitation of historical events that nonetheless had Mayim Bialik losing her shit; or, more recently, consider this loosely-about-the-war-on-Gaza joke by Jay Jurden, which moves from a clumsily manufactured premise (we need the most important Palestinian in the country to speak out) to an utterly flaccid punchline (“Hamas” sounds like “hummus”). Context tells me that funniness is afoot: I can hear laughter, the cadence of humor, an audience enjoying themselves, the comedians grinning and animated, clearly they’re channeling some sort of energy, but I simply cannot identify anything funny. It’s there and it’s not there. One can observe this effect at a much larger scale in the careers of certain comedians, I won’t say which, who enjoy immense professional success despite their lack of insight or charisma, and whose maniacal devotees treat them like gods incarnate. It shouldn’t be possible and yet there it is—gravity without mass. The power of funniness. 

II. On The Temporal Nature of Funniness

A joke does not register as funny until one has the context necessary to recognize its funniness. This is the logic by which one says “it wasn’t for me” about a piece they didn’t connect with, assuming they’re not saying it to be polite. Sometimes one simply doesn’t have the experience it takes to appreciate the observation in a work of observational humor; sometimes we’re just not the audience. Where things get interesting is in the variable nature of experience, which of course isn’t a fixed value. It changes over time, opening us to truths that were once elusive: “It wasn’t for me,” we sometimes come to realize, was in fact “It wasn’t for me yet.” Perhaps you’ve felt that miraculous click when something transpires in your life that summons, through the clouds of memory, a line you heard ages ago that only now makes sense. The joke about parenthood becomes one of the funniest things you’ve ever heard; so, in time, does the joke about tragedy, about loss. In this sense we might see funniness as a means of dilating time: a joke that takes 30 seconds to tell can take decades to experience.  

Six Small Essays about Comedy
On forms, laughter, jokes, and more.

III. More In Than Out

I am a firm believer in the “more in than out” rule of arts and letters, which states that in order to make good work, you must consume more than you produce. I am also a firm believer in the “quality out requires quality in” corollary to this rule, which essentially says that we are what we eat: the writer who reads widely but reads only trash is fated to write the same. These rules may inform our understanding of the state of contemporary comedy, at least insofar as contemporary comedy has come to mean radio. Over the last decade or so, the industry has trended overwhelmingly toward unscripted content. Today the bulk of its output, quantitatively speaking, is no longer crafted products—specials, late night sets, live hours toured across the country—but podcasts. This shift has been a boon for comedians and their fans, but I suspect it has had an overall negative effect on the art form, which now consists largely of daytime talk show segments produced by functional illiterates.

For years the typical comedian-podcaster has been little more than a gossip, spending his hours rehashing internet beefs and mindlessly regurgitating tabloid headlines. More recently he has become a conspiracy theorist as well, in some cases a full-fledged paranoiac indistinguishable in form and content from Fox News or the Daily Wire. This week on The Joe Rogan Experience, for instance, the comedian Chris Distefano—who recently became a born-again Catholic, explaining to Rogan that 500 independent sources corroborated Christ’s resurrection, according to a book he read—relayed that his friend in the NYPD believes that figures 10 times richer than Elon Musk intend for artificial intelligence to rule the world, and worse, they are inciting chaos and crime in cities across America such that citizens will beg for AI to run things. Later he cited something he read—he forgot what it was—that explained how James Buchanan caused the Civil War by doing favors for his secret boyfriend, a senator from a southern state. He read something else, by the way, which made the case that if northerners had owned cotton plantations instead of southerners, they would have been the enslavers and southerners would’ve been the abolitionists. 

We are beset, in other words, by morons, which isn’t new, what’s new is an industry structured to make morons very rich and famous so long as they produce a steady stream of direct-to-consumer garbage. You might broadly say that the defining trend in this current era of comedy is the removal of quality control, something that has resulted in an interesting superposition. As artists enjoy access to massive new revenue streams and fans enjoy stimulating parasocial relationships with their favorite artists, one need only listen to the typical comedian-podcaster’s written material to discern that none of them are particularly good at standup. Why would they be? The skills it takes to make quality radio are not the skills it takes to make quality standup. What’s good for comedians and comedy fans, it turns out, is very bad for comedy—a curious state of affairs designed precisely to keep anyone from noticing. 

Jerry Seinfeld Says TV Comedy Is Being Killed By the ‘Extreme Left and P.C. Crap and People Worrying So Much About Offending Other People’
Jerry Seinfeld says TV comedy is being hurt by the “extreme left.”

IV. Is The Left Destroying Comedy?

On the contrary, it is very obviously the right that’s destroying comedy. An industry dominated by bigots is not an industry where marginalized voices can thrive; an industry that protects sexual predators is not an industry where women can thrive. We must remember always that racism and misogyny are not matters of aesthetic preference, they are a means of enforcing social hierarchy. The more space comedy space for people like Andrew Schulz and Tim Dillon and Joe Rogan and Shane Gillis, like Louis CK and Chris D’Elia and Jeff Ross, the less space it will have for people with new and interesting things to say, people who will actually push the art form forward. Perhaps more pertinently, comedy’s structural problems require policy fixes to which right-wing politics are antithetical. We are simply not going to get healthcare, affordable housing, or public arts funding in a world where all the most popular, trusted media personalities are reactionary ideologues, and without these policies comedy is doomed—doomed, at least, to stay forever the domain of people who can afford to make it, and I think you know what kind of people they’ll be.

V. The Art of Forgiveness

Laughter is the relief of tension, the development of affinity, the gift of pleasure, an agreement about what’s true. It may also be the physical manifestation of forgiveness. When SNL hosts a controversial politician like Nikki Haley or Sarah Palin, what it pays them is the audience’s forgiveness—earned, justly or unjustly, through laughter. When a comedian like Louis CK or Chris D’Elia brute-forces their way through scandal, they owe their success to fans who value laughter enough to forgive their transgressions, even to accept them within the realm of tolerable conduct. Perhaps it is laughter that expands this realm. Michael Richards was not funny enough to launder his racism; Shane Gillis was. His is a mighty power, not that you’d know it from the word: laughter is trifling, cheap; forgiveness is potent, divine. Think about what it means for an audience to roar with forgiveness. For the forgiveness sign to light up in the studio. For beloved podcasters to offer up their fans’ forgiveness to Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones, to Andrew Tate and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Consider comedy, then, as the art of forgiveness, and now consider who’s mastered it.

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