I’ve been reading Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t., the journalist Andrew Hankinson’s forthcoming oral history of the Comedy Cellar. It’s an interesting, frustrating book that intersects with many of our recurring themes: the outsize cultural influence of a few conservative comedy club owners, comedy’s persistent structural inequalities, the bizarre and inconsistent discourse around cancel culture. As far as I know, it’s also the most in-depth portrait yet written about the Cellar’s owner, Noam Dworman, and its founder, his father Manny.
I’ll be writing more about the book when it comes out in May. Today I just want to share a bit that relates to yesterday’s newsletter about how the system preserves itself. Early in the book—which is presented mostly as transcripts of the author’s interviews, with occasional narration and primary source material—we learn of an audience member who emailed the Cellar to complain about Big Jay Oakerson:
I am SO upset by one of the acts that you allowed on your stage last night. It was the last act of the night — I think his name was A.J. His entire time onstage was spent making fun of gays for “blowing each other in the bathroom” and proudly stating that he “doesn’t give a shit about politics.” And while I can appreciate that those comments — while not really funny enough to warrant their stupidity — are his prerogative to joke about as a “comedian,” some of this other content was SO completely disgusting and inappropriate that I almost walked out.
He talked about a couple doing anal in a hotel and how it was fine because “it would just be the Mexican cleaner’s job to clean up all the shit in the morning.” He then continued to push his fucked up joke by saying “here Guadalupe I’m handing you an extra $20.” Not only is this moment in America a really fucked up time to be making jokes like that (does he read the news?) but his delivery and actual lines weren’t nearly funny enough to warrant such a horrible choice in topic. He also joked about “fucking 18-year-olds,” talking in depth about how he liked it when he got to hook up with those girls while they were really drunk and asking the host/MC if he would like to fuck drunk 18-year-olds as well. So he thought it would be funny to talk about potentially raping and sexually assaulting young girls on stage. Cool. Again, perhaps a poor choice in topic.
I appreciate that the point of comedy is to “push the bar” but I think we are past a time when men (or women) should be invited to get up on stage and joke about assaulting women. I think we are past a time when men (or women) should be invited up to laugh about immigrant workers when ICE is fucking up our country. The fact that you gave this guy a platform is incredibly fucked up, in my opinion, and I would expect more from one of the greatest comedy clubs in New York City. You have a responsibility to ensure that people aren’t spewing more hate in the world. That really isn’t what we need right now in this country, or anywhere for that matter.
As Noam Dworman relates, this was one in a series of complaints the Cellar received about Oakerson a few years ago. Dworman is a staunch believer in the comedian’s right to say whatever they want, but he also wants his customers to have a good time, so he’ll occasionally approach comics about customer complaints. “This is about the audience,” he tells Hankinson:
I don’t care if the reason the audience hates a comedian is because he’s bashing Arabs or bashing Jews. That would be me violating the free expression rule. But I do have the right to tell a comedian that, for whatever reason, whether it’s just they suck or because they’re dirty, whatever they’re saying, “Listen, there is a clear and evident pattern here that this is turning off the audience.” It’s not about what he says. I don’t care what he says. He can say anything he wants. I have to be able to tell him the audience is not accepting this.
So Dworman called Oakerson in for a meeting. Here’s what the book has to say about that:
The author asks Jay Oakerson about being called in for a meeting with Noam. Jay tells the author he doesn’t want to talk about it. Jay says he loves the Cellar. He says he told Noam he was disappointed that after fifteen years they’d call him in because a customer complained his jokes were racist. Jay says Noam quickly apologized about calling him in and told him to keep doing what he’s doing and not change anything, which he didn’t.
There are a few things to note here. One is Dworman’s unwillingness to confront one of his club’s bigger names over a series of (seemingly) legitimate complaints. Even in New York City, comedy clubs are dependent on their more popular comics to fill seats, which gives those comics great leverage over their bosses. (About 19 years ago, they used this leverage to get higher weekend pay at the Cellar.) Another is Dworman’s invocation of the First Amendment, a principle that explicitly concerns the freedom of speech from government interference. Private enterprises have always been free to set their own standards; refusing to do so is a political choice. Blurring these lines is a trick comedy clubs (and internet forums, for that matter) commonly use to exonerate themselves from that “responsibility to ensure that people aren’t spewing more hate in the world.” They present themselves as neutral platforms for free speech, where criticizing racist jokes is a far worse transgression than telling racist jokes. It’s not important to them what comics say, it’s only important whether what they say is funny, that is, whether the audience laughs.
This is a superficially sensible attitude that I encounter all the time in my work. Comics and fans are constantly telling me the only comedy criticism that matters is the audience’s. If they laugh, the joke is good; if they don’t, the joke is bad. I’ve always found this to be a profoundly disrespectful attitude towards the art and craft of comedy. Laughter, as Colin Quinn says at one point in Don’t Applaud, is involuntary. It’s a physiological reaction, like your leg extending when someone taps below your knee. Audiences have that reaction (or don’t) for reasons, reasons having to do both with what the joke says. The refusal to conceptualize humor beyond the level of gut response is pure anti-intellectualism, akin to saying paintings exist merely to depict color. But color is only one part of what makes a painting worth gazing at. The other parts are what the colors depict and how they depict it.
Perhaps this would not grate me if so many of the people dependent on this framing were not deeply invested in being seen as intellectuals. As Don’t Applaud illustrates, this self-image is a large part of what makes the Cellar so important to comedians. The famed Comic’s Table is where they sit and have contentious, freewheeling discourses about every subject under the sun. Manny Dworman used to buy all his comics two books representing each side of a given issue—his favorite being Israel, of which he was a staunch supporter—so they could all debate it. To this day Noam Dworman, who at times has flirted with running for public office, uses his podcast This Week at the Comedy Cellar to host debates between comics, writers, and other public figures. You don’t need me to tell you how many comedians believe themselves philosophers who possess insights into the world that somehow everyone else missed. Rarely if ever do these people submit themselves or their work to any sort of real intellectual rigor. When outsiders try, they do so at their own peril. It’s just jokes; how crazy do you have to be to take offense?
This is another way the old structures preserve themselves: through the systemwide delusion that standup comedy is simultaneously too important to scrutinize and not worth scrutinizing at all. When you see it happen once, you’ll start seeing it everywhere you look.