Is There Even the Slightest Chance That We, As a Nation, Are Becoming Somewhat Humorless?
Maybe just a smidgen?
My main reaction to The Slap is to wonder: Is this something that comedians need to worry about now? Getting cold-cocked by The Fresh Prince after a 20 year-old movie reference? Is it just Will Smith, or do I need to worry about any star of a beloved ‘90s sitcom? If I make a Cider House Rules joke, is there any chance that Joey Lawrence will rush the stage and kick me in the face? Might I one day get piledrived by Urkel in response to a particularly saucy She’s All That reference? We can’t say “no”.
The Oscars were already the gig that no comedian wanted. Knowing that the eyes of Twitter’s most dyspeptic morons would be on the event, countless comedians turned the job down, and the Oscars went hostless in 2019, ‘20, and ‘21. It’s remarkable that comics are shunning a prime-time gig previously filled by legends like Johnny Carson and Bob Hope because there’s a high probability that they’ll get denounced as History’s Greatest Bigot. And I don’t think that a public assault by a man who was presented with a golden statue 20 minutes later will exactly sweeten the pot.
Is America becoming humorless? I don’t know. People who lean “yes” on that question should concede that there are no solid measures indicating that we are, and people who lean “no” should concede that there never could be any solid measures (what metric would capture giggles per capita?). I won’t argue that we’re definitely becoming more humorless; maybe we are, maybe we’re not, maybe there was an Oscars ceremony long ago where Judy Garland hit Jack Benny with a folding chair and we just forgot. I’m going to argue that if we’re becoming more humorless, that’s bad. Because the inability to take a joke is a sign of weakness and fear.
What is comedy? Damned if I know, but please join me in a journey way, way up my own ass as I attempt to find an answer.
Comedy has something to do with the elimination of fear. Primatologist Signe Preuschoft argues that smiling and laughter are derived from primates’ “bared-teeth display” and “play face”, respectively. The bared-teeth display typically indicates submission — it says “I present no threat” — and in some species, it indicates a desire for peaceful interaction. The “play face” only occurs during moments of affection. I don’t know if this establishes that human laughter is a way of saying “I am safe and unafraid,” but scientists in the ‘70s spent a lot of time electrocuting monkeys to get this data, so I feel like we should at least consider it.
The idea that laughter indicates an absence of fear is consistent with the observation that many jokes raise the possibility of danger only to immediately dissipate it. Consider this classic bit:
Attempted murder can be funny! If the murderer is clearly going to fail and if Steve Martin acts like an idiot in a way that says “there’s no actual danger here”.
“Person acting strangely” is the basis of much comedy. Don Quixote is this, I Love Lucy is this, 90% of sketch comedy is “person acting strangely while bystanders are far more patient than they would be in real life.” One classic “person acting strangely” variant is “high-status person acting strangely”. From Jack Donaghy to Archie Bunker to Selina Meyer, comedy characters are often bosses, dads, politicians, and other authority figures who don’t know what they’re doing. We all feel the pinch of authority figures sometimes; it can be cathartic to point out that some powerful people are idiots. And when you combine “authority figure is an idiot” with “but things turn out okay” — as happens in virtually every episode of The Office and King of the Hill, to name just two examples — it can produce memorable comedy.
But comedy isn’t always directed at the powerful. Sometimes, it targets a weak person, which brings me to the villain of this piece: children. Children instinctively mock any perceived difference; probably everyone alive can recall a time from their childhood when they were teased for being different. Of course — returning to the idea that comedy has something to do with eliminating fear — it’s possible to see why a kid might taunt another kid in order to make themselves feel safe. Saying “you’re doing things wrong” is a way of saying “I’m doing things right”; it’s basically a status grab. By taunting a non-conformist, a kid is asserting that they’re following the rules, they’re in the group, and being part of a group makes them powerful and safe. In the herd dynamics of elementary school, mocking a classmate for having the wrong lunchbox is the equivalent of one gazelle tripping another and yelling “Hey lion — eat this one right here!”
Kids have to be taught not to do this. And we typically do teach them; the societal shift against bullying that’s happened in the past few decades is a very good thing. Humor at the expense of the weak or vulnerable is not okay.1 We have several expressions that capture this, including “pick on someone your own size” and “don’t kick someone while they’re down.” And, personally, I’m fine with enforcing this rule with something shy of a live-broadcast beatdown from a guy who once played Muhammad Ali.
So: “Don’t make fun of the weak” is a good rule. When someone says “you can’t make fun of me,” they’re basically saying “I’m weak.” Which is okay. Another sign of societal progress is moving away from the dumbass machismo that requires never admitting weakness. This stupidity is what causes some dudes to respond to any injury smaller than a whale harpoon to the brain with “I’m fine”. We were all weak once, most of us will be weak again, protecting the weak is something a healthy society does.
But let’s also recognize that weakness is not a good state of being. It’s precarious; it doesn’t feel good. Protecting a weak person is Plan B; Plan A should be for the person to be strong. In the context of comedy, a weak person doesn’t get to be in on the fun; they have to be the Jehovah’s Witness kid forced to sit in the library while the rest of the class celebrates a birthday. By labeling a person “protected”, we’re acknowledging that they — unfortunately — can’t enjoy the feeling of safety that comedy provides.
Some people fetishize weakness. There’s a clear connection between weakness and empathy; showing weakness invokes empathy. This is the core of the parent/child bond; when a child shows vulnerability, it triggers something deep inside of us — if it didn’t, then we’d probably ditch the kid next time they pitched a fit in the middle of Target. Empathy protects the weak, but a person with too much empathy (yes, I think a person can have too much empathy) can enable perpetual weakness. And a culture that over-values empathy (yes, I think a culture can over-value empathy2) can cause people to encourage weakness in others so that they can assume the hero protector role.
Let me make this less abstract. In her comedy special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby criticized self-deprecation by gay comics. I can see where she’s coming from: Comedy that stereotyped gay people was common very recently. When I was starting out in the mid-2000s, you’d often see a gay comic doing borderline minstrelry. I completely understand Gadsby’s aversion to comedy that gets a laugh at gay people’s expense.
But she applies her criticism in a way that doesn’t make sense to me. 17 minutes into her act, Gadsby executes an abrupt tonal shift, announcing: “I have to quit comedy.” Here’s her explanation:
“I have been questioning this whole comedy thing. I don’t feel very comfortable in it anymore. … I had built a career out of self-deprecating humor. That’s what I’ve built my career on, and I don’t want to do that anymore. (applause) Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility; it’s humiliation.”
I respectfully disagree with that one thousand percent. Gadsby is ruling out the possibility that healthy self-deprecation could ever come from a gay comic. She’s declaring that gay comics — gay people — can only ever exist “on the margins”. In doing so, she relegates gay people to permanently weak and vulnerable status. I think that’s an inaccurate view of the world and frankly a pretty fucked-up thing to do.
When a comedian self-deprecates, they’re saying “I can take it.” It’s a form of ju-jitsu in which the comic demonstrates strength by admitting weakness; they’re saying “Here are my flaws, but who gives a shit? I’m fine.” The audience laughs because they feel comfortable; they see a person who’s flawed but unafraid. On some primitive level, people get the signal: “We’re all safe here.”
Gadsby seems to believe that no gay person could ever possess that strength. She uses the language of the social justice left (“marginalized communities”) that assumes that certain groups will always be weak and unsafe. While I acknowledge that some people in those groups are sometimes weak and unsafe — and sometimes specifically because of their membership in that group — I can’t over-emphasize how toxic I believe Gadsby’s mindset to be. It’s the polar opposite of empowerment; it’s a plea for empathy that condemns large swaths of humanity to permanent on-the-brink-of-crisis status. Gadsby also indicates that she not only thinks that this state of affairs is true now, but that it will always be true. It’s fatalism in its purest form.
Luckily, most people don’t see the world the way Gadsby does. Many people from “marginalized” groups have found empowerment through comedy. Richard Pryor was the perfect comic for the Black Power ‘70s because he clearly didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought of him. He talked about whatever he wanted to talk about, including lighting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Presented a different way, that story could have been minstrelry, but it was empowering because Pryor was a master of his craft and absolutely fucking bulletproof. Or, fireproof, as the case may be.
Gay entertainers have achieved the same feat. A notable awards show triumph was Neil Patrick Harris’ “Broadway’s Not Just for Gays Anymore” number at the 2011 Tony Awards. It’s worth remembering that when this was performed, gay marriage was illegal in 44 states, and being openly gay had only recently reached not-definitely-a-career-killer status. It was in that environment that Neil Patrick Harris, Adam Schlesinger, and David Javerbaum snuck this six minutes of unmitigated joy past the censors.
I love this; it strikes me as empowerment personified. But I know people who find it insulting. One writer I know called it “gay blackface”, and that's certainly…a perspective. I see it as an unequivocal triumph; I see it as Neil Patrick Harris being openly gay and openly awesome. He’s not apologizing for anything; he’s poking fun at himself and also at all the people in the theatre, who join in on the fun (big Upper West Side laugh for the “liberal intellectuals” joke!). The crowd is emphatically laughing with Harris; he’s completely in charge, utterly bulletproof, and if “Attention every breeder: You’re invited to the theatre” isn’t a great line, then may Will Smith come to my door and smack me straight in the mouth.
The ability to take a joke is a positive trait. A society that places no limits on what’s “fair game” would be cruel, but a society that declares most things off limits would be treating people like children. When people can’t take a joke…well, that’s a shame. I hope those people get to a place where they can let go of their fear, because I’d like them to join in on the fun. I don’t know if our society is getting more humorless or not, but if the recent behavior of the guy who started his career doing funky fresh raps while wearing a sideways baseball hat is any indication, then we might be headed in the wrong direction.
For the record, this is broadly why I think Chris Rock should not have told that joke. Jada Pinkett-Smith didn’t choose to be bald, so for me, that joke is out-of-bounds (to be fair to Rock: I don’t know if he knew that she has alopecia). My more detailed thoughts are here.
I actually thing that we generally under-value empathy. But I also think that some subcultures overvalue empathy.