I was very interested to read Marc Maron's illuminating essay in Vulture tracing the tribalism in standup back to divisions that formed after 9/11. He writes:
It was out of that tension where you really saw comics sort of sizing up. That’s where the Tough Crowd and back table at the Cellar really evolved into what it was and what it became — because of 9/11. There were definitely comics that were like, “Let’s kill all these fucking Muslims. Let’s lock them all up!” like immediately. And then there were a few liberal comics who were like, “Is that really the solution?” And then Manny [Dworman, former Comedy Cellar owner], who was already a sort of politically conservative Zionist guy, was still alive, so he was stoking the flames a bit.
Comics are comics — a bunch of gossipy high-school girls — but at that time, our hand, as a community in a lot of ways, was forced to take a stand politically. The sad lesson of it all was really that you could track what has become the tribalization of comedy back to that. There was definitely a point where you realized, Wow, you’re a lot more conservative than I am, or Wow, you might be a little bit racist, or Oh my God, I thought I knew you better. But none of that mattered before, because we didn’t necessarily know each other that well, other than we saw each other every day. But it was at that time, post-9/11, where lines were really drawn.
You directly get Tough Crowd out of 9/11. You look at Tough Crowd, and you look at the guys who were holding the line for a sort of conservative … It’s not even conservative, it’s “liberal” and “not liberal.” It was a different time; nothing was infused with this idea of white supremacy, but there was definitely a profound anti-Arab sentiment. It was very specific, and there was a very immediate distrust of all Muslims on behalf of some people in the community. I think that conversation started to evolve into these sides that I think we still see now, and in its nicer form evolved into Tough Crowd. I was on Tough Crowd a lot, not because Colin [Quinn] liked me particularly — I don’t really think he does — but there were just so few lefties that could speak in that way, that I became sort of a recurring character, to a degree.
While it's a rare comfort to see someone like Maron acknowledge what's really going on in comedy, I can't help but zero in on his reluctance to use the term "conservative" (and, later, "right-wing" or "fascist"). I've never understood this hesitancy comics have about characterizing their peers in ideological terms. It seems pretty exclusive to liberal comics: the right wingers are more than happy to complain about liberals and leftists while crying foul anytime they're labeled conservative. Clearly they consider theirs the neutral position; it's odd to see progressives cede it to them.
Maron certainly knows much more than I do about what the New York comedy scene was like when I was nine years old. Nonetheless I will bravely take issue with his observation that "nothing was infused with this idea of white supremacy," which I think ignores the bigger systems at play. Mask-on or mask-off, standup has always been a white supremacist institution. It's always been run overwhelmingly by and for white people. Comedy workers who aren't white—or male, or cisgender, or able-bodied—have always faced massive structural barriers and overt discrimination as they try to climb the ladder. Audience members who take issue with bigoted comedy have always been told to deal with it or go home. It turns out the people who thrive in a system like this tend to resemble the system itself.
If the truths about these people came into clearer focus after 9/11, I suspect it may have been—at least in part—because there was suddenly an all-consuming new pretext to launder their beliefs through political "realities." (See: the recent spate of anti-Asian racism "justified" by China's supposed responsibility for the pandemic.) Perhaps what happened was less that comics were forced to take sides than that the lefties were forced to see how small their side was.
As I've written before, comedy's longstanding veneration of free speech is a cover story: what the industry really venerates is the freedom to punch down, to be a racist piece of shit with no consequences. Because of those structural barriers, so many comedy practitioners have never enjoyed the same freedom of speech as their white, male peers. This is how white supremacy functions. What white comics see as their right is a privilege denied to others. The traditional "but what about my free speech??" response to criticism is in such obviously bad faith that I cringe when I see left-minded comics try to preempt it: "Look, I believe in free speech and edgy jokes, but...." If these people cared about free speech, they'd fight for their peers who don't have it, not for their right to mock and denigrate those peers. These are cruel people. They're in it for the cruelty. They reject wokeness because they have no empathy for people who aren't like them. They reject antiracism because without racism they have nothing to offer people who are like them. What they want to protect isn't freedom, it's white supremacy. We do ourselves no favors by refusing to say this.
Now it is my turn to be naive. Maron writes toward the end of his essay:
I’ve become convinced that the voices of the oppressed and the marginalized becoming more prominent to force the hand of apathetic people into a more empathetic position is the only way we’re going to save this fucking country. And it’s a fairly new realization, so I don’t know when comedy starts to speak to that. It’s just that the fury and the momentum of the proudly ill-informed is problematic.
I think he's right, which is why I think a systemic analysis is critical here. Comedians have the power to lift up the voices of the oppressed and the marginalized. They can do it by lifting up the oppressed and marginalized in their own industry. There's something big standing in their way, but it's not the reactionary podcaster crowd.
Consider a few passages from "Pushing the Edge": Challenging Racism and Sexism in American Stand-up Comedy, an ethnography of the Los Angeles standup scene that Katja Elisabet Antoine published as her doctoral dissertation in 2015 (bracketed phrases hers):
The work environment at comedy clubs is not surprisingly also replete with sexist and misogynistic discourse. It’s like air. It is everywhere, and you cannot go to a show and not inhale. The denigration comes from show announcers, from male comics addressing audience members, through joke content (of both male and female comics), and from male comics introducing female comedians or commenting after they leave the stage. At one Black show I attended, the demeaning of women started before the first comedian took the stage. The man who announced the start of the show over the speaker system called out, “All the fine ladies, make some noise!” to some cheering from the female audience members. He then followed with, “Ladies, if you don’t have saggy titties make some noise!” Subsequently, he announced the rules of behavior in the showroom: no filming, no recording, no cell phones, a two-drink minimum, and then, seemingly tailored for this audience with a high percentage of Black women, “Ladies, keep your hair weaves out of other people’s food and drinks!” Before the patrons have received their drinks, then, the women in the room have been objectified and put down.
Women risk sexual harassment and the threat of violence wherever they are; the stand-up comedy scene is no different. Female comedians tell of male comics, promoters, bookers, et cetera, who approach them under the guise of wanting to help them with jokes as a way of making advances... One female comedian recounts several disturbing incidents while on the road: "[One time] a comedian sent his promoter to knock on my door to ‘see if she’ll give it up.’ The male comedian thought it was funny. He told me later that he’d done that, and that ‘you passed the test this time.’ Another comedian told a promoter that he’d been my boyfriend. He told him, ‘She’s a freak, she’s a screamer; you should book her so you can try to fuck her.’ The booker was known for date rape—a friend of mine told me. The comedian later apologized to me. Male comics don’t worry about being raped. [And] one [random] guy asked the receptionist at a hotel I was staying at, ‘Who’s that girl on the flier?’ ‘Oh, she’s upstairs in 207,’ [the receptionist blurted out]. And then [as a result], I had a drunk baseball player knocking on my door in the middle of the night. I called the police. I was petrified. Men don’t have to worry about that stuff."
Female comedians are verbally attacked more directly from the stage too. They are often introduced in a sexist manner or commented on in a sexist way as they leave the stage. One comedian told of her experiences on tour as the opening act for a renowned male comic. “[When he got on stage after my set] he commented on my breast size, my lips, my hips... He told the audience: ‘You just like her cause of her big titties, or cause of her hips, or cause her lips look like she sucks dick, not cause she’s funny.'
Black comedians have repeatedly told me of situations where they have asked for a spot on a show and have been declined because “we already have a Black comic in the lineup.” Other comedians of color may be more or less racially marked depending on how close to white they look. A woman may also be included in the lineup in addition to, or in lieu of, one of the men of color, and like Black male comics, female comics remark on the rarity of having two women on a club show.
Several comedians told me that a particular club did not “pass” any Black comics for seven or eight years during the 2000s. When a Black employee and aspiring comedian tried to organize a lawsuit (that apparently never came to fruition), the club seemingly strategically “passed” several comedians of color (including a number of Black comics) over the course of a few months. One Black comic told me that this was occasionally held against those comics with classic anti-affirmative action rhetoric: They were only passed cause they are Black; it’s bringing down the quality of the comedy. Rather than viewing the flurry of “passed” comics as worthy performers who received their dues, the critics (some of them Black) suggested these comics were inferior performers who diluted the quality of the comedy at the club. This even though the critics also recognized the booker’s notorious racism. He’d been overheard referring to a regular Black show at the club as “the nigger room” on multiple occasions. He apparently stopped using that term when the prospect of a lawsuit began to circulate.
Now consider a passage from a 2020 Vice article about racism in the UK comedy industry:
“It’s not common for comedy nights to have two Black comics booked,” she says. “I mean, once I was told by a promoter, 'oh, we've got [comedian] Joe K on next so be careful that you don't go on and say the same stuff!' He's Ghanaian and proper Christian. We have absolutely nothing in common except being Black. It’s that kind of stuff that happens everywhere in the industry.”
Abdulrashid agrees: “If you're a Black guy and you talk about your experience, racists all over the industry will say, 'oh, we've heard it all before'. But you fucking haven't! We're all different. In the US, Dave Chappelle talks about being Black and so does Chris Rock. Are they the same? Imagine if there was a white middle-class comedian and it was said ‘all he talks about it being middle-class’. It doesn’t happen. So why is it okay to say 'oh, he only ever talks about being Black?’”
It’s a bigoted one-liner Abdulrashid says he’s received from plenty of promoters: “One time I was told by Mike Fox [the promoter behind Bromley’s FAT Jesters comedy nights] that he liked me, but I made the ‘UKIP-y’ people in his audience feel uncomfortable.
“He asked me to do less of the ‘Muslim stuff’ and said I reminded him of ‘Muslim activists’. I asked, ‘What do you want me to stop doing? Saying I'm a Muslim? Or being a Muslim? Or having a Muslim name?’ He replied: ‘I advise comics like this all the time. Like, a guy the other week did a rape joke…' He was actually comparing my identity to rape.”
Now consider a passage (one of many like it) from Don't Applaud, Andrew Hankinson's oral history of the Comedy Cellar:
Artie Lange does a spot at the Cellar. He tells a joke about being fat and having sex with someone. @cherrell_brown watches then tweets,
Almost got kicked out of Olive Tree Cafe bar down in the Village ...
So there a comedy show downstairs where the bathroom is, and I have to walk by the comedian/stage to go to the bathroom
There’s this white guy who starts a joke with “... these protests are mess- ing with my personal ...” so I stop to listen ...
“I was having sex w/this black chick, & she said ‘I can’t breathe’ and I said ‘come on don’t bring politics into the bedroom.’”
The majority white audience cackled and laughed. I flung my braids over my shoulder, pointed at a group and said “that shit ain’t funny”
Then got escorted back upstairs
A black person’s dying words become punch lines.
They looked at me perplexed as to why I was angry. I mean the entire room was doubled over in laughter, yall.
This isn’t just a/b police accountability. Never was. This is about valuing black lives& disrupting anything that perpetuates the opposite yall. I was suppose to be here with Emerald, Eric Garner’s daughter, tonight having a bday drink. She got sick. What if she came & heard that?
He managed to make a violent joke about BW and mock Black Death. @artiequitter is trash
Now @artiequitter is RTing me. Keep it cute, until we show up to protest at your shows. We got dates, homie.
Now his fans are all up and through my mentions with rape threats
Rape threats. Bitch. Cunt. Humorless whore. Die. All in the last 20 mins. White supremacy defending itself, folks
The problem is it's all rotten. The impediment is the industry. Many, many people have been telling us for years. They haven't been listened to for the same reason they've been telling us. Comedy doesn't care about them. It's not for them. It doesn't want them. What it wants are the people Maron generously describes as "the proudly ill-informed," who were only able to gain momentum because the entire system is structured to give it to them. Obviously this doesn't make things any easier. The comics with enough power to comfortably demand changes are overwhelmingly people who have no incentive to do so, either because the system is built to serve them or because they'd have to jeopardize a tenuous, hard-fought position in a system that isn't.
But it's still the right thing to do. If you think the marginalized deserve more prominence, make room for them. Elsewhere in Maron's essay he observes that the right-wing crowd will always be "unaffected by pushback, because they’ve got their people." My first reaction to this is that it's giving up before trying: comics like Tim Dillon, Andrew Schulz, and Joe Rogan crave acceptance in mainstream spaces and would, I suspect, be very affected if those spaces rejected them. (Also, lots of them regularly traffic in the sort of full-on hate speech that surely violates Patreon and YouTube's terms of service.) My second reaction is that he has his people too. Comics like Maron, who do not depend on traditional standup gatekeepers to reach their audiences, are in a unique position to call out abuse in the industry and agitate for change. (To his credit, he recently explicitly criticized Rogan.) They can name names, shame abusers and enablers, condition their appearances on equitable lineups and fair pay, encourage their colleagues to stop working with bad actors, and go right back to podcasting and performing at venues that depend on them to draw a crowd. It might cost them gigs, yes, and it might do the opposite. If the chud crowd can burnish their brands doing the wrong thing, I have to believe the good guys can reap some spoils doing the right thing.
History is shaped by the battles we pick and by the battles we don't. If Maron is right, if there is a straight line from the divisions that formed in post-9/11 comedy to the darker divisions today, then it behooves us to ask what things will look like in 20 years if this trajectory continues uninterrupted. When I sent Vulture's 9/11 package to my friend, she said she didn't want to read it; it's too depressing, nothing's changed. I think she's right too. When 9/11 forced comedians to choose a side, one side won. They went out and served as dutiful little foot soldiers for the empire, stoking all the hatred and fear that would come to define our lives. All the comics out there right now spreading xenophobia, transphobia, and anti-vax conspiracy theories on much larger and more powerful platforms than their predecessors—whose will do you suppose they're serving? What kind of world are they building? If they win, will you be content to have let them?
Whatever comes of the future, the present problems are worth addressing in their own right. A critique I often encounter from the left is that culture is downstream from politics: there are racists in comedy because America is racist; there are sexists in comedy because America is sexist; there are abusers in comedy because America is abusive. I'm sure this is true enough, if probably overly simplistic, and I don't see how anyone reaches the popular conclusion that it's therefore futile to bother fixing comedy until we've fixed Society. Comedy is a series of workplaces. People have the power to change their workplaces. They also have the right to be free from bigotry and abuse in their workplaces. Don't you dare tell me comedy's problems can't be dealt with separately from capitalism; there are plenty of art forms under capitalism without so many Nazis.
Let's conclude with some spoilers. I enjoyed this week's episodes of The Other Two, especially the one where Cary and Brooke join a glamorous celebrity church for the chance to benefit from its wealthy, connected members. When they discover the church is anti-gay and anti-woman, they desperately search for reassurance that it's still okay to reap its rewards, or at least that it's not that unethical. Finding none, they inform their younger brother Chase it's a bad church for bad people. Chase, a perpetually naive teenage pop star whose every move is scripted by his managers, does something very rare in The Other Two: he thinks for himself, immediately quitting the church and telling off the entire congregation. "I have to leave without giving it a second thought, because when you hear information like this, that's what you do," he says. "You act."
Do I appreciate the richness of this lesson coming from two writers who worked their way up the ladder at SNL, then quit to make their own show produced by Lorne Michaels? Yes, but I still appreciate the lesson. You can't sell your soul and keep it, too.
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Header image via jasonjenn/YouTube.