I’ve been tracking the growing didacticism of today’s art, the tendency of the mainstream culture’s gatekeepers to subordinate esthetic merit to the imperative of blasting a political message that matches the Left’s orthodoxies. Didacticism has been taking over every form of art, from television to movies to fashion to sculpture to poetry. Now it’s coming for the unlikeliest target of all: comedy.
Did I hear you say that there’s no way to make comedy didactic, that this is the ultimate contradiction in terms? True enough, which is why the age of didacticism is coming to destroy comedy altogether—and it is openly proclaiming that fact. The latest buzz in the middlebrow media is a stand-up comedy act that The New York Times praises as “comedy-destroying.”
[Hannah] Gadsby, an Australian comedian, is the creator of ‘Nanette,’ a stage show turned Netflix special that is lacerating in its fury about how women and queer people like her, and anyone else who might behave or look ‘other,’ get treated, dismissed and silenced. She is unflinching about the abuse that they—that she—endured, and the cultural norms that enabled it. She calls out men, powerful and otherwise.
In stark personal terms, she reveals her own gender and sexual trauma, and doesn’t invite people to laugh at it. ‘Nanette’ is an international sensation, the most-talked-about, written-about, shared-about comedy act in years, exquisitely timed to the #MeToo era. And in its success Ms. Gadsby has perhaps pointed the art form of stand-up in an altogether new direction, even as she has repeatedly vowed, onstage, to quit the business….
The comedian Tig Notaro, who chronicled her cancer diagnosis in a special that also changed her life, said she was ‘utterly floored’ by Ms. Gadsby’s hourlong show. ”Nanette’ should be required viewing if you’re a human being,’ she wrote in an email. ‘It really takes days to take in everything she presented, to fully comprehend it all.’ Ms. Gadsby, she added, was disrupting comedy. ‘It’s going to be very interesting to see what comedians do post-‘Nanette,” she wrote. It’s a dividing line. ‘She cleared the table for necessary regrowth.’
So it’s not funny, but it’s “woke,” and that’s what matters. This gives an ominous twist to Notaro’s phrase, “required viewing.” Meaning: it’s not something you want to see, it’s something you have to do, like eating your vegetables.
This is the most extreme expression of a wider trend. Another overview sums it up: “a new wave of comedians doesn’t want to be funny.” This article makes a stab at criticizing this new genre of anti-comedy, but the criticism shows just how deeply the premises of didactic art have become embedded in mainstream culture.
Though some of Gadsby’s jokes may have made light of painful experiences, effectively smoothing ugly trauma into more palatable anecdotes, comedy has a long history of pushing boundaries, dwelling on the darkest aspects of life, and revealing deep, depressing truths. Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Bill Hicks are just a few of the greats who used stand-up to rail against racism, drug laws, and the lack of Social Security or government-protected rights while remaining committed to comedy.
This still accepts the premise that the only possible value of comedy is its function in spreading some higher political message. As opposed to, you know, making people laugh.
Another critique, made in passing and not developed, gets a lot closer to the truth: “Comedians today are predominantly on the left of the political divide and catering to an audience that shares the same views.” Comedians come from the establishment, stay carefully within its accepted views, and even set themselves up as the enforcers of the orthodoxy. And they’d better, because we see what happens to artists and entertainers today if they stray from that orthodoxy even inadvertently.
Did I mention poetry? The poetry editors at The Nation just issued one of those brainwashed-cult-member apology notes—seriously, they apologize not just for their decision but literally for who they are as people—because they published an insufficiently woke poem. Ironically, the point of the poem was supposed to be to draw attention to the plight of the homeless, so it had a didactic political message in the first place. It just got it wrong because championing the homeless is such an old-fashioned cause, and the poet hadn’t kept up with the latest woke fashions.
Imagine how hard it is to try to think creatively when you have to keep in the back of your mind the need to conform to ever narrower and more unpredictable ideological restrictions. Then imagine how much harder it is to tell a joke. Humor is inherently about questioning received opinions and highlighting unexamined absurdities, small and large. Imagine having to watch out to make sure you don’t point out the absurdities that are off-limits for examination.
So maybe this new wave of comedians don’t want to be funny—or maybe they’re just not capable of it anymore, and they’re making a virtue of necessity.
Meanwhile, the old-fashioned comedians who don’t care about the woke restrictions will have to be dethroned, starting with the reigning king of comedy, Jerry Seinfeld. A review of his interview show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”—does it need any explanation?—worries that the show is “extra jarring…right now, given the warm reception that Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ has received.”
‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,’ as a concept, comes from a pretty privileged place: Hey, let’s watch rich people drive around in expensive cars and gab like they don’t have to get to work or deal with any responsibilities! Usually, the conversations are entertaining or substantive enough to distract from that fact. But it’s harder this season—either because of Seinfeld himself, the times in which we are living, or some combination of the two—to overlook how out of touch the whole exercise, including Seinfeld, sometimes seems. No one would ever accuse Seinfeld of being woke, but there are times in ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ when he seems to be the anti-woke.
Seinfeld famously quit performing on college campuses because he was afraid today’s “woke” kids can’t listen to jokes without getting offended. But what happened to those pinch-nosed campus scolds? They graduated and got jobs as television reviewers for culture websites.
At least one other comedian has had enough of this. Michael Che inveighs against “anti-comedy comedy.” “I don’t wanna have to ‘survive’ a comedy special. I wanna laugh. Lets not make this what it’s not.” Che is head writer for “Saturday Night Live,” which also struggles with humor. But maybe he’s part of the reason they occasionally get something right.
Comedy functions, in part, by putting things in a new perspective that highlights the contradictions and incongruities in our lives. No wonder it has to be killed by those who are trying to seal themselves into a cultural bubble of unquestioned absurdity.
Robert Tracinski is a senior writer for The Federalist. His work can also be found at The Tracinski Letter.