My favorite comedy critic and columnist is Jason Zinoman at the New York Times. He can make anything comedy-related interesting and eye-opening — like this old piece describing the evolution of a joke. He’s a good person to follow on Twitter, too.
But I did not agree with his most recent piece, “Political Correctness Isn’t Ruining Comedy. It’s Helping.”
We are living in the age of the joke controversy. On the Internet, they seem to arrive with the frequency of subway trains. But despite what you might have heard, a new political correctness is not ruining the art of comedy. In some quarters, it may be helping…
Does fear of backlash make some comics self-censor? Probably, but if the possibility of blowback makes artists think twice before delivering a rape joke, that’s a good thing. Comedians have never been able to joke about provocative subjects without repercussions, and what’s often overlooked is how, during the past few decades, the ability of comics to push the line of good taste for a national audience has actually dramatically increased.
He cites Trevor Noah, Lena Dunham, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Schumer as people who survived joke controversies. There’s a bit of a contradiction between that first Zinoman piece I linked above, which shows how much work and revision goes into crafting jokes, and brushing off the effects of risking Internet storms for even the most slightly provocative joke. But he makes a good case that there are actually more opportunities to reach a national audience with transgressive humor now than there were in decades past.
Mostly he frames this around a discussion of Anthony Jeselnik’s terrific new special, “Thoughts and Prayers.” Senior writer Rich Cromwell loved it so much he wrote a piece headlined, “Anthony Jeselnik Is The Greatest Comic Who Has Ever Lived.”
In the hour-long show, featuring 40 minutes of dark stand-up and 20 minutes of personal stories about his approach to comedy, Jeselnik leaves no lines uncrossed. He embodies the advice of George Carlin, who said the role of a comedian is to find such lines and “cross them deliberately.” Jeselnik definitely identifies them before proceeding to trounce over them with reckless abandon. But in a day and age when thoughtcrime is real, we need comedians unbound by boundaries, brave souls who will stroll around a stage and make jokes about dead babies.
I just watched the special, and I loved it. I am already a big fan of Jeselnik, and this was my favorite comedy special in years.
But it wasn’t great because he crossed lines or was brave or took on political correctness. Yes, he’s very dark, which I like. At one point he actually has to stop the show to explain why there are so many jokes about dead babies. Because basically the show is just joke after joke after joke about dead babies.
It was great because Anthony Jeselnik is one hell of a joke writer. He’s efficient and likes word play. I’m a sucker for such one-liners, also enjoying Demetri Martin and the old Zack Galifianakis. In an era where so many comedians riff in the general direction of a joke, he actually tells them. I appreciated this explanation of the difference from a 2013 New York Times Magazine piece about Jack Handey:
Maria Semple, a writer for “S.N.L.” and “Arrested Development” and the author of the novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” spent a long time on the phone with me trying to explain what it is about Handey’s comedy that makes him different from almost anyone else writing comedy today. “In the rewrite room,” she finally said, “we used to say, ‘It smells like a joke.’ That’s the scourge of comedy these days. It smells like a joke, but there’s no actual joke there. I’m not the comedy police, but you watch a movie, and everyone’s laughing, and then you shake it out and you realize, ‘There’s no joke there!’ ” But in Handey’s novel, she said, “I don’t think four lines go by without a killer joke. These are real jokes, man. They don’t just smell like jokes.”
Jeselnik tells jokes. He’s a disciplined joke writer, working on at least three jokes each day, and it shows. I did find the topics of his stand-up routine — which included the aforementioned dead babies but also pedophilia, sex offenders, masturbating, puppy killing, domestic abuse, adultery, serial killers, cancer victims, the victims of the Challenger space shuttle, and Nazis — to be shocking, and so I frequently gasped “no!” before laughing.
But he’s good because he’s funny. The line-crossing, such as it is, is definitely not about political correctness making him stronger. Because it’s almost a fake bravery. It’s part of the shtick, and I love it, but is it brave, really? Nobody believes he’s actually decapitating babies or striking a blow for those who do. He’s not trying to challenge our thinking about puppy killing or Nazis or else we wouldn’t be laughing so hard.
Perhaps it’s worth remembering what Groucho Marx said about crossing boundaries: “An amateur thinks it’s really funny if you dress a man up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair, and give the wheelchair a push that sends it spinning down a slope towards a stone wall. For a pro, it’s got to be a real old lady.”
At one part of the routine, Jeselnik actually addresses the issue of political correctness hurting comedy. He talks about how the joke police try to keep you from making jokes about certain groups. So he goes there: You can’t make fun of transgendered people. Too sensitive, he says. “You can’t even call them chicks with dicks anymore. Nope — you have to call them men who talk too much.”
It’s a fairly light joke, but it’s not about transgendered individuals but about women. It’s not exactly proving the point that political correctness isn’t hurting comedy, given that half of the problems we have now are about policing even the slightest joke about trans issues. It’s not, it turns out, “going there,” but more like “kind of going there and then deciding not to bother.” Perhaps I should mention that Jeselnik had a much better joke making fun of women earlier in his set when he said he met a super hot woman and he asked her what she did. She said she was a brain surgeon. “I was impressed,” he notes. “Because not many women can do sarcasm.” But there were no good trans jokes.
I don’t need Anthony Jeselnik to go after sacred cows. I like him the way he is. I just don’t want to be told that he’s demonstrating that political correctness isn’t hurting comedy, which is about stuff quite separate from his routine and approach.
And I should mention that his social commentary in the last third of the show is worth the price of admission. He used to perform the public service of joking about tragedy on the day of a given tragedy. “I don’t believe in too soon. I’m on a tight schedule,” he explains. So he made totally inappropriate jokes on the day of the Boston bombing and his bravest joke was the one he told in the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting. He makes a really good point about how the victims of such tragedies do not need protection on that day, because they’re not on Twitter, where these jokes are made. Nobody has ever been putting on a tourniquet wondering, “Are we trending?”, he notes. Instead he’s going after another group entirely. That group (of which I might be considered a tangential member) isn’t really worth going after, and I don’t even agree with his particular beef against them. Those of us who pray or make public note of our prayers aren’t really that powerful, but whatever. I still liked it and loved his storytelling and challenging commentary. More, please.
And a Note About My Girl Amy Schumer
One of the hottest comedians of the year is Amy Schumer, and her new special Amy Schumer: Live At The Apollo just started running on HBO. I enjoyed it, but I actually think the case could be made that political correctness is hurting her comedy. Her TV show “Inside Amy Schumer” is a much better forum for her than a lengthy stand-up special. She and her team craft some really thought-provoking comedy about sex, race, female dynamics, and the general culture.
This special was limited solely to raunchiness, double standards about sexual attractiveness, and body humor. Even that description might make it seem broader than it was. Schumer has previously pushed the boundaries of culture and race to greater and lesser effect, but she steered clear of that in the special. She pretty much told jokes about herself with one extended riff on Kevin James. These are very safe targets. Even when she is the target of her jokes, feminists get upset and say it’s sexist. But they do it much less than if she were making broader social commentary.
So I’m not convinced that political correctness is helping comedy. The concern about it is warranted. Which is not to say that this is entirely new. There have always been censors prowling around comedians and policing their comedy. It’s just that when the censors were right-wing religious types, we used to recognize them better as such and sense their threats to free expression. Comedians have always had to be careful with their public persona contra the censors. But the space to be free from the censors, even to try out jokes that get discarded, is shrinking and it shows.