‘That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool,” wrote Isaac Asimov in his Guide to Shakespeare: “that he is no fool at all.” The days of Shakespeare are past, but the fool, to our good fortune, remains. You’ll find him not at the king’s court, but at the comedy club.
But as Shakespeare knew, the comedian — whose jokes are never without a bit of truth — is forever precariously situated. As King Lear’s fool laments: “They’ll have me whipp’d for speaking true; thou’lt have me whipp’d for lying; and sometimes I am whipp’d for holding my peace.”
Today’s fools are experiencing the same problem, because, as has been copiously documented, no human beings in history have ever been as aggressively hypersensitive as the cohort currently coming of age. Jerry Seinfeld sparked renewed conversation about the encroachment of political correctness recently when he told ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’ . . . They just want to use these words. ‘That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudiced.’ They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” Several offended college students responded in print, proving his point.
The same eager offense-taking has infected what used to be real “safe spaces.” “Comedy clubs aren’t the safe havens they once were,” wrote comedian Gilbert Gottfried in a 2014 essay in Playboy. “It used to be, if you went to a club, there was an expectation that anything could happen. . . . It was all okay, and that’s what made it exciting.” But now? “Imagine if the most brilliant comedians in history were working today. They’d never stop apologizing. Charlie Chaplin would have to apologize to all the homeless people he belittled with his Little Tramp character. W. C. Fields and Dean Martin would both have to apologize to alcoholics. The Marx brothers would have to apologize to Italians, mutes, and uptight British ladies.”
Yet Americans are still filling up comedy clubs. In January, comedian Louis C. K. sold out three shows at Madison Square Garden — capacity: 20,000. C. K., for the record, is not delivering wilted, PC fare: “You should never rape anyone,” he announces in his 2007 special (appropriately titled) Shameless. “Unless you have a reason! Like, you want to [have sex with] somebody and they won’t let you! In which case, what other option do you have?”
Stand-up comics have been touring the country apparently slaying other sacred cows. Mike Birbiglia, who is white, refuses to let black people call him a “cracker” — “You can call me a ‘crack-uh,’” he allows — while Ralphie May sprinkles “extra gay” into his Venti mocha and Amy Schumer jokes about her “black friend, T’membe or whatever.”
None of these are minor comics. Each has filmed multiple specials in front of sizable crowds. C. K. — “arguably the best stand-up of his generation,” says Rolling Stone — has won a Peabody Award, a Grammy, and five Emmys, most of them for Louie, the television series he writes, directs, and stars in. He was on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2012, deservedly.
How does one explain the success of these and so many other jokesters in the age of “trigger warnings” and “hate speech”?
Writing at the unwaveringly charmless feminist website Jezebel in 2012, Lindy West resolved this apparent paradox in a post titled “How to Make a Rape Joke,” in which she defended the Louis C. K. joke above on the grounds that “Louis C. K. has spent 20 years making it very publicly clear that he is on the side of making things better. The oppressors never win at the end of his jokes.” Writing about the same subject for Time in January, novelist Sarah Miller cautioned: “If you’re going to make a rape joke, you’re going to also have to prove that you care.”
The same thing is true of other subjects. For instance, May — who is white, and who estimates that he uses the N-word around 50 times during an hour-long set — is not a target of the NAACP. Kim Brown, a black talk-show host who interviewed May in 2012, wrote of her interviewee: “I like white comics who can make GOOD black jokes. Ralphie May is one of those comics.”
West, Miller, and Brown are explicating the Left’s theory of humor: A “good” black joke or a “good” rape joke is one that — in the vernacular — “punches up.” It has an “oppressed” and an “oppressor,” and it takes the correct side. The merit of the joke depends on the (ideological) merit of the joke-teller.
Many comics’ material falls nicely into this paradigm. Take May, for example: In his 2012 special Too Big to Ignore, his joke about Muslims — “The Muslim is gonna get you!” sung to Gloria Estefan’s “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” — makes fun not of Muslims but of “racist” Americans. Six years earlier, May’s joke about an Islamist terrorist attack on St. Louis, the home of Anheuser-Busch, made fun, predictably, of white southerners, who would rise up in a “fury of mullets” if their preferred beer’s distribution were disrupted.
A distinction ought to be drawn between political correctness and good taste. Gottfried, in his Playboy article, complains that audiences in late 2001 took umbrage at his jokes about the September 11 attacks, and as examples of tyranny in comedy clubs he cites two well-known incidents at West Hollywood’s Laugh Factory: In 2006, Michael Richards (Seinfeld’s inimitable Cosmo Kramer) issued a public apology after shouting racial slurs at a group of black audience members. (Not unrelatedly, he formally retired from stand-up the next year.) And in 2012, when an audience member yelled “Rape jokes are never funny!” at Daniel Tosh, the comedian responded: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys, right now? Like, right now?” He, too, apologized. These episodes are reminders that cultures can form a moral consensus about certain subjects; in fact, a culture that never does so is morally barren. Holocaust jokes don’t play well in Israel, and rightly so.
But the political correctness menacing comedy is not interested in the consensus of fair-minded persons acting in community; it is an effort to conflate what is funny with what is acceptable to laugh at.
For the comedian, rigid adherence to the doctrinaire is the death knell of his art, because comedy is drawn from, and draws on audiences’ experiences of, everyday life. “Only the truth is funny,” comedian Rick Reynolds observed in the 1990s. The comedian, in his role as fool, can never stray beyond what is true, or he will have trouble making it funny.
In his May 2014 GQ feature about Louis C. K., Andrew Corsello identified a willingness to tell the truth about what people do and think as part of C. K.’s brilliance: “He’s always striking through the mask, Louis C. K. It’s not just a matter of braying aloud what the rest of us only dare to think; he says things we aren’t even aware we’re thinking until we hear them from C. K. That’s his genius.”
It is, to a greater or lesser degree, the genius of every comedian. Political correctness is antithetical to the exercise of that genius, because it seeks to impose on everyone the same opinions, the same way of looking at the world — one informed less by consideration of human nature than by pious aspirations. If the comedian’s ultimate responsibility is to laughter, which balances point and punchline, he will be required to stand forever athwart the moral busybodies.
This seems to be what comedians are discovering of late. Although many vigorously support the policies and prescriptions of progressivism, they are realizing that the internal logic of that movement will eventually silence them.
Comedians walk a tightrope, both speaking truth to power and “just telling jokes.” They want it both ways, and so do audiences. But our contemporary comedy cops are both demanding certain truths and objecting to humor that does not bolster their ideology. That is why comedians, of whatever political stripe, have a unique role to play in turning back the Left’s speech policing. Political correctness is not just constricting and controlling; it is deeply unfunny. Those who embrace it are a grave and cheerless lot who would share their misery like flu. And in the throes of this cultural grippe, laughter may well be the best medicine.