I’m a big fan of stand-up comedy, and I’m surprised I haven’t really had an occasion to do a post about it here yet. I’ve started one — one in which I describe every comedian I know of in exactly eight words, because obviously [reasons] — but it might never be finished. In any case, I love my comedy.
And comedy’s been through the wringer a bit recently. Lindy West and Jim Norton debated “rape jokes” earlier this month, in a thoughtful and generally respectful debate that later got posted on the internet and was quickly made the opposite of thoughtful and respectful. Which is what the internet tends to do to things.
You’d guess (correctly) that I come down firmly on West’s side. There’s no way around the truth that while no topic should be off-limits in comedy (or in art generally), there are certain ways of framing certain sensitive topics, and especially this one, that can (and do) shame and encourage the mistreatment of already disadvantaged groups. Any joke about rape of which the victim is the target, in any way? Not okay. West wrote a post about a year ago called “How to Make a Rape Joke” that I think does a really good job of explaining the difference between jokes involving rape that “work” and rape jokes that do not. A lot of people have written a lot more and a lot better about this than I have or can, like West and Patton Oswalt (at Part 3).
There are other (relatively) easy lines to draw, too: generalizing about people of other races, where the other race’s imputed characteristics are the joke (fairly rare now, among white comics); men generalizing about women (still sadly pervasive).
But I’ve been thinking a lot about comedy more generally, and where the line between “funny” and “offensive” falls, or ought to fall, in less clear-cut cases. Because comedians really do need to have basically unfettered access to any topic; comedy’s purpose, as people like Norton point out, is frequently to call attention to all the horrible things about the world, and to take some of their power away by making light of those things. Many comedians need to be able to shock you and disgust you and make you groan and laugh at the same time. There are comedians for whom producing that effect is basically the essence of their art form, and they’re brilliant at it. Not everyone has to like it, of course, but it’s not something that should be shut down wholesale.* August’s post earlier this week made me think about it again too; her point had to do with “blonde jokes” (which, it was a good opportunity to remind myself, are uniformly terrible) and how sexist and demeaning they can be. Poking fun at people who are different, in whatever way, has always been the crutch of the hacks at the bottom of comedy’s barrel.
There has to be a line, however hard it is to find or identify, one that doesn’t apply exclusively to rape jokes. Funny on one side of the line, offensive and off-limits on the other. Of course, a lot of it is a matter of personal taste, too, and I suppose everyone has their own line. Some people are offended by profanity, in which case the “OK” side of their line has Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby and Brian Regan on it and basically nobody else, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But I think I’ve identified The Line, the one place where, at least for me personally, acceptable is on one side and you’re-a-horrible-person-who-shouldn’t-be-allowed-to-talk-in-public is on the other.
And that line is Anthony Jeselnik.
Or rather, he’s just, I mean barely, almost imperceptibly, on the “OK” side of that line.
That’s not going to be a terribly popular choice. A lot of people who think like me hate Jeselnik. He says some of the most shocking and intentionally tone-deaf things you’ll hear from anyone. He’s also one of the most outspoken anti-censorship comics out there; there’s no chance he agrees with me that there even is a line. And he’s made some missteps; I gave up on him for a while after a tweet about the marathon bombing I thought was in incredibly poor taste, and he has a couple other jokes that I think come too close to victim-shaming. But that tweet was quickly removed, and I’ve since listened to more of his material and become convinced (again) that he’s one — maybe the one — who, those few exceptions aside, gets the incredibly fine line between edgy and demeaning.
The topics Jeselnik covers are almost uniformly sensitive topics. Mistreating women and the elderly. Violence toward women and children. Death, including of children. He made a point to open his last album with a track titled “Rape.” Exactly the opposite of everything you’d think I’d stand for.
But if you listen carefully, I don’t think — you might disagree, and I’d respect that — the real punchline is a victim, or a class of people, or anyone but him. The point of nearly every Jeselnik joke, the thing you laugh at, is what an unbelievably, shockingly horrible person he is. Or not Jeselnik, rather, but the character he plays: the joke is that anyone could be so depraved, so stupid, as to honestly believe the things Jeselnik claims to believe. He’s said, “if people think I’m serious, then they won’t laugh,” and I think that’s right; if you’re inclined to agree with anything Jeselnik’s character says, you’ve missed the joke. And at his best, he does just what comedy is supposed to do: he calls attention to the worst parts of society and makes us laugh about them, without asking us to laugh at anyone who suffers because of them.
Consider the following (all from here, which isn’t the best selection but it’ll do):
We just found out my little brother has a peanut allergy, which is very serious I know. But still I feel like my parents are totally overreacting — they caught me eating a tiny little bag of airline peanuts…and they kicked me out of his funeral.
Yesterday I accidentally hit a little kid with my car. It wasn’t serious — nobody saw me.
I’ve got a kid in Africa that I feed, that I clothe, that I school, that I inoculate for 75 cents a day. Which is practically nothing…compared to what it cost to send him there.
These are solid. They’re funny (it might help to hear his delivery). You laugh because you’re shocked; he’s talking about death or child abuse, and as you laugh there’s a should I be laughing at this? sort of moment which is an indispensable part of the experience. But, he’s not saying there’s anything funny about child abuse, or Africa, or poverty, or serious allergies; the funny part is that he really just said that, that he really is that completely horrible (though you know he’s really not).
Compare to this one from Daniel Tosh, who in many superficial ways is kind of a Jeselnik clone (good-looking clean-cut youngish white boys who get by mostly on shock value) and often gets lumped in with him:
If you had to eat another human being to survive, do you think they taste like their ethnic background? Mexicans are spicy? Do you have to have chips and salsa before you bite into one? Chinese people: are you hungry 30 minutes later for more? Let’s go everybody — black people: taste like chicken…**
This is far from the worst Tosh joke, but again, it’s the one I found. Tosh would say (and I suppose Jeselnik would agree) that there’s no real difference here; they’re both saying intentionally offensive things they don’t really believe for a laugh. But where the punchline in Jeselnik’s comedy is (usually) Jeselnik himself, the punchline with Tosh is the group he’s singling out (nearly always an ethnic group, gays, or women), and a stereotype about that group. He’ll often make a few cracks at his own expense, but then immediately moves on to just blankly reciting stereotypes, much like the above. So I guess I’d put that on the other side of the line: what Jeselnik does is shocking and offensive, but he’s the target; what Tosh does is shocking and offensive, but “the other“ is the target.
To me, that makes all the difference. Your mileage may vary, and I respect that; it’s not a topic that has one clear answer we should all be able to agree on, beyond (I’d hope) “jokes at the expense of rape victims are never okay.” I also might be wrong about my evaluation; maybe the difference isn’t as great as I’m making it out to be, maybe Jeselnik crosses the line as badly as anyone (or worse, come to think of it, given how often and relentlessly he does it). But it’s a distinction that makes sense to me right now. For what it’s worth, I’d still prefer comics who get by on truthful observations about actual interactions between actual people, and don’t need to rely on the shock factor at all — Oswalt, Marc Maron, Maria Bamford, John Mulaney — where you don’t often need to worry much about where “the line” is. But there has to be a line, and that’s where (I think) I’m drawing mine.
In any case, comedy is best as a visual thing, so here’s a pretty solid (and extremely NSFW) Jeselnik set to leave you with:
* Nobody should be “shut down,” in the sense of being prevented from speech — we have a whole constitutional amendment about that — but I’d sure like to see rape jokes and the like be shouted down, so that they don’t get to say them on TV or in crowded clubs.
** [Edit:] Two people have told me I’m taking the Tosh joke out of context, that he’s actually making an important point there about the audience’s expectations and discomfort about race generally. Watching the video, I agree. If you can tough it out to the real punchline, it’s actually a pretty good, thought-provoking joke. But the quote on Comedy Central’s website — click on the link just above where I quote him — omits the “real punchline,” too. Which isn’t fair to Tosh, but it gets to the issue, I think — to many of the people who really enjoy Tosh’s comedy, the laugh lines are the stereotypes themselves.