The hottest trend in stand-up comedy is to fill as much time as possible on a political soapbox, and perform no actual comedy. The new rock-star comedians praised by progressive millennials do not make uniquely funny observations about life, but reveal deeply personal tragedies to their audience, usually with a strong call to social action. They seem to have one, strong characteristic in common: They are not funny. That’s not an opinion, that is the comedians’ intention.
Late-night comedy shows have elected themselves the educators of the masses. Jimmy Kimmel famously cried on his show after a terrifying health crisis involving his infant son. Through tears, he used the situation to tell his television audience how much he believed in universal health care. John Oliver has been lecturing his audience about his personal ideology for years, with ever-diminishing regard for how funny his material actually is. Michelle Wolf is so aware she’s a copy of her politically charged peers that she actually made fun of herself on her own show.
Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby recently found huge mainstream acknowledgement with her Netflix special, “Nanette.” During the special, Gadsby announces her distaste for making jokes, saying they belittle her personal traumatic past, and that she will no longer make them. She meant it. The rest of the special was a retelling of the awful things that have happened to her, complete with cutting emotion, and several political calls to action.
“Nanette” is not the only popular special with almost no laughs. Carmen Esposito recently released her hour-long special, “Rape Jokes,” which covers her personal tragedies and grief and hysteria over the election of Donald Trump. Both specials are widely respected and loved by their intended audiences of very liberal, Trump-loathing fighters for social justice.
“Saturday Night Live” head writer Michael Che is not on board with this comedy movement. Without naming any comedian or show, Che took to Instagram to rant about Netflix releasing specials as “comedy” that contain no comedy. He suggested Netflix create a new category for the joke-less specials called “standup tragedy.” Che is completely right. His may not be the politically correct opinion in the age of hysteria, but comedy specials should definitely be funny.
Applause has replaced laughter as the metric for successful comedy. Wolf explains, “Writing jokes is hard. It’s, I mean, really hard. You know what’s easier? An earnest plea.” She’s right: putting together a monologue of jokes, or an hour for a Netflix special, is a painstaking process with uncertain results.
The one holding the microphone has all the power, and saying something incendiary about Trump is a guaranteed way to get a televised audience to applaud. Even better is to get the audience to applaud your bravery for sharing a story about something terrible. Who needs laughter when you can use your broadcast time to lazily slam the president or talk about a rape and be hailed as a hero?
Comedy-less comedians have also invaded social media. Once followed for their hilarious, quick-hit takes and goofy photos, many have traded comedy for social activism. Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, Michael Ian Black, Adam McKay, and many others have taken on new careers of outrage and calls to action, while indefinitely suspending their attempts to be funny. It feels like a bait-n-switch for those who have followed them to laugh a few times a day. They use their substantial visibility to push politics onto their fans, who are definitely not there for a comedian’s political prowess.
It’s not impossible to be funny when joking about politics, even partisan politics. John Mulaney, no fan of Trump, perfectly captured the humor of the Trump presidency in his joke about a horse being loose in a hospital. George Carlin had a huge fanbase who loved his breathless political rants. Other successful comedians, like Ellen Degeneres, have woven in personal politics, but never at the sacrifice of being funny.
Stand-up with no jokes is simply not comedy. Comedians work lifetimes in dingy clubs and open mics, finding any way to make people laugh. They don’t do it because they love the infrequent pay or erratic schedules. They do it because they love comedy.
It can’t be encouraging to see fellow comics reach the summit, only to declare “I don’t want to make jokes anymore, I want to tell sad stories and talk about how mad I am.” In clubs, there is a word for when a comedian performs a stand-up set with no laughs: Bombing.
This cannot be the new frontier in stand-up. I have been to countless comedy shows and open mics and have never once heard a comedian choose to drop his or her jokes to make a political statement. Real comedians love comedy, and they shouldn’t have to worry that making people laugh isn’t popular right now, because it’s always popular.
Being a leftist shill should not be the new normal. Over the years, comedians have fought against infringement of free speech, decency laws, and many other obstacles in their search of the biggest laugh. If these joke-less former comedians want to remain on their political soapbox, fine, but they need to make room for people who want to make us laugh.