One of my longtime pet peeves is the tendency of certain types in and around comedy to remark, whenever some comedian's reprehensible statements reach the level of national controversy, that the real problem is a lack of craft. When you see this once, you'll start seeing it everywhere. It's not the racism that offends me, it's the lazy writing, they'll say. The issue isn't that it's transphobic, it's that it's hack. The implication is that better writing and funnier joke-telling would somehow elevate a bigoted joke out of its bigotry, which in turn implies that bigotry is an aesthetic failing. Followed to its logical conclusion, however, the criticism is really just a request for more skillful hate speech.
Below is a statement, not a joke. The “whores” line is a continuation of the set up, it is not a punchline. Here is a sample joke using this same set up: “Spare me the ‘many woman don’t know they’re pregnant for 6 weeks.’ Most women know I’m a douchebag within 2 seconds.” pic.twitter.com/5qmZZR6GJJSeptember 4, 2021
Of course @CraigSJ does a great job here but I'd just like to add this special features some of the worst joke writing I've seen from a non-beginner. His rhythm has grown predictable and his punchlines often don't exactly track. The dangers of cultivating and then trusting a cult https://t.co/01YI2Re5kAOctober 6, 2021
With the obvious caveat that formal analysis is an essential part of art criticism, I think this particular line of critique more often than not serves as a distraction, and sometimes even a delusion. It is certainly true that many of Dave Chappelle's transphobic jokes are poorly written, but this is not what's wrong with them. What's wrong with them is that they're transphobic. If his transphobic jokes were more clever or original, they would be much worse, because people would be less apt to notice and condemn their transphobia.
I see little difference between this reasoning and the insistence by certain subsets of comedy that jokes cannot possibly be bigoted, because they are (drumroll) just jokes. Both reflect a conviction in the form's innate purity—in the belief that "funny" is a virtue. In reality it's merely a descriptor, and a highly subjective one at that. It's funny when someone tells a personal story that builds compelling action into a startling, satisfying revelation. It's funny when someone makes an obvious observation that I agree with but hadn't articulated for myself; or that I had articulated for myself but felt unable to say aloud. It's funny when someone trips over a banana peel, does a spit-take, or says a bunch of words with hard "K" sounds in a row. There are many reasons to laugh at a joke. Only one of them is that it was any good.
Again, formal criticism is valuable. I love the stuff! I also tend to think its value expires when someone declares in their content that they don't deserve to be taken seriously, for instance by using a series of comedy specials to legitimize and popularize transphobia. This insistent focus on form in the face of extremist content seems like a product of a broader unwillingness to confront just how common, just how casual hateful ideologies are in our culture. It's still a minority opinion in comedy that bigoted jokes hurt people. It's still a minority opinion that bigotry is even bigotry when couched in the rhythms of a joke. These attitudes aren't limited to comedy, but I do think they're heightened in it. In other forms of media we're at least seeing high-profile bigots ostracized by their peers and forced into self-publishing. This will never, ever happen to comics like Chappelle or Joe Rogan, who are both opening their own clubs anyway because they think the industry is so inhospitable to their views.
And it should happen! Transphobia, homophobia, racism, rehabilitating abusers—these should be the sorts of things that get you exiled from polite society and shamed by everyone in your field. In comedy they're just… normal things all the most popular people engage in or are fine with. I wish I had some conclusion here other than total pessimism. It really seems like the norm from hereon out will be comedians openly doing hate speech while telling us to our faces it's not hate speech, with their fans happily volunteering to harass anyone who disagrees. I hope we find some better way of talking about it.