Just within the year of 2022 (late May, in fact), we have seen the comedian become the center of some controversial boil-over. There was the “slap” of Chris Rock by the hand of Will Smith, that left an audience confused and appalled, and got the offender banned from the Oscars for ten years. Of course, there was the controversy and outrage directed at the comedian Dave Chappelle, amid the airing of his new Netflix special, with much of the humor centering around the hotly debated topic of Trans people.
In mid-May of this month in Los Angeles, Dave Chappelle was also attacked on stage during a performance by a member of an audience who was allegedly armed with a knife. And just this week, the release of another Netflix special, Supernature, has planted Ricky Gervais in the hot seat of the current fashion of comic criticism. That trend is not benign, and I think many people should have a problem with it.
In the world of entertainment, there is no performance purer than the bards, except perhaps the stand-ups. The art of stand-up comedy is distinctly American, and one that has given the common folk more of a voice than any other medium in time — except, perhaps, folk music. But I digress — stand-up comedy is distinctly meritocratic — it matters little about your previous or current occupation, your marital status, or your net worth. It matters none — your looks, your appearance, your clothes. Your race, religion, or sexuality is little to no difference to the audience. There really are just two rules—
Make us fucking laugh. Tell us the goddamn truth.
There is an old maxim, “People don’t go to comedy clubs to laugh, they come to hear the truth, veiled in humor”.
And I believe that is right. It takes some amount of guts to go to a comedy club — just to sit in the audience. For what is an invitation to laugh is also an invitation to be startled, surprised, yes, and offended — it may be awkward to find out what will make you truly laugh out loud. It is a chance for introspection, a chance to see things differently. Keeping in mind that laughter is a reflexive response, it is also a chance to find out something about yourself.
“Black Victim To Black Victor” Book by Adam B. Coleman
No doubt, stand-up comedy is probably as popular as ever. With the ubiquity of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, as well as the long-time running champion of late-night stand-up, HBO, it seems that the Comedy Special as a force of culture has not been reduced in its powers in the years since the greats like George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams have passed on but, instead, has built much momentum, cementing the stand-up comedian ever so firmly in cultural relevance and influence.
And the more the times are engulfed in panic, turmoil, and doubt about the future, the more we look to those who make us laugh to make some sense of the world. The more we need to inspect, deliberate and too, find they funny in the things that perhaps, are not usually considered humorous.
Although it may be a one in a million, or billion — the next stand-up comic who reaches the heights of a Chappelle or Chris Rock, or Rick Gervais may come from just about anywhere — when all it may take is some grainy footage of an ill-attended but nonetheless uproarious set to go viral, to get some clicks, to find some following, some notoriety, and then wham — perhaps you’re on your way to the Philharmonic or Madison Square Garden whistling dixie, on your way to claim your spot among comedy royalty.
Well, probably not. With just a moment of thinking, you can rattle off some of your favorite stand-ups. In fact, you probably already have. I remember certain specials from Red Foxx, Katt Williams, Dennis Miller, and Bill Maher with a certain fondness. Many will remember Chris Rock’s specials from the nineties before Dave Chappelle became a household name. “Never Scared” and “Bigger and Blacker” were practically considered comedic blueprints etched from diamond.
But while we can count up the hundreds or so famous, rich, Hollywood comedians, there are thousands of stand-ups for every one success, going out, working on their material, their craft, and trying, in some ways, to speak the truth, albeit veiled in humor.
These are akin to philosophers, poets, and truth-seekers. And they may not all be on the level of a Socrates or a Plato —but that is precisely the point. Among the intelligentsia and elitist orators, we also need the relief of the common voice. Not just those who believe they have it all figured out, but the voices of those who are befuddled, confused, or even angry.
It is no doubt that Dave Chappelle will always be a fan favorite. Whatever mechanism is trying to pull him down is a politically convenient one. In fact, I feel the same way about Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, and Will Smith for that matter. What is more worrisome to me is the effects the outrage (even if, perhaps, performative) may have on future generations of comedians, poets, artists, and filmmakers.
If the comedians waiting for their number to be called at the open-mic night don’t have the same sense of protection, the same solidarity with a loyal, loving crowd, how can they be assured they have a path towards humor and truth — a path unobstructed by the perennially offended and the self-appointed Sheriffs of Wokester-dam?
And what is destructive for the comedian, the poet, and the writer, is also destructive towards the audience — for they have the right to hear or see whatever that performance may be. But I write this not just in defense of a singular voice, a singular position, or even to defend tastelessness, which would all be sufficient enough to pen this piece, but also in defense of the ritual.
A ritual that suggests to the audience, hold on, we are gathered here to witness the truth, the inner workings, and the humor, or perhaps outrage, of a minority voice — that is, the one who is holding the microphone. Through this, we can choose to laugh or leave, or to stand in solidarity with those in the audience and on the stage — to accept our reality, as absurd as it may be, with cackles, howls, jeers, and giggles.
And so goes an often-misunderstood point of freedom of expression — you are allowed to express yourself, but not at the expense of someone else’s ability to express themselves. You can’t talk over a comedian in their set — perhaps a few moans and boos are permissible. You can’t hijack a political platform, as did BLM, during Bernie Sander’s speech during his bid for presidential candidacy. You cannot issue a fatwa against writers like Salmon Rushdie or The Dutch cartoonist of the Jyllands-Posten. You cannot do these things any more than you can run on stage and grab the mic from Mick Jagger and signal the Stones to play “Gimme Shelter” — it just ain’t your show, Jack. And the word audience is Latin, for to listen.
The freedom of expression, whatever it may be, must include the license to offend. It must include the ability to have new thoughts, to share our collective darkness, lightness, sadness, and outrage. If it does not, then what good is it? Where is the line drawn? Who gets to draw the line? Who, if anybody, gets to cross it? The only sensible conclusion is to do away with the line. To stop with the arguing over who crosses it. There is no line.
It would not be absurd to suggest, or rather, to say plainly, that America is experiencing a contagion of outrage. There is perhaps no other time in history, and with the technology to spread it like wildfire, where outrage has become a sport. The sport of offense. The sport of illiberalism. The sport of looking at something and saying, “What is the problem here? — Find it!”.
And what is also noticeable in this sport is its utter lack of humor. There is no joke that can be told that aims at the oppressed, the defenseless, the image of “punching down” to use the parlance of the industry. The lack of humor is fitting, because the movement is hungry, practically addicted to outrage. And so, of course, including offensive or tasteless humor thereby enlarges the circumference of outrage. You weren’t kidding. You meant it. It is of my mind that we ought to be wary of those without a sense of humor — those who have no admiration of irony, satire, language, and collective laughter. If you ban one book, one song, one joke, you will eventually have to ban them all.
We may very well think of comedy as a night-out or a Netflix special on a Friday evening. You may think of stand-up comedy as the mere telling of jokes — true enough. But collective laughter is not the only thing at stake. When outrage is now a sport, illiberalism a fad, censorship a victory, there is a direct line between the jesters and the people. If the jester is no longer allowed to mock the king, then what chance do the philistines have?
There are no sacred cows. Nothing is holy. Everything can afford to be smacked around. For those who wish for the maligned, the neglected, and the marginalized to be included, then celebrate. Surely if one is to be truly included, one ought to be discussed. And wherever there is discussion, I say, let there be laughter.