‘At least we’ll have good comedy,’ liberals and leftists sighed to themselves when Donald Trump was elected. If anything, the opposite has been the case. Topical comedy has spiraled into a drain of irrelevance: soggy, flimsy, colorless, disposable.
Hannah Gadsby’s self-consciously serious Netflix special Nanette was embraced by progressives and denounced by conservatives for explicitly spurning jokes in favor of moralism. Frankly, I was grateful that Ms Gadsby was honest. Comedians have long been flattering their audiences into believing they are good, wise people with good, wise opinions and at least Gadsby did not pretend Nanette was funny. Others sprinkle jokes on a big pan of half-baked propaganda.
Donald Trump has accelerated all the worst trends in American comedy. To be clear, I am not complaining about Trump being satirized. I am not even calling for ‘balance’. More jokes about liberals and progressives would not make up for how awfully, agonizingly bad satire of Trump have been.
The Bush administration encouraged comedians to focus on two forms of jokes: jokes with the punchline that politicians are stupid and jokes with the punchline that politicians are liars. President Trump is so cheerfully unsubtle and crass, and so unashamedly indifferent to objective truth, that one might as well ‘satirize’ a dog by portraying it as licking its own balls. Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation on Saturday Night Live fails to illuminate the President’s preposterousness and if anything understates it. The genuine article, displayed in his tweets and quotes, is much funnier.
There is also an excessive focus, created by political shallowness and the undeniable market for impersonations, on what politicians say and how they say it rather than on what they do. Conservatives often used to complain about comedians not satirizing Barack Obama as they had George W. Bush but there was not much humor to be wrung from the man. ‘Bushisms’ themselves had grown stale before the end of George W.’s first term and Obama was more dignified than his predecessor. There was more dark comedy in the US, Britain and France rampaging into Libya in the name of human rights and then skedaddling, leaving the country to slave markets and jihadism, than there was in everything that Obama ever said.
Progressive comedians have also doubled down on their political correctness. In such times as ours, they seem to think, one must be hypersensitive about enabling forces of reaction. Crack a joke about ‘marginalized groups’ and you are not simply offending but endangering them; somewhere between Bernard Manning and Julius Streicher.
One could make the case, perhaps, that Louis CK’s personal indiscretions should make him unemployable in the entertainment industry but when comedians wrung their hands over his mild jokes regarding Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors who have become ubiquitous in the media they showed off the chastity belts they have tightened around their comic imaginations. If you cannot see the humor of not just progressive students like David Hogg but a conservative student like Kyle Kashuv posing as wise sages for the entertainment of adults who should know better, then you have no sense for it.
On the other hand, there are dangers to reveling in being ‘politically incorrect’ as well. A Montreal comedian was booed offstage for telling the audience at the Just for Laughs festival that ‘comedy’s not about racism or sexism – people here to laugh.’ He might have been correct except that he was humorlessly lecturing the audience as well.
Braying Englishman Ricky Gervais is among the worst offenders here. No one who has seen his masterpiece The Office could deny that he is blessed with comic genius yet his behavior has become eerily reminiscent of that of the egotistical, attention-seeking David Brent. ‘This isn’t your safe space,’ he announces on Twitter as if he has the daring insights of a Lenny Bruce. His most dangerous idea is ‘religion is bad’ and Richard Dawkins got more laughs out of making that argument.
‘Offense is good,’ Gervais once said, ‘It makes people think. It makes people confront an issue. And just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right.’ Equally, giving offense doesn’t mean you’re right, or funny, and if I call somebody’s mother fat and offend, no useful purpose has been served. No subject is off-limits but the execution of a joke determines whether it is funny or pathetic.
If there is one overall problem with comedy, it is pandering. A lot of comedians are not trying to surprise their audiences but to flatter them; not trying to say what is true but what is fashionable; not trying to be funny but trying to be important.
In explaining comedy, one risks, as Christopher Hitchens said of his attempt to explain why Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim was funny, immersing oneself in a bog embarrassment, but I hope that my attempt will not submerge me past my waist. In an essay on William Golding, the poet Craig Raine wrote of the novelist’s ‘unpredictable inevitability’. ‘We cannot guess what is coming in advance,’ Raine wrote, ‘Nor can we refuse our assent to what he imagines.’ Good comedy is like that: strange enough to surprise us, true enough to be compelling.
Take Monty Python’s ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’. John Cleese contorting his long legs is inherently funny but the sketch would not have been so special had he not been strutting through a keen-eyed parody of British officialdom. Take the surreal Twitter satirist @dril. One of his more beloved tweets reads as follows:
‘who the fuck is scraeming “LOG OFF” at my house. show yourself, coward. i will never log off’
who the fuck is scraeming "LOG OFF" at my house. show yourself, coward. i will never log off
— wint (@dril) September 16, 2012
The image of a keyboard warrior howling through their window is inherently funny but, again, it would not have been memorable if it was not so reflective of the self-important and embattled attitude that social media arguments encourage us to form.
I am not comedian, and so, to some extent, and am being a backseat driver, but Kenneth Tynan said the critic is someone who cannot drive but knows the route. Comedians should stop trying to be activists, and commentators, and philosophers (or, if, like Gadsby, they feel these are their true callings should embrace them.) It is in being funny, for the sake of being funny, that they have the best chance of being profound.
Comedians should also stop trying to mainline the news. Just as drugs have rarely made an artist more imaginative, the news rarely makes comedians more hilarious. The deeper, darker and more comic seams of irony and surrealism do not lie in Trump misspelling tweets but the deeper, darker forces of our collective neuroses and collective life.