Just a few things before we head into the holiday.
The big comedy news this week is that Congress’s coronavirus stimulus package includes the Save Our Stages Act, which directs millions in relief to entertainment venues. As Vulture explains, comedy clubs will be eligible to receive as much as 47% of their 2019 revenue, with a cap of $12 million. The thing to keep your eye on now is which clubs use that money to stay closed.
Shocker: I thoroughly enjoyed Conner O’Malley’s new video. What a great year for documentary-style comedy.
I’ll admit I was surprised no one but the Daily Mail picked up on Andrew Schulz’s brazenly racist new Netflix special. Maybe my perspective is skewed, but I really thought it was obviously line-crossing stuff. Then again, I’ve long felt the media has a blind spot toward the growing reactionary elements in comedy. Few publications devote serious attention to the industry anyway, and the ones that do generally produce coverage by fans, for fans. (Disclosure: I am a huge comedy fan, but I try not to cover the industry as one. I do believe there’s room for that sort of coverage, just… ideally less than there is now.) As a result, the bulk of comedy journalism either intentionally looks away from the grosser corners of the industry (Vulture), or naively rationalizes their grossness as intrinsic to the form (the New York Times). Sure, their jokes are divisive and politically incorrect, but that’s what comedy’s for! By the time comics like Schulz gather a large enough following of people drawn to their bigotry, the size of that following earns them a sort of assumed legitimacy. Hence you get the Times saying this in August 2019—
The savvy comic Andrew Schulz has built up a fan base outside the traditional media by putting himself in opposition to a politically correct entertainment industry but also dispensing with the old hourlong show and releasing his content in a multitude of bite-size forms.
—about a guy who released this in March 2019:
Standup comedians are professional opinion havers. They may use a different medium than columnists or pundits, but they play a comparable social function, and I’d bet many believe themselves more trustworthy than mainstream commentators (and that their fans agree). The conventional wisdom that jokes are either immune to or unworthy of scrutiny is what allows comics like Schulz to assemble such cultish audiences who flock to them precisely because they offer permission to be racist or misogynistic or transphobic or what have you. A more robust comedy press would treat them like anyone else building ideological coalitions in the public sphere: not as politicians, to be clear, but as people operating in a space where politics still exist. Instead they get treated as if their opinions don’t matter, even as they spread those opinions to millions of people. This has always struck me as a profound disrespect for the art.
But they have a right to free speech! Yes, but nobody has a right to fame or the privileges it affords. Rigorous, critical entertainment coverage is an essential public good for the simple reason that celebrity is power, and I don’t just mean power to sway people ideologically. The power of celebrity is what enables comedians, for instance, to commit systemic wage theft while maintaining a progressive image; to coerce their peers into watching them masturbate; to roam the country hooking up with teenage girls; to groom and abuse teenage girls; to pressure their partners into letting them sleep with their fans; and to inspire their fans to harass their exes:
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When I started out in journalism (…a whole five years ago) I spent a good stretch doing the thing where you interview comedians about their new TV show or movie or special or festival appearance and write 800 words about their background and why they made various creative choices and what they think of this or that news of the day. What I learned very quickly was that nobody really knows what they’re doing, everybody got what they have through some combination of dumb luck and perseverance, and most comedians are just trying to make funny shit with their friends. Laughter, that great meritocratic equalizer, is as often a reflection of talent as it is a robotic expression of agreement; talent as often gets people fucked over as it gets them what they deserve, and nobody deserves the power that comes with millions of adoring fans. Human beings just aren’t equipped for it. Very few can wield it responsibly. It fucks the best of us all the way up.
One fundamental problem with (most) entertainment journalism is its failure to reckon with the illegitimacy of this power. I don’t mean that all who have it are bad people, that none use it for good (or barely at all), or that no art deserves a mass audience; far from it. But by its very nature the power of fame is undemocratic, distributed according to the whims of media conglomerates and algorithms and bloodlines. In the grand scheme of things, it may as well be random. A healthy entertainment press would foreground celebrity’s inequity and treat celebrities themselves with supreme skepticism. Instead it too often assumes the role of mediator between creator and consumer, contributing to a collective delusion that these parties have a normal, healthy relationship.
They don’t! It’s abnormal and unhealthy for everyone involved, including celebrities: the structural incentive for artists to pursue fame if they wish to make a living in the arts is a great societal failure. (In my UBI/M4A socialist utopia, comedians would be able to live comfortable lives making weird shit for small rooms in their own communities.) Still, entertainment journalists should be clear-eyed about what their subjects are seeking—or already have—which at its heart is the freedom to do whatever they want. We must be honest about this because some people want to do bad things, and they will use us to get away with them. It’s not cynical to suggest the industrywide default of reverential celebrity journalism has helped create and protect monsters. The only rational response is an industrywide correction to skeptical, adversarial coverage.
After that, maybe, we can get cracking on the socialist utopia.
While I’ve still got Schulz on the brain, I’ll also say I enjoyed these impressions of him and Mark Normand by the comedian Andrew Smreker.
Finally: I loved this short film by Matt Barats and Anthony Oberbeck, directed by Graham Mason. (You may remember its predecessor, which I touched on in this newsletter a few months back.) Take an hour to treat yourself, why don’t you.
That’s all for now! Have a safe and happy holiday, or just a safe and happy regular series of days.