The Vicious Paradox of the Jester

I’m ashamed that it’s been a couple weeks since I’ve posted a blog. I’ve been nursing an illness and dealing with stress, both of which have thankfully passed. It has left me with some time to think about a particular topic, one that is very close to my heart.

A couple weeks ago, one of my favourite YouTubers (TheNerdwriter) posted this video entitled “Louis C.K. is a Moral Detective”. If you have time, I implore you to watch this thoughtful seven minute video, as I’ll be referencing back to it over the length of this post. If you like what you see, you could consider subscribing to Evan’s channel or donating to his Patreon Page

Beware, viewer discretion is advised, as all of the following videoes contains what many would consider to be off-colour jokes referencing race and pedophillia.

I have been, and will foreseeably continue to be a very large fan of standup comedy. Indeed, I don’t know many people who would openly claim that they aren’t. However, I remember having a conversation on the topic not so long ago when a group of friends and I were discussing comedy as a concept, and exactly why it is that comedy has been seemingly under attack, particularly in more recent years, in favour of political correctness.

The idea of the “trigger” is rife in modern day society, as we consider personal emotions and offense to be tantamount to the opinions, humour, and in some cases, even the occupations of others. In fact, it was one of the reasons I selected wordpress over tumblr when deciding on a platform to host my blog. The reason being is that even popular opinion is willfully scorned by those who claim that they have been “triggered” or offended by a particular subject. Through this, Even brings us to two equally important components of humour: effect and intent.

The effect of a joke is what we’ve been seeing more and more of in the social backlash to jokes like this. Someone hears something, they are offended, they take to the internet or their real life social groups to remark on the issue they take with the subject matter. More often than not, people seem to be offended by the fact that the offender (in this case, Louis C.K.) appears to make light of a situation that is obviously very serious in its implication.

I’ll take the time now to say this: molesting children is WRONG.

However, to those who have had the privilege of listening to and enjoying Louis’s humour, I’m sure we can attest to the fact that it’s really not as simple and one dimensional as telling a joke to cause an effect. Comedians are a kind of lens, a decidedly uncompassionate, almost neutral lens, that allows the audience an unfiltered view of subject matter that (hopefully) most will find funny. The idea is to subject your audience to new ideas and perspectives not otherwise exercised in order to provide them with introspection and consideration.

But, of course what I’m talking about here is intent. Was it Louis C.K’s intention to make light of child molestation in today’s society? No, and Evan does a very good job explaining that the intention of the joke was to ask the audience to place aside their self-righteousness in consideration of those who have no control over their sexual preferences, which modern medical science teaches us are innate in instinctive within the human brain. Again, to reiterate on behalf of Evan and myself, he’s not excusing the action, or even expressing empathy, he’s asking the audience to reconsider their moral objection.

So as I sat with a group of friends, trying to break comedy down into a modern and descriptive definition, we settled upon the following: comedy is an objective and celebrated lack of observed compassion. I think this definition really hits the mark, but allow me to elaborate.

We entrust comedians to objectively observe and comment on society, regardless of subject matter. The best of them (best here meaning most popular) to apply their perspective on sometimes even the darkest parts of reality. However, this doesn’t somehow protect or excuse them from the public eye or scrutiny, and even the mightiest among them have fallen from grace in the past.

Here I’ve included the tirade of Michael Richards, best known for his portrayal of Cosmo Kramer, on the hit 90’s television sitcom Seinfeld. In 2004, Richards was heavily scrutinized over his remarks made in a 2004 standup performance he gave at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles.

Now this is offensive, but why? It wasn’t exactly the words he used. In fact many famous comedians, of many races have used many of the words he spouts here emphatically. And indeed many of the members of the audience continue to laugh until they realize that something is amiss. And here we realize the intent of Richards’ language – it was very clearly used to be offensive. It was his INTENT to offend certain members of his audience.

However, nearly an entire decade earlier, Chris Rock performed his standup special for HBO entitled “Bring the Pain”, which included this gem.

It’s safe to assume, seeing as the vast majority of Chris Rock’s audience was black, that using the very same offensive term, is not intended in the same way. Instead, the joke is meant to educate the audience on the racial divides that exist within Black community. There is the additional popular accepted belief that Mr. Rock is somehow entitled to use this word and criticize this culture because he himself is Black. These aspects of his comedy go back to the definition that we have crafted. Some may surmise that using the tone and language that he does lacks compassion for those affected by the joke, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Chris must retract his compassion to provide a clear view at root of his material, because to have compassion would soften the blow of realism.

Chris Rock isn’t about soft. His dress, his cadence and delivery, hell, even his name, are all meant to be viewed with a hard-hitting rough edge. In fact, that might even be the point of his humour. So many comedians are expected to employ the “tell-it-like-it-is” philosophy in their work, so much so that meek-mannered comedians often miss their mark. Employing techniques in an effort not to offend your audience, or even to appeal to a general audience, will earn scrutiny among your audience and your peers in the industry.

Take here this clip of Jay Leno, who is and has been by all accounts scorned in the standup community for being decidedly ‘unfunny’.

So, if you go easy on society, you’re panned, but if you’re too hard, too honest, too uncompassionate, then you’re scorned as well. It’s clear that we must reach a happy medium in order to find the humour in the world we live in, but is that truly possible as our awareness in political correctness continues to become an all important pillar of our society? Is comedy dying? Is it already dead?

I’ll leave you with this tweet by Ricky Gervais, another comedy heavy hitter, clearly in defense of his craft in Evan’s video, but this might clear up how those conflicted or offended by the uncompassionate nature of comedy can begin to lick their wounds.

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