Pop StuffToo soon? Humorists weigh in on dark comedy
We asked a handful of people from across the world of comedy to talk about outrage culture, the media's echo chamber, and what's "ok" to joke about.
Some jokes are funny. Most jokes aren’t. What are the consequences of a joke with a subject matter that holds weight, and can that weight be lifted if we laugh at it?
The media runs on outrage, to the point where even the New York Times pontificated on how we should all just “lighten up.” But there’s a bigger discussion here than simply validating a specific punchline or setting rules for the road; comedic political correctness seems to be a more fluid concept. Hopes&Fears invited five people from the world of comedy to sit down and discuss the touchier points of getting a laugh.
Opening monologue on ‘Saturday Night Live’
Lous C.K.'s opening monologue as host of Saturday Night Live's
40th anniversary season finale.
Hopes&Fears: Saturday Night Live has changed significantly in the past two years. A lot of it is due in part to negative press. I was listening to Mandy’s "News Whore" interview with Michael Che earlier this week, and he talked about the criticism that he's gotten and that the show receives in general. They recently got bad press over Louis C.K.'s pedophilia joke. There was also Leslie Jones' Weekend Update bit about slave breeding that caused a lot of controversy.
Mandy Stadtmiller: I’m now friends with the guy who used to be the head flack for NBC, and he definitely does not like negative press. [When I wrote for the New York Post] he wouldn’t grant me any interviews with SNL people because someone else from The Post had shit on the show, and so he just closed it down. There was also a famous New York Magazine cover story where a writer did a complete hatchet job on SNL. After being granted unfettered access, the writer turned in some piece where Janeane Garofalo was presented as the patron saint of all comedy, while Chris Farley and David Spade were just phoning it in. From a journalistic perspective, it’s a fascinating read.
I think because NBC is so old world media they don’t subscribe to the idea of “any press is positive press” because it’s still run by people who are in their 50s, and they don’t necessarily think in those terms. They think in terms that are very old-school models, versus how younger people might think, “Oh my God, it’s going viral!”
ABOUT THE EXPERTS
Mary Houlihan is a visual artist, a performer, and comedian, and has been featured on Billy On The Street.
Lorelei Ramirez is a comedian and artist and host of Do Something Variety Show and I'm Afraid Of Dying.
Mandy Stadtmiller is columnist for Penthouse, a contributor to Mashable, and the host of the podcast "News Whore.”
Brad Kim is a comedy writer and the Editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme.
Nimesh Patel is a writer and stand-up comedian, whose work has appeared on Comedy Central and College Humor.
I would say from the show’s perspective, they much preferred to be talked about to the tune of, “[Louis CK’s bit] is edgy but it works.” I think most people have said that. But the first thing I read was The Daily Mail piece. You should read Daily Mail coverage of everything. They would aggregate this panel and then rewrite it as “Aging Reporter Eats Too Much Fucking Hummus.” That’s what made me first look at the monologue, because The Daily Mail said, “Has Louis CK Finally Gone Too Far?” It’s like, have you watched any of his stand-up ever? Have you watched comedy?
I think they’re being given a run for their money by shows like Kroll Show, Inside Amy Schumer, The League, and Broad City which moved from the web to Comedy Central.
Lorelei Ramirez: I think they’re dated in the current format that they use. It’s always so old because they’re just picking at pop culture references. These other show around them, like you mentioned, are kind of making newer formats for comedy and ways to approach subjects. The few times I’ve watched Leslie Jones, I really liked her energy because it’s kind of scary, and I feel like they’ve never had a woman like that before. I like what’s happened. Maybe the controversy’s not good for executives, but it’s really good for the critical perspective that everyone’s looking at things with right now. It’s important in that way.
I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’ I talk about the subjects I talk about because for some reason I can make them funny. The ones I can’t make funny, you don’t hear.
- Jerry Seinfeld, 2015
Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update with
Leslie Jones appears at 6:58. See her responses to the controversy here.
brad Kim: The jokes on Saturday Night Live have gotten edgier, especially the ones openly going into the subject matter of race. Who makes up the writing staff of Saturday Night Live? Yeah, if your face is black or of minority you can get away with lots of jokes. I think the most interesting thing about this is it is actually a great way we can spark a meaningful dialogue about race. The frustrating thing is that it never seems to develop into a constructive dialogue.
Lorelei Ramirez: I think it does, even if it’s negative. Right now everyone just chats online, but the conversations that happen through those avenues are important, and it’s usually started by a negative critique.
Hopes&Fears: Michael Che talked about the White Christmas sketch that got a lot of flack, because it was all white performers, but he’s like, “I wrote this sketch.”
Mandy Stadtmiller: Right. Hannibal Burress was a writer.
Hopes&Fears: I feel like a lot of times the conversations about jokes like this one are less about what the joke is actually trying to say and more about where on the pyramid of privilege the writers and performers land.
Lorelei Ramirez: It’s kind of weird because a lot of these recent episodes of SNL are very uncomfortable when they are making stuff about race and the people in the sketch are white and black and not really any other races.
Nimesh Patel: Only white people are pissed off when they watch that shit.
Mandy Stadtmiller: Yeah, like they’re a white knight.
Hopes&Fears: Do you think it’s comedy fans that get pissed off?
NImesH Patel: It’s people who just watch and think they’re doing something because they’re saying something. Even with this panel it's like, what the fuck are we doing? Nothing! If you just talk about shit nothing’s going to happen. I’m sitting here, but I’m not going to go out and change the world, and neither is this conversation that you’re going to have. Everyone on SNL is doing a great job. It’s really hard to put together 90 funny minutes. That’s the only way it should be judged. Is it funny or not? That’s all that matters. A blogger shouldn’t have an opinion about comedy if they’re not in comedy.
Brad Kim: It’s a pretty uniquely American situation. I’m an immigrant, and when I first came here I started watching comedy. I got really into black stand-up comedy. They make commentaries that are meaningful. It’s only here where people even make attempts to openly discuss race in a curt way. When you start talking social justice, which is a very important thing on its own, when you bring that into the reality of making comedy that’s when it starts becoming tricky.
I don’t know how to respond to the PC crowd in general. I don’t think people intellectualize the stuff that they laugh at. It's just a natural reaction. I can make an off-color remark and make somebody laugh even if they consider themselves politically correct.
- Dave Chapelle, 2003
Mary Houlihan: A lot of times I feel like it’s so annoying when it’s a feminist blog and they are criticizing a woman comedian for not being [feminist] enough. I don’t feel like that’s helping. You should want more people that are like you making stuff instead of tearing down what they are doing.
Lorelei Ramirez: Tomorrow I’m doing this [performance] called FEMx. The concept is that it’s a TEDx talk for womyn spelled with a “y,” but it’s run by these two women who are actually misinformed and they’re overly offensive. On the Facebook page there was a lot of flack from people, mostly white girls, who are taking offense to this. I enjoy observational humor, but I don’t like doing it, so I approach it in a different more fun way where it makes people think, “Are you making fun of me?” That makes people angry, I guess.
Mandy Stadtmiller: I look at [the media] as being an echo chamber that’s just tearing each other to shreds. I’m such a practical realist. I’ve never understood winning a completely irrelevant, idealistic war. People are always going to be people. It’s also just so separate from comedy.
My dad is blind, he was shot in Vietnam and he’s fucked-up-looking, and we grew up just joking about calling people blind fuckers. To us that’s how the trauma was made okay. That’s the biggest release. If I was raised differently I’m sure I would be getting the big outrage boner that people get. You know what I mean? It’s like they’re addicted to manufactured outrage. For me, I always see it as being a coping mechanism for the tragedy and the horror of life.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten the true purpose of humor: to help people cope with the fears and horrors of the world.
Saturday Night Live Sketch "White Christmas" written by
"I felt like at the time there were a lot of diversity issues with SNL." Michael Che told The Huffington Post
Nimesh Patel: I think if you’re offended by something, you’ve never had a real problem. My father left me when I was two, and it hurt me a lot, so there is very little you can say to me that will match whatever that was. Same shit with what Mandy said. Her dad was blind, and she coped with it and she dealt with it. There’s nothing you can probably say to her that’s going to upset her. I’m not saying there’s not a limit between funny and mean. You have to understand that if it’s a comedian then it’s not from a mean place. I’m just trying to be funny. Sorry if it didn’t work.
Mandy Stadtmiller: Vondecarlo Brown, Mrs. Patrice O’Neal, has a new book coming out. She writes all about how Patrice defends the attempt to be funny. Even if he thought it was shit, it’s the attempt.
Nimesh Patel: It’s always these liberals who are like, “We’ll fight for your right to say whatever the fuck you want.” Then the instant you say it, they tell you to shut the fuck up. It’s just the way it is, and it’s sad.
Mary Houlihan: They’re allowed to not like it. They’re not making it illegal to do this stuff. They’re voicing that they don’t like it.
Nimesh Patel: It’s fine, you can voice your opinion the same way I’m voicing my opinion, right? My opinion is not necessarily my opinion. It’s just a joke. I could make fun of people with Down Syndrome, but you will never know that my cousin has Down Syndrome. Maybe you’ve had real problems, but know you’re judging my way of coping with something. Just worry about yourself.
I feel that a lot of racial sketches that I write should have a picture of me in the bottom left-hand corner smiling with thumbs up, saying, 'Listen, it's okay! A black guy wrote this!'
- Michael Che, 2014
Hopes&Fears: But can people always trust that the comedian is well intentioned?
Mary Houlihan: At open mic nights, there are legitimate crazy people that talk about violence to women and all sorts of racist, sexist and homophobic stuff, and you can tell these people don’t even want to be comedians, obviously. Clearly, they don’t have a future in it. Then that makes an environment that some women and guys don’t want to participate in, and that doesn’t really help the demographic.
Lorelei Ramirez: I think people are reacting strongly to things that are inherently racist and sexist. There are newer stand-ups and newer types of comedy where trans people and feminists actually speak out about their issues in a comedic way. And some people treat it in a way that’s old world spirit, where it’s offensive for the sake of being offensive. Louis CK is funny. The pedophile joke was really dumb. The Trevor Noah stuff was overly sexist. It just makes you think, “Whyyy?” [Whether or not you should be saying these things], can you at least admit they were really shitty jokes?
If you really got barred off of TV shows, that would hurt you a little bit. But comedians are like preachers, and they have congregations. As long as you’re good to your congregation, you’ll be fine.
- Chris Rock, 2014
Cover image via wikimedia.org