Because I read everything that Film Crit Hulk writes, I was particularly eager to see his take on the debates about what makes something funny, or not, in the wake of Sunday’s Oscar-related controversies. I was particularly struck by this section, and the question Hulk poses in it, after which he goes on to discuss the creation of comedic personas and the balance of revelation and harm in individual jokes, but that I wanted to take in a different direction:
COMEDY CREATES INHERENT DIVISIONS OF THOSE INSIDE THE JOKE AND THOSE OUTSIDE. AND QUITE FRANKLY, YOUR REACTION LARGELY DEPENDS ON WHETHER YOU RELATE MORE TO THE MAKER OF THE JOKE OR THE VICTIM. OFTEN COMEDY IS CONSIDERED THE MOST PALATABLE BY SOCIETY WHEN IT’S IN THE FORM OF LIGHT RIBBING AND INCLUSIVE LAUGHTER, A COMIC RAKING OF THEMSELVES OVER THE SAME COALS AS YOU OR HULK. BUT ALSO WITH PURPOSE IS THE COMEDY OF SCATHING INDICTMENT, WHETHER DIRECTED AT SOCIAL MORES OR SOCIETY AT LARGE. BUT WHAT RESONATES WITH AN AUDIENCE IS LARGELY DEPENDENT ON THE COMEDIAN’S INTENT.
SO IN A WORLD WHERE WE ARE FREQUENTLY BOTH PERPETRATORS OR VICTIMS OF COMEDY DEPENDING ON THE IDEOLOGY, WHAT UNIVERSAL APTITUDE DO WE HAVE TO TELLS US WHEN A LINE OF COMEDY IS OKAY? HULK KNOWS WE CAN’T DICTATE THE TERMS OF “WHAT” CAN ACTUALLY BE SAID, BUT WHAT MAKES OFFENSE PALATABLE?
One thing I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently is the unique and contradictory ways in which we seem to react to jokes. I think we generally understand that there is not a normative definition of what is frightening and what is not because most of us have been exposed to the lessons of Room 101, the place in George Orwell’s novel 1984, where prisoners are exposed to “the worst thing in the world”—which happens to be different for everybody. When we look at paintings in a museum, no one has a problem with the idea that some of us are going to respond more strongly to Michaelangelo or to Robert Rauschenberg. And internet commenters aside, we tend to recognize that there are a lot of kinds of physical beauty it’s possible to respond to.
But we also recognize that if a movie, television show, or book fails to achieve what the author seems to have intended, including in cases where those pieces of art—be it intentional or unintentional—glorify sexual assault, racism, or violence, we’re allowed to critique its creator without being accused of violating the First Amendment. But criticize a comedian, whether he’s standing on a club stage, soft-shoeing in front of the Dolby Theater audience on Oscar night, or Tweeting from an institutional account, and a different set of rules seem to apply. The act of criticism is taken as proof that the critic speaking lacks critical judgement. We’re told that comedians get a pass because their job isn’t to make people comfortable, but to speak difficult truths—but if that is their privilege, we’re also not allowed to ask questions about whether or not they’re fulfilling that responsibility. Criticisms that suggest that jokes were cliche, ineffective, or fail to live up to the standards that are invoked to argue that comedians deserve special protection get recast as evidence of bias or humorlessness. A perfect example of this is how frequently feminist calls for rape jokes to be constructed precisely and their targets to be chosen with care are recast as evidence that feminists don’t understand comedy. Unlike every other form of pop culture, comedy seems to have a special status. At one stroke, the idea that people are allowed to have multiple opinions is invalidated, and replaced by the idea that there is an objective correct view of any joke—that it’s funny, and the comedian was correct to make it.
This is a rotten state of affairs for any number of reasons. It’s an incorrect and unproductive interpretation of the First Amendment, one that suggests that the right to speak also includes the right to be free from judgement and criticism, a profound distortion of the functioning of the marketplace of ideas. A related problem, as my friend, Salon TV critic Willa Paskin, put it a conversation between us, is the presumption in many of these discussions that it’s a normative good that we shatter all taboos, simply for the sake of shattering them. It’s an attempt to shut down discussion, which is always a sign of intellectual anxiety. And it denies people who are doing comedy a discussion of efficacy and joke construction that could help sharpen their material, which you’d think would be sad for them, or for any artist. Immunity is rarely a helpful state for people who want to grow in any professional capacity. And if we’re going to give a class of people extra credit for calling out societal hypocrisy and harm—an argument defenders of comedians under fire often employ—of course we have an interest in making sure that they’re actually doing that job, not just hiding behind the job description, and doing it well.
I do, of course, understand why people get upset when something they like comes under criticism. When you love something, you want other people to share that reaction, and if they don’t, or if they affirmatively dislike a joke, show, or movie you’re getting something out of, it’s upsetting. People have a tendency to conflate criticism of something they like with criticism of not just their taste, but their whole person, as a byproduct of the increasing importance of cultural preferences to our identities. And when the criticism is based in an argument that a piece of art is racist, or sexist, or homophobic, people often jump very aggressively to assuming that said criticism is a judgement of their entire person.
I’ve never operated from a position of thinking that just because an artist created something offensive and artistically ineffective, or because someone enjoyed that piece of art, said person is automatically rendered an untouchable. I don’t know, for example, if Seth MacFarlane is an unredeemable sexist. I know that I thought his performance as host of the Oscars relied on old tropes about women, and that his execution wasn’t sharp or revealing, and that’s a brand he seems comfortable presenting to the world. I also know, and I’ve written about, the fact that shows of his like Family Guy and American Dad have been a proving ground for a number of women of color, including Nahnatchka Khan and Elaine Ko, who have gone on to create and play prominent roles on shows like Don’t Trust The B In Apt. 23 and Modern Family. And because of the latter, and his work with Mila Kunis, who seems smart and interesting and great, I assume that he’s capable of interacting with and thinking about women in a more sophisticated way than often comes across in his comedy.
And I think we’d all be a lot healthier if we could admit that sometimes we enjoy things that are dumb or offensive, without needing to pretend they’re brilliant and anodyne. I spent money on Ted, and I enjoyed it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize that Veronica Geng’s deconstruction of the New York Times’ Vows column is smarter and better, or that I can’t want comedians to be better than their laziest material.