Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

Panning the Globes

Ricky Gervais and Jane Fallon (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Is comedy right-wing? It can’t be. After all, comedy is all about pantsing the establishment. Since we live in a tightly constricted culture run by Mrs. Grundys, naturally all the cutting-edge jokes are about the hypocrisies of our ruling caste of church ladies. 

Good luck making that material work down at the Laugh Shack. In fact, today’s cultural lawgivers are Greta Thunberg, Caitlyn Jenner, and the Me Too movement. Mocking them is where the laughs are. During last August’s Edinburgh fringe festival — an early-detection system for the hottest trends in transgression — a very worried headline in the Guardian asked, “Is rightwing comedy on the rise?” Yes, I rather think it is. 

The funniest comics are the ones who sound like they get their inspiration paging through all the nonsense we keep bringing up here at NR. The Left is starting to get very nervous about where comedy is headed, issuing prickly warnings that making fun of those who command the cover of Vanity Fair or get called Person of the Year by Time constitutes “punching down” and is hence not allowed. What if you’re making fun of people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, and Jennifer Aniston, though? Is it “punching down” to crack wise at a centimillionaire celebrity? Jennifer Aniston has been a goddess of the screen for 25 freaking years and still commands a salary of $1 million per week for her Apple TV drama The Morning Show. At the Golden Globes earlier this month, host Ricky Gervais reminded the audience (as Aniston waited to present an award) that Apple “runs sweatshops in China” and added, “You say you’re woke, but the companies you work for, unbelievable. . . . If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d all call your agent, wouldn’t you?” You could almost hear Meryl Streep and every other aggressive progressive in the room saying, “How dare Ricky Gervais inject politics into Hollywood’s annual Trump-bashing dinner?”

As the assembled pretty people prepared their lectures on global warming (Russell Crowe), abortion (Michelle Williams), and Iran policy (Patricia Arquette), Gervais pleaded with them to do otherwise: “If you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech, right? You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So, if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your God, and f*** off. Okay?”

That was a conservative thing to say only if conservatism is the same thing as common sense. Gervais, Louis C.K., and Dave Chappelle — just about the three funniest dudes in the world at the mic — seldom or never vote for conservative parties. And yet they find themselves labeled “right-wing hero” (The Atlantic on Gervais), smeared as “your new favorite alt-right comedian” (the Daily Beast on C.K.), and accused of “toeing a conservative line on a new generation’s struggle for social justice” (the Guardian on Chappelle).

The post-show reaction to Gervais’s task-taking was pure indignation. L.A. Times critic Lorraine Ali mislabeled Gervais’s hilarious monologue “gloom and doom,” adding, “The last thing anyone needed was for the smirking master of ceremonies to reprimand them for having hope.” “Having hope” was Ali’s curious characterization of speeches warning that war with Iran is imminent, that our planet is on fire, and that men are stomping all over women’s rights.

Slate ran a huffy piece dividing Gervais’s jokes into three categories: “just plain mean” (example: “The world got to see James Corden as a fat pussy. He was also in the movie Cats”), “a swing and a miss” (the line about how no one cares about celebrity political speeches), and “truth to power” (a poke at racial bean-counting of nominees that Slate mistakenly took at face value as an admission that Golden Globes voters are “very, very racist”). Remember when Stephen Colbert told an audience James Comey had been fired, they applauded, and he had to explain why Comey was now a hero of the Left and his downfall was bad? A lot of comedy is mirth correction these days.

“Comedy,” Steve Martin wrote, “is a distortion of what is happening, and there will always be something happening.” That’s one kind of comedy, anyway, applicable, for instance, to the spot-on Babylon Bee headline “Democrats Call for Flags to Be Flown at Half-Mast to Grieve Death of Soleimani.” CNN “disinformation” reporter Donie O’Sullivan all but called for the Babylon Bee (whose very name is a joke) to plaster a warning label on its stories saying, “Warning: This facetious comedic content should not be taken at face value.” O’Sullivan wrote crossly, “Having a disclaimer buried somewhere on your site that says it’s ‘satire’ seems like a good way to get around a lot of the changes Facebook has made to reduce the spread of clickbait and misinformation.” 

In other words, when liberals make a joke, it’s a joke; when conservatives make a joke it’s a lie. Remember when Tina Fey, playing Sarah Palin, claimed, “I can see Russia from my house,” Americans came to believe Palin had actually said this, and American journalists felt no particular duty to correct the misperception? That was different. Humor was working for the Democrats then. Today the Republicans find themselves with the funniest president ever (come on, who else would have come up with anything as brilliant as calling Pete Buttigieg “Alfred E. Neuman”?), and Democrats are losing their grip on their sense of humor. Let them declare Gervais, Chappelle, and C.K. to be personae non gratae. The more these guys sound Just Plain Mean to the likes of Slate, the more they sound like hilarious truth-tellers to me.

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