In the old days, comedians like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce put their careers on the line and opened doors for what was acceptable to talk about on stage. Today’s comedians are taking those same doors and slamming them shut.
This isn’t one of those heartwarming religious things about a door closing and a window opening. No, comedians seem to be sealing the entire house, with audiences stuck inside. The current stand-up climate features a divide between those who want to establish a set of rules in comedy (because what’s funnier than rules?), and those who believe comedy should explore every light and dark crevice of our thoughts, regardless of how people might react. This comic-on-comic violence makes me sick.
There was a time when comedians actually admired other comics who did really dark jokes, and would say something like, “I could never do that, but you’re good at it.” We often loved what we couldn’t do ourselves, and respected a harsh joke because it usually had to be much funnier than a non-threatening joke in order to get away with a laugh. No one’s going to heckle you because of your bit about Skittles or Wolverine.
Today, it’s the comedians who will walk out, and attack you on Twitter as a means of signaling what a wonderful human being they are. I tend to react to them like Michael Corleone finding out that Fredo betrayed the family.
Attacking comedians online in a way that jeopardizes their ability to get work is totally against the made-up code. Chapter four, section eight clearly outlines this. There are enough humorless writers who make it their business to destroy comedians who offend them; we don’t need other comics doing it as well.
Aside from not stealing jokes and pretending that the club owner is funny, there are no real rules to comedy. Making rules for stand-up is as unfunny as whiny articles defending comedy like this one. Once you make rules for stand-up, it all falls apart, because there’s always something that upsets people and polls can’t be taken before the show to find out (maybe the waiters could do it).
A joke isn’t a statement of fact. It doesn’t need to make people feel comfortable or reassure them. Demanding that a comic only joke about certain things is as absurd as forbidding painters from using the color red because it reminds people of blood (unless it’s actually their own blood, which is a separate issue).
With certain types of comedians, the joke is often in being the jerk who’s exploring dark thoughts many of us have but won’t admit. It’s like a professional diver leading you through shark-infested waters, whether it’s Garry Shandling’s old joke about watching two ugly people kiss or Dave Chappelle’s recent material on Cosby or Doug Stanhope’s bit about maybe it being good when celebrities die before they get old and lose their talent.
Comedy is unnecessarily held to higher standards than is every other art form. We watch television shows that use numerous types of horrific violence as entertainment. Drama is no more respectful of tragedy than comedy; both art forms draw from the same communal well. An actor pretending to be a killer is not taking the great scourge of murder any more or less seriously than a comedian doing a bit about it. It all comes from a similar place (the brain, I’m told).
Cancer, suicide, kids — I’ve lost people to them and written jokes about them. But even if I didn’t have some personal connection (and I don’t require it of others), it wouldn’t matter. The joke doesn’t even have to, as they say, “mean well.” If you had a funny, clever thought about a sad, tragic thing, I want to hear it, so I can laugh and then get jealous that I didn’t write it myself.
The mere act of establishing rules mistakenly assumes that an art form is done progressing, that this Tide Pod-eating generation somehow knows better than all who came before and all who will come after. We don’t, and doing so limits the experimentation in young comedians.
It’s just so heartwarming that groundbreakers like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce were arrested for words so today’s soft comedians could talk about comedy being problematic in prison-like safe spaces. Come on, people, you’re not supposed to take yourselves too seriously until the end of your career. Comics should be the kids in the back of the class cracking off-color jokes, not the hall monitor sitting up front reporting them. That kid was lame.