Punk Rock Comedy is Dead. Status Quo is the New Edge.
I really hate being someone who longs for the past, but I can’t help but shake this thought that’s been going through my head the last couple of days:
There was a time when what was considered “edgy” and “radical” in the world of comedy was Lenny Bruce getting arrested for obscenity in in 1961. This was a comedic performer speaking out in a transgressive way, actually getting censored by the government because of it, then continuing to speak out at the expense of whatever commercial success he could have had otherwise.
Now, what’s celebrated as “edgy” by comedians and audience alike is anything that reinforces and normalizes the status quo, at the same time pretending to be transgressive by calling any criticism against it “censorship.” It’s Patrice O’Neal trotting out banal misogyny, Jim Norton and the entire disgusting Opie and Anthony crowd using “tranny” as a punchline over and over again, John Oliver deciding to waste an entire segment criticizing Jill Stein, Jimmy Fallon tousling Donald Trump’s hair, Kate McKinnon trying to make us feel sorry for Hillary Clinton by dressing up as her and singing “Hallelujah,” John Stewart pushing out mealy-mouthed “both sides are at fault” rhetoric, and then this lazy, down-punching nonsense from Colin Jost:
Colin Jost, a white male Harvard graduate who got hired by SNL right after graduating, taking some real brave comedic risks by sticking it to the real enemy: trans and non-binary people. Bravo.
Even when TV comedians tried to act like they WERE speaking truth to power in the last couple of years, it’s been a hollow act, like the endless back-patting cycle of Trump jokes. Yes, Trump is ridiculous and gross. But it’s EASY to make jokes about him, to the point that to do so is meaningless. While everyone felt so damn valiant for standing up to Trump, we continued to drone-bomb Syria, Flint Michigan still has no drinking water, and countless other things happened that could maybe use some of your noble social satirical dismantling, but I guess that might be a bit too upsetting and actually transgressive, wouldn’t it?
God forbid if you are a comedian and actually try and ask other comedians to consider the consequences of their words. Woe be to him who speaks to his peers and tries to even ENTERTAIN the thought that there is no universal, all-benevolent concept of “funny” that all successful jokes achieve, and that humor CAN be derived from harmful, bigoted viewpoints and be used to normalize them. Nope, if I say words and people laugh at them, what just happened is a flawless force for good exempt from critique, and to say otherwise ensures instant banishment from the Kingdom of Comedians into the barren Wasteland of Bloggers, where all buzz-killing enemies of humor are sent to die ignominious, laughless deaths.
Honestly, I could accept all of this and be perfectly fine with it if not for the fact that every open-micer who says the word “cunt” into a microphone like it’s the “open sesame” to stardom still thinks they’re somehow changing the world by being a useless edgelord. If we’re going to accept as an immutable truth that nuance, empathy, and consideration are anathema to comedy, we need to also accept that comedy is no longer a transgressive or revolutionary tool, and that nothing any of us does means anything. We forfeit the ability to refer to ourselves as “artists” or any other disingenuously ennobling title that makes us feel more important than we are, because we are not trying to provoke anything or upset anything. We are tools of a system meant to get people to get in line, sit down, shut up, and laugh at what they’re supposed to laugh at.