Is It Still Funny?

steve mcmanus
New Writers Welcome
9 min readOct 23, 2021


We need the illusion. We need everything to be alright.

“Louis C.K.’s stool” by Dan Nguyen @ New York City is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Daniel Goldblatt, a writer for The Wrap, shared this entry regarding Nell Scovell — a writer/producer whose credits include “The Simpsons,” “Murphy Brown” and “Charmed” — [he remembered] debating with Gloria Steinem over whether you can joke about rape.

“She was saying, ‘No, we really shouldn’t joke about rape,’” Scovell said, recalling a conversation from years earlier. “I was saying, ‘No, you could still joke about rape.’…We finally got to an impasse. And so I just told her one of my favorite Sarah Silverman jokes, which is, ‘I got raped by my doctor, which for a Jewish girl is bittersweet.’ So she laughed, and I said, ‘See?’”

It matters less whether YOU find that joke funny, only that a great many people do find it funny. To be clear, there are certain subjects and situations that simply aren’t funny and rape is certainly one of them. This essay is about comedy and its true nature. Part of the reason the joke works is precise because rape is horrific and not a funny thing. The same can be said of a long laundry list of horrible things: Terrorism, Cancer, Plane crashes, Mass shootings, etc.

Charlie Chaplin, in his autobiography, said, “In the creation of comedy, it is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule; because ridicule, I suppose is an attitude of defiance: we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature — or go insane”.

Writing for the Polish online outlet Biweekly, Aleksandra Perczynska tells us about Gelatology. It is the study of laughter, in which it offers three main theories: relief, superiority, and incongruity. The relief theory argues that people laugh to release tension. The superiority theory says that despite assurances otherwise, people are laughing at you; not with you. The incongruity theory believes that we laugh because of a surprise — a disparity between our expectations and what actually happens.

When we laugh at tragedies, we alleviate the tension associated with a sudden adverse event, with our laughter we use our emotion to maintain the illusion of control over the thing with which we are being confronted. Both psychologically and emotionally we need everything to be in its place. Monsters, boogeymen and the pall of dread never acquiesce to a place we have assigned for them. We need the illusion. We need everything to be alright.

Author Mark Rayner attributes groundbreaking comic Lenny Bruce with this quote, “Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it”. Rayner then continues in this thought thread by also quoting Mel Brooks, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into a sewer and die.” (I laughed at that…)

What Brooks is saying here is that if it happens to you it isn’t funny — but other people will think it is. Bruce is saying you should just give it a while to age, because then it will seem funnier in hindsight. However, I think there is a parameter being overlooked here. Maybe we could change the saying from “Tragedy + Time = Comedy” to “Tragedy + Time x Proximity = Comedy”.

People tend to find some amount of humor in a situation when the event ocurred at a distant location and the people involved were not personally known to the people seeing the humor. So what does this say about society? Maybe it’s not so much about dark humor as it is about humor in the Darkness. Again, as Chaplin said, we “…must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature — or go insane”.

My impetus for writing this particular essay lies in my analysis of what has become known as Cancel Culture. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines Cancel Culture as:

: the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.

“For those of you who aren’t aware, cancel culture refers to the mass withdrawal of support from public figures or celebrities who have done things that aren’t socially accepted today. This practice of “canceling” or mass shaming often occurs on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.” — Demetria Slyt

Removing support from celebrities who have done things that are socially unacceptable — that’s Cancel Culture. A cursory perusal into the data reveals this issue has multiple layers. As I started my research I sought insight from some easily found discourse and quotes on the subject from various people of note.

Writing in Time Magazine, Sarah Hagi said, “…marginalized people like myself can express ourselves in a way that was not possible before. That means racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior or remarks don’t fly like they used to. This applies to not only wealthy people or industry leaders but anyone whose privilege has historically shielded them from public scrutiny. Because they can’t handle this cultural shift, they rely on phrases like “cancel culture” to delegitimize the criticism.”

Hagi’s point is salient. There is a major cultural shift and the lines of acceptability are being redrawn.

Nate Day of Fox News related a recent interview with Dave Chappelle, “Political correctness has its place,” [Dave] Chappelle, 46, told The Hill just before accepting the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. “We all want to live in a polite society; we just kind of have to work on the levels of coming to an agreement of what that actually looks like. I, personally, am not afraid of other people’s freedom of expression. I don’t use it as a weapon. It just makes me feel better. And I’m sorry if I hurt anybody,” he said.

Ahmet Kocak, writing for the Daily Sabah further quotes Chappelle, “Will you stop punching down?’ Whenever someone says that to me I know they have never seen me for themselves, they just repeat what they have heard. Any of you who have ever watched me know that I never had a problem with transgender people.” He concludes: “If you listen to what I’m saying, clearly, my problem has always been with white people.”

“Go back, watch every special I did on Netflix, listen to everything I’ve ever said about that community. I’ll go through them: I said how much do I have to participate in your self-image, I said you shouldn’t discuss this in front of black people, I said I know (expletive) in Brooklyn that wear high-heels just to feel safe.” And the hard-hitting punchline: “I asked you: Why is it easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than it is for Cassius Clay to change his name? If you listen to what I’m saying: I’m not even talking about them, I’m talking about us, and they don’t listen.”

As sometimes controversial comedian Alan Carr put it: “It’s dangerous when you start telling people they can’t have an opinion on something. And, you know, you don’t cancel someone, you engage with someone”.

Keegan-Michael Key suggested that there’s more to cancel culture than being offended. “Sometimes we’re offended, but other times, are you offended, or are you afraid to hear something that maybe needs to be said?”

Comedian Tituss Burgess says that as long as you’re laughing, comedians aren’t going anywhere. “It’s not going away. When you’ve got people like Dave Chappelle who offends the fuck out of me, but it’s funny, and I laugh. I think about what he said, it offends me, but what he said is funny. So fuck cancel culture,” Burgess told Yahoo Entertainment.

“We should have the right to fail because failure is a part of art”. ~ Chris Rock

Well ok, then. Let’s talk about the right to fail. There are two forms of failure that I’m going to discuss here. The first form is the humor that is ill received because it is controversial or misses the mark in some way. The second form is the behavior of the comic that disappoints and enrages fans. The behavior could be illegal but is deemed inappropriate regardless.

Famed film director Woody Allen was a mostly absent father who allegedly allowed his relationship with his adopted daughter to cross the appropriateness boundary. Legally, Woody apparently didn’t break any law, but the home of a nuclear family is supposed to be a safe space. If a father figure is in a romantic relationship with a child — even if the child has reached adulthood and is all for it — then the sacrosanct boundary providing safe space is erased. Woody may not have broken a law, but he proved himself to be a scumbag.

Now, having said all that — I ask you if Woody Allen is a talented director and if his films are funny. Is his work funny? If you say it isn’t funny because he is a creepy fuckhead, then you’re missing it. Personally, I don’t find Woody Allen’s style of humor all that funny. But my preferences are irrelevant. Millions of people see his talent and get his humor. You are not obligated to watch his films. But to say that he isn’t talented because he (allegedly) sleeps with his daughter reveals your inability to separate the two.

Comedian Louis C.K. is a wildly successful comic. In his career he has told quite a number of controversial jokes. Actually, he doesn’t tell jokes as such, he mostly delivers observational humor. He tells stories and spins the humor out of the straw of uncomfortable stories. He is using the mechanism of self deprecation that Mel Brooks alluded to. He tells the story of how he falls in a sewer and dies, as it were. His stories are hysterically funny.

Unless you live under a rock, you know that Louis C.K. recently fucked up. He fucked up and got canceled for it. Louis allegedly exposed himself to female comics and masturbated in front of them. Louis admitted in 2017 there were five women sexually harassed over a three year period. Now he has reportedly returned to the stage and has even made jokes about rape whistles, of all things. There is no information on whether Louis has sought therapy or counseling.

The question is the same. Is Louis C.K.’s material funny? If you loathe him because he’s an asshole and that prevents you from seeing the humor in his material, then you are allowing your emotional response to cloud your view of facts. C.K. is an asshole, but he is funny. It’s a subjective thing. You may not find the material funny because it doesn’t evoke that response from you.

Bill Cosby related stories that were common to all of us. He didn’t tell jokes. He told true stories and embellished them with affectations that evoked emotional responses by way of laughter. Bill Cosby was at the top of the comedic show biz heap and had been for decades. He had a stage act, was a film actor, had a prime time TV show and two cartoon shows. His comedy routines were expertly crafted and he was successful — and funny. Then it came to light that for years he allegedly drugged women in order to rape them. Cosby was canceled.

Same question. Was Bill Cosby’s material funny? In light of the new information about him, is it still funny? If you thought it was funny before you knew about the criminal activity, then he was funny — and that material is still funny. Now, however, you don’t want to watch a rapist tell jokes.

It’s important to differentiate between seeing a comic through the lens of judgment of their inappropriate or even criminal behavior on the one hand, and seeing them through the lens of judgment of their views or choice of material.

If you support canceling comics based on their material then you are traversing a slippery, steep slope. Shutting down speech is dangerous. I’m not referring to hate speech. Racism, sexism, misogyny, pedophilia, ageism or ableism are elements in speech that need not be tolerated and don’t deserve protection. Instead, I’m talking about comedic material that you don’t like because you feel offended for some other reason. Maybe it just rubs you the wrong way.

Cancel culture has its place in our evolving society, but let’s not look for “a commie behind every tree” (the way we did during the Red Scare of the 1950's), trash careers and destroy lives just because someone doesn’t see the world the same way you do.



steve mcmanus
New Writers Welcome

Producer and Writer of the online radio show Forbidden America. Writing an online TV interview show set for production in 2021. An emerging Voice-Over Talent.