The Religious Left is Turning Comedy into Christian Rock
This wave of censorship is different
I have said the n-word. I have argued at length that Gavroche -- the plucky street urchin from Les Mis -- should have been thrown in jail, because he’s a pickpocket. I have looked an 80 year-old woman straight in the eyes and said “Hey Betty White: Shut the fuck up.”
The only reason I haven’t suffered Hester Prynne-style banishment for these things is because I did them while I was doing standup. I was on stage, in the one spot on Earth where a person is encouraged -- and sometimes even mildly paid --to say the unsayable. People laughed when I said those things, because the irony was understood, the taboo-breaking was titillating, and -- most importantly -- because that old lady really did need to shut the fuck up. That crowd didn’t come to a hotel basement in rural Virginia and pay five dollars to listen to her.
Every comedian knows that comedy is going through...something. Matt Yglesias dubbed this era “The Great Awokening”, and, sure: Great Awokening, Itty-Bitty Cultural Revolution -- call it whatever you want. I’d like a name that captures how much the movement resembles a religion (more on that later), but I don’t really care about the name. What I care about is the climate of censorship that’s changing comedy.
Clashes between comedy and censorship aren’t new; they’re the reason you know Lenny Bruce’s name even though you don’t know any Lenny Bruce jokes. But this wave of censorship feels different. And I think it is different, for three reasons: It’s left-wing, its rules are unknown, and it’s actualized via Twitter, the most effective tool for swift and arbitrary punishment since the guillotine. There’s been plenty of analysis of this moment, but not much that spells out the specific ways that this climate seems almost laboratory-designed to neuter comedy.
Left-Wing Censorship Hurts Comedy More than Right-Wing Censorship
Most comedians are on the left. Why? I don’t really know. If we’re talking about comedy writing, then part of the story has to be that writing attracts soft-handed dweebs who listen to NPR and name their pets after jazz musicians. I’m one of these nerds, and at the risk of blowing your mind: I’m liberal. But even in the more -- for lack of a better term -- Budweiser-friendly world of standup, more comics are on the left than the right. And the ones on the right lean libertarian; not many are Mike Pence-style religious conservatives, i.e. the type of person who’s made uncomfortable by the brash sexuality of the green M&M.
Right-wing censorship can be good for a left-wing comic’s image. It turns you into Kevin Bacon in Footloose, the rash young buck challenging the tight-sphinctered forces of oppression. It’s a dog-bites-man situation; we all recognize the dynamic and cheer for the downfall of the old order, even when the old order is represented by the inherently-likable John Lithgow.
But left-wing censorship -- to a left-wing comic -- is in-group censorship, which makes it completely different. The impulse to conform to group norms has deep evolutionary roots; all of us are descended from people who didn’t piss off the group so much that they got left out on an ice floe, or thrown into a volcano, or whatever the local custom happened to be. In-group censorship can also impose a career penalty -- if a left-wing comic with a left-wing audience ignites a left-wing dustup, that’s big trouble. Even a mostly-survived cancellation attempt -- imagine a Twitter storm that causes a comedian’s popularity to drop by 20 percent -- is an outcome that most comics will be desperate to avoid. That 20 percent could be the difference between your movie getting made or not getting made, between Netflix picking up your special or not, or -- at my level of comedy -- the difference between having a steady writing job that pays well and pitching ideas for a TruTV series starring Ken Bone.
Nobody Knows the Rules
I am 100 percent certain that nobody really knows many of the rules we’re supposed to be following. For example: What, exactly, is the rule about which actors can play whom? There was a whole thing about white actors voicing bi-racial cartoon characters, and the white actors were replaced with black ones. But the characters were still bi-racial and -- let’s not forget -- fucking cartoons. Twitter gave the thumbs-up to not-Asian Maya Rudolph playing half-Asian Kamala Harris, but not-Asian Emma Stone playing a half-Asian character was treated as the Crime of the Century. Does anyone know: Could a Mongolian actor play a Chinese character, or can they only play Mongolians? If it’s the latter, sucks to be that Mongolian actor! Can a half-Indian actor play a completely-Indian character, and if not, should we cancel Ben Kingsley? Fred Armisen is a German-Korean-Venezuelan-American who grew up partly in Brazil; can he play anyone on Earth other than himself?
Nobody knows the rules, and even worse: Justice is being applied ex post facto. At some point in the early-to-mid-2010s, the word “blackface” stopped meaning “minstrelry” and started meaning “any time face paint is used.” The change in meaning is not, by itself, odd; standards change, and words evolve. What’s odd is that it was treated as self-evident that the new definition had always been the definition, and also that the definition had always been universally understood. The fact that many, many comedians -- most of them with sterling lefty bona-fides -- were compelled to apologize for violating the new definition was not treated as evidence that, whatever the standard might be today, the standard was different 10-20 years ago. These instances were treated as unfathomable acts of individual racism. Several of the apologies conveyed a sense of “how could I” that was never paired with “it was probably because, at the time, virtually nobody in the world saw things that way.”
It’s worth remembering that the fear of arbitrary justice is why humans began writing down laws to begin with. But there is no Hammurabi’s Code of Wokeness outlining clear laws and punishments. We’re all flying blind, and people are terrified of making a misstep. So they play it very, very safe.
Twitter Has Made Mob Justice Convenient and Fun
Anyone can join a hashtag movement. If you use a hashtag, your tweet is -- ipso facto -- part of that movement. It doesn’t matter if your tweet is off-topic, counterproductive, or just nuts -- if you tweet “Hey why did Alvin of The Chipmunks try to get with human girls? #Kony2012” well...that tweet officially becomes part of the Kony 2012 movement. Hashtags are clouds: amorphous, constantly-moving, and without discernible borders.
Which is to say: These are just mobs. They’re unorganized, unaccountable, unthinking mobs. Twitter creates and empowers mobs in ways that would have been impossible just 15 years ago. As recently as the mid-2000s, you still had to look up a phone number, dial the phone, and talk to an actual human being if you wanted to complain about seeing a boob during the Super Bowl. And that’s if you even saw the boob; you might have missed it. These days, you would not miss the boob; your friends, with the help of Twitter’s inflammatory-material-promoting algorithm, would immediately alert you to boob’s menacing presence. Within minutes, your peer group would initiate an intense competition to see who can express the most moral outrage at the dastardly tit. You -- not wanting to appear to condone the wayward bazoom -- would soon be threatening to boycott the NFL, CBS, Janet Jackson, and -- what the hell? -- Janet’s old pal MC Skat Kat, just to cover your bases. And all of this could be done with relative anonymity, meaning you wouldn’t have to suffer the moral anguish inherent in person-to-person confrontations such as -- for example -- looking an 80 year-old woman in the eyes and telling her to shut the fuck up.
Add these three factors up, and you get mobs that are effective, arbitrary, and unaccountable. This is not like the censorship of years past -- this isn’t some Baptist minister with a radio show in Kansas complaining about Goldie Hawn wearing a bikini on Laugh-In. This is changing the medium: It’s creating a habit of self-censorship, which is giving rise to a new form of ultra-safe comedy.
Comedians talk a lot about risk. We like comics who take risks; it’s the Lenny Bruce/Kevin Bacon/John Lithgow thing again. Taking a risk -- saying something controversial and getting the crowd to go with you -- is probably the most exciting thing a comic can do. But we call it “taking a risk” for a reason; you might lose the crowd, and if you lose the crowd, you’re screwed. In recent years, the risk/reward calculus has changed a lot -- it’s now almost never worth it to take a risk, because the cost of failing has skyrocketed.
Consider late-night comedy, where I worked for six years (I was a writer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver). In a genre once famous for being the only place on TV for edgy, off-beat comedy -- think SNL in the ‘70s or Letterman in the ‘80s -- there’s now every incentive to play it safe. For starters, the stakes are high; each show has dozens of people on staff making a decent-to-good living, and if the show gets cancelled, that all ends. Also, jokes are plentiful; the jokes-written to jokes-aired ratio at Last Week Tonight was probably about 30:1. This affects the risk/reward calculus, because there’s always a safer option. Imagine you’re a late-night host, and you’re reading a draft script. You ask yourself: “Should I do this joke -- which is funny, but there’s a one-in-five chance that the crowd will ‘oooo’ instead of laugh, and a one-in-a-hundred chance that Twitter or Vulture will give me shit for it tomorrow -- or should I do that joke, which is perfectly fine and entails no risk whatsoever?” I can’t pretend that I’d choose the first joke very often.
Late-night shows also have to deal with what I call the “Risk Minimization Industrial Complex”. These are lawyers, producers, and sensitivity readers -- people whose job is to review the show and minimize risk. Please note: Their job is not to mitigate risk. To mitigate risk means to reduce it to a reasonable level. The RMIC exists to minimize risk; their mission is to pummel risk into a fine powder, and then crush that powder beneath the heel of their boot. The only career-limiting move a person in the RMIC can make is to say something is okay, and then it turns out to not be okay. They will never get in trouble for erring in the opposite direction. The RMIC doesn’t control the show -- they can be ignored, and often are -- but they’re constantly in the host’s ear.
The sensitivity reader thing really is as bonkers as people imagine it to be. I have sympathy for these twerps; I, too, was once a low-paid, fresh-out-of-college content editor. And I understand the dynamic: If your boss sends you something, and you send it back with no comments, then it looks like you either didn’t do your job or aren’t needed. So, you find something -- anything -- to flag. Most of the comments we got from sensitivity-readers were reasonable, a handful were helpful, and a smattering were batshit insane. My two favorites were “that joke is offensive to Florida” (if we can’t make fun of Florida, then we, as a species, are lost) and “we shouldn’t say ‘you’d have to be blind not to see…’, because some legally-blind people can make out shapes, so it’s ableist to suggest that blind people can’t see.” Yep...that happened!
Of course, jokes are only one part of a late-night show; there are also “takes” and “angles”, i.e. what’s being said in a broader sense. These are increasingly important because of the recent explosion of politically-oriented late-night shows. For about a decade, the only political late-night shows were The Daily Show and Politically Incorrect/Real Time with Bill Maher. In 2005, The Colbert Report was added to the mix. In the past five years, I count 171 of these shows on the air! There aren’t 17 on right now -- Straight Talk with Jim Brewer recently got the ax, and Second Opinion with That Guy From the “Dude You’re Gettin’ a Dell” Ads is on hiatus -- but there are a lot more than there used to be.
Political comedy shows have become part of our national dialogue. Now, I generally don’t trumpet the power of comedy as a driver of change; people sometimes act like the Nixon administration was brought down by an especially-saucy Smothers Brothers skit. But these shows have some relevance; they’re part of the conversation. What’s being said matters. And that makes self-censorship a pretty-serious problem. Jokes are just jokes; if my Florida joke gets spiked, who really cares? But a climate in which only takes that are known to be safe make it to air seems deeply unhealthy. I do think it’s a problem that 30 Rock had to remove a bit where the angle was: “Blackface is bad.” Don’t we want people to say “blackface is bad”? Isn’t that, in fact, part of how we establish the norm that blackface is bad? The new calculus is: “If it’s controversial, just don’t touch it.” Which means that some things that probably should be said won’t be.
The Rise of “Christian Rock Comedy”
Many people -- John McWhorter probably most prominently among them -- have observed that wokeness resembles a religion. Of all the takes on wokeness I’ve heard, this is the one I agree with the most.
I’m from a heavily-religious area (the Tidewater region of Virginia). From my perspective, the trappings of wokeness are instantly-recognizable as the trappings of religiosity. Both use idiosyncratic language to signal their beliefs; Christians say “blessed” and “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” (does anyone have a business relationship with Jesus Christ?), while woke people say “systemic racism” and “bodies”. Both claim to believe (though probably don’t actually believe) obvious bullshit; for Christians, it’s Adam and Eve, for woke people, it’s that America in 2021 is indistinguishable from Alabama in 1950. Both are committed to evangelism (“spread His love”, “silence is violence”). And both view virtually every action they take -- including and especially entertainment choices -- as an opportunity to broadcast their belief system.
For the record: In both cases, I get it. I get that people have sincerely-held beliefs, and that they do what they feel they need to do in order to be a good person. I recognize that many of their actions -- including ones that frustrate me -- come from a good place, and that they’re driven by a compulsion to do what they think is right. I get that, and I honestly respect it.
That doesn’t mean that I’m tickled pink when they walk into a comedy club. Religious/woke people will use your set as an opportunity to assert their identity to everyone within earshot. I used to have a joke that mentioned Ruth Bader Ginsburg in passing; I had to change it because perfunctory dorks who wear their political beliefs like a sassy hat would interrupt my flow to yell “WOOO!” at RBG’s name. Similarly, the mere mention of Nazis might elicit a disruptive “hissssss!” Yes: Hissing -- which I had thought died out with silent films -- is making a comeback. And, tragically, much of this performative puritanism comes from young people, who should be out having twisted sex and finding new things to cram into a vape pen.
It all reminds me of high school. In high school, some of my religious friends were into Christian rock. And, obviously, music is subjective, and we can never truly deem any music “good” or “bad”. But that being said: Christian rock sucks every dick in the world, this point is beyond debate.
Christian rock’s fatal defect is its promise not to offend. It’s almost an oxymoron; doesn’t “rock” imply some critical level of rebelliousness, kind of like how cheese has to have 50% milkfat to be labeled “cheese”? And doesn’t the “Christian” part nullify that claim -- isn’t that an explicit promise to never violate a set of agreed-upon beliefs? It is, and that was what my friends liked about it: It was safe. It would not cause their parents or peers to view them in a negative light, and it would never challenge them.
An increasing number of people seem to demand that same promise from their comedy. And an increasing number of comedians seem willing to make that promise. These comics aren’t just staying within the agreed-upon boundaries of the dialogue; they’re signaling that they always will stay within those boundaries. Like with Christian Rock, safety becomes a selling point. We also shouldn’t be naïve about the fact that, in many cases, there’s money to be made by branding yourself as woke. Some comedians are happy to sell wokeness; it means they can deliver less humor -- and humor is hard -- and more “correct” opinions, which are easy. And, hey: People are free to like whatever they like, more power to them, no judgement from me. But on the other hand: Judgement from me, because to my ear this Christian Rock Comedy sounds a lot like the Jars of Clay shit my friends used to listen to in high school.
There’s room for artistic freedom and progress. I am, to be perfectly clear, pro-things-changing; I admitted to having used the n-word on stage, I didn’t say I thought it was cool and good and would do it again. But progress requires a conversation, and right now the conversation doesn’t just suck, it Jars of Clay sucks. We need to give comedians freedom to take risks, including, inevitably, some risks that they probably shouldn’t have taken. If we don’t, we’ll end up listening to a lot of bland, boring shit for a long time.
Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Full Frontal with Sam Bee, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, Important Things with Wyatt Cenac, The Break with Michelle Wolf, The Rundown with Robin Thede, The Jim Jefferies Show, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Wilmore (different show), The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, Desus & Mero, The Amber Ruffin Show, and Pause with Sam Jay.