Stand-Up Comedy Is Not Dying, Your Privilege Is

Cristina Ouch
Aug 1, 2018 · 8 min read

If I had a nickel for every time a White male comic explained to me what “real” comedy is, I’d remain crushed in lower-middle class under the weight of the institutional systems of oppression that limit Hispanic females’ earning power to that of 62 cents to the dollar. In other words, White male comics have become the self-appointed ambassadors of maintaining the sanctity of comedy. They wax poetic about how stand-up comedy today is too politically correct, too serious, too analytical, “[If I wanted to learn something], I’d read a book.” In fact, the backlash against one of the most popular stand-up comedy specials of all time, “Nanette,” centered on the argument that it was not “technically” stand-up. Critics agreed that Hannah Gasdsby can pontificate on comedy’s limitations and society’s moral failings in a humorous manner at her leisure, but don’t classify it as “stand-up comedy”–separate but equal…hmmm, sounds familiar.

I revel in schadenfreude every time a White male comic shouts from the mountaintops, “Stand-up comedy is dying!” First, I find it entertaining to point out when anyone is wrong: stand-up comedy today features more and diverse voices that reach a wider audience thanks to social media and streaming platforms. But most importantly, I sense justice in that White male comics, who have dominated the industry since its inception, finally encounter a space that they cannot claim exclusively as their own.

White male comics need to realize that their idea of “real” stand-up comedy does not exist, and while I’m at it, there’s no Santa nor American Dream–sorry to ruin your stand-up philosophy, Christmas, and your self-serving sense of patriotism. Comedy is simply a social construct: it’s not above the influences of its zeitgeist and it’s always limited by the whims of its power players. In other words, comedy is made by certain men about certain men for certain men.

Mark Twain was the first in America to perform something that resembled stand-up. He toured all around the country in the 1800s delivering spoken word witty anecdotes, capitalizing on the vivid portrayal of the life of “niggers” in the South. Then the Vaudeville era in the early 1900s provided what we’ve come to identify as set-ups and punchlines, sets, crowd work, and skits. As all the actors were White and male, they often dressed in drag and used black face to misrepresent minorities. The comedy at that time was simple slapstick, crude innuendos, and racist/sexist humor.

By mid-century, American stand-up as we recognize it today emerged in the “Borscht Belt,” a chain of resorts where wealthy New Yorkers, mostly Jewish, would vacation. Simultaneously, Black performers emerged in the “Chitlin Circuit,” smaller venues, cafes, and clubs where they felt safe from legalized racism and discrimination at the brink of the Civil Rights era. This was the formative period of American stand-up. Everything else after this has been refinement of style or topic, but the building blocks have remained the same: a lone comic talking funny to a crowd.

Therefore, what so many have been calling “universal” or “mainstream” comedy is really White guy comedy. (Jews are an ethnoracial minority; however, in terms of social power relations, they have benefited from the social and economic systems in the comedy industry as well as at the times in the US where institutions targeted racial minorities and women). Since its origins, comedy has reserved its stage almost exclusively for White men and forced Black men into the fringes and women into non-existence. (The toxic hyper-masculine culture of comedy deserves an article of its own).

Does the term White guy comedy offend you? It’s accurate, but you’re right. Why qualify comedy? Any adjective in front of the noun is a disservice to comedy as an art form. Therefore, I expect you to stop calling what women comics do, “female comedy,” or what Black comics do, “Black comedy,” or what any other minority group does that skews from the racist and sexist foundations of comedy, “alternative comedy.” White male comics often bring me up on stage as a “Hispanic comic” or a “female comic,” and it immediately makes me a second-class citizen in the industry. Not only does it perpetuate the myth that comedy resides outside of the minority experience, but it also fails to portray me as a complex human being. I don’t solely filter the world through my female or Hispanic eyes–my identity is multifaceted and not defined by your stereotypes.

Just because you can’t relate to my experience, it doesn’t make me “not funny” and doesn’t make what I do “bad” or even “not” comedy. Comedy audiences have traditionally been White men and the women who date them. Therefore, White male comics have claimed that their White male experiences are universal human experiences, reminiscent of the same power that White colonists exercised when they stole American land from the natives. Their position as founders and power players in the history of American stand-up have afforded them the same privilege of staking artistic real estate that is not their own.

Those comics blissfully unaware of their privilege are the first to tell me to delve into more “universal” or “mainstream” topics, like online dating or the nuclear family. Guess what? Most cultures worldwide live with extended families and only about 15% of Americans have used online dating, where minorities are routinely marginalized and excluded. White comics have even actively tried to recruit me to perform minstrel-like shows to get the audience “on my side.” I’d more willingly participate in a real-life recreation of “Saw” than sell out my ethnicity with a “housekeeping” or “teen pregnancy” punchline to pander to a racist audience.

The issue here is two-fold: not only do audiences, as a monolithic group, construe White male comedy as the norm, rendering it immune to the criticism directed at “alternative” comedy, but also these White audiences don’t want to listen to minorities’ stories. What I mean by listen is hearing what someone who’s different says and then believing them. The fact that minorities’ stories are often ignored, oversimplified, and attacked is not an accident.

I’ve told stories about sexual harassment and discrimination in my comedy, and I’m usually met with, “You’re exaggerating–I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it,” or “Maybe they weren’t being racist, maybe it was just personal.” The reason we are so quick to dismiss the stories of disenfranchised comics is because they expose an uncomfortable truth: the world is not fair for all. While the aversion to recognize injustice is an evolutionary mechanism, supporting and perpetuating a system that oppresses people due to the color of their skin, sexual orientation, or gender is just plain bigoted.

Comedy’s history of segregating comics by race or any other bullshit line drawn in the hypothetical sand reflects White and male audiences’ tendencies to dismiss stories foreign to their own. Personally, White men often tell me that women or Hispanic comedy is “not funny” because they come to the show to laugh and “not to be lectured at.” In fact, a random man once responded to me on Facebook that Latina comics in Long Island aren’t targets of discrimination but simply “not funny.” A comment immediately liked by a comic who judged me in a contest recently. Is this judge publicly avowing his prejudice or did he just think this comment was funny? If he’s prejudiced, that would call into question the validity of the contest. If he thought the comment funny, that would call into question the expertise of the comic–either way, objectively unqualified.

Must be nice for that White male comic to only have to deal with social injustice for 15 minutes on a Friday night show or for a minute and a half before a Sunday football game, must be nice! The harsh reality is that minorities’ daily lives are insidiously plagued by prejudice and discrimination in America, so this is the material we have readily available. If it feels like a comic is lecturing you, maybe it’s simply because you disagree with their message–don’t dismiss or lessen the power of another person’s story because, after all, they are the experts of their own experiences.

Furthermore, all comedy conveys a message whether the comic was conscientious enough to manipulate it or not. Many jokes seem to be just for laughs and devoid of any social commentary, but they’re simply perfectly camouflaged within the status quo. For example, Jim Gaffigan’s classic Hot Pocket bit is undeniably funny, but it’s also a reflection of how obesity is not enjoyable, but rather a Sisyphean task at getting by. On the other hand, the message inherent in comedy that deviates from business-as-usual becomes a lot more prominent and ripe for criticism. For example, a joke as simple as Anthony Jeselnik’s, “I think my friend Jeff is gay. I don’t know. I’m so bad with names,” is actually a commentary on both the absurdity of homophobia and the shallowness of male friendships. Therefore, if you feel a comic is lecturing you, maybe it’s simply that their message challenges the status quo that has been invisible, beneficial, and/or harmless to you.

Which brings me to my last point: political correctness is not killing comedy. What you term political correctness is simply evolved thinking. Acknowledging privilege, cumulative advantage, and historically derived institutions of oppression is not limiting comedy, but driving its evolution. In the 1800s comedy audiences thought black face was funny, today black face (or any other overtly racist performance) wouldn’t fly. Just like we have started to finally acknowledge the damaging psychological and socioeconomic effects of oppression, we have also started to acknowledge that racist jokes are not funny, that sexist jokes are not funny, that homophobic jokes are not funny.

Now, there’s a difference between prejudiced jokes and jokes about prejudice. There’s no justification to keep peddling the oppressive attitudes of a bygone era. Prejudiced jokes are not funny because we now understand how they’re not true. For example, a joke about how Southerners are stupid or illiterate is not funny because we can easily google a million exceptions to that generalization. Not only are these prejudiced jokes not true, but they’re also lazy comedy. Relying on stereotypes to do the comic’s back-breaking work of delivering a well-researched and original punchline exploits those it makes fun of. For example, jokes about scantily dressed women getting raped is not funny, not because it’s about rape, but because it’s a debunked narrative that ignores disadvantageous patriarchal norms but also justifies violence against women. Telling prejudiced jokes is not only bad for comedy but also bad for society.

The history of modern stand-up comedy in America is the history of White guy modern stand-up comedy in America. What you think of as “universal” or “objective” stand-up is anything but. As comedy becomes more diverse, stand-up will evolve to give a platform to more than 31% of the White, male American population. The debate of whether a minority’s work can be classified as comedy is really a debate about whether they adhered to the norms of White guy comedy. Gadsby’s “Nanette” and Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” prove that you don’t have to adhere to these norms to be a successful comedian.

Diverse voices are not killing comedy, they are proliferating it by making it accessible to more of us. Diverse voices are not killing comedy, they are enriching it by raising the bar on the quality of jokes and audiences. Diverse voices are not killing comedy, it just feels like that because they are finally holding a mirror up to “real” comedy and you don’t like what you see. If anyone is killing comedy it’s those comics who’re whipping out their White male privilege in the face of this browner and girlier comedic boom.

But then again, I may be wrong–maybe it’s just not funny. But I’m sure your joke about how your wife nags you all the time is hilarious.

Written by

Cristina was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and has a BA in English and two MAs in Psychology. She is a professional writer, editor, lecturer, and comedian.

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