by Jeremy Fassler
In the wake of the 2016 election, stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt wrote a sobering status on Facebook that I've been thinking about a lot recently. Oswalt (whose new special, Annihilation, is streaming on Netflix now) has always been something of a polymath, possessing the ability to write and speak with deep insight not just into comedy, but film, literature, and politics, all through his self-deprecating and hopeful lens. This status/essay, however, was less hopeful than despairing, as he wrote about extremism and how it manifests in our discourse, first through humor, and how, when that humor is unrewarded with laughs or likes, it turns into rage:
"The disturbing part is how many of these people (when I check their Twitter or Facebook profiles) fancy themselves comedians. And the ones who insist they're comedians, that THEY'RE funny, all send messages which are the same variation of, 'Your career is OVER. No one wants to hear YOUR kind of comedy anymore. You or ANY of your friends...' Fuck you, funnyman. It's our turn now.
"So many alt-righters (or just people on the right) are failed or frustrated comedians. Just as so many far, far left wingers are. Comedy is too PC! It's not PC enough! It's racist! It shames white men! IT DOESN'T FIT TO MY STANDARDS, SO THEREFORE I MUST DESTROY IT!
"Being funny isn't something everyone is born with..For the untalented but still entitled, there's a gut full of envy to carry around when they see other people getting laughs where they can't."
Oswalt's theory seems to me less like theory and more like fact. The more I delve into researching the worst people on the alt-right and the Purity Left, the more I see how badly they want to be funny. And they never, ever are.
For example, Chris Cantwell. Cantwell is one of the protestors from Charlottesville, better known as "the crying Nazi" for his tear-filled YouTube video. Less well-known is that before he held a tiki torch, he tried the microphone, and the A.V. Club released the video of it shortly before he turned himself over to the police. It is a truly terrible set which insults Arabs, liberals, and uses the term "coal burner" to refer to white women who date black men. It would be one thing if Cantwell used this set to examine his privilege, but he instead, he bashes people who either look different, or hold a different set of views than he does. Is it any wonder that five years later, he'd be found in the streets screaming "The Jews will not replace us?" After all, many of the greatest comedians are Jewish.
Cantwell's sense of humor (or lack thereof) is nothing compared to alt-right fallen star Milo Yiannopoulos, whose brand constitutes of nothing more than hate speech later described as humor that people on the left are too sensitive to appreciate. Milo likes to think of himself as a "provocateur," but to ascribe that noun to him is an insult to the word itself. Playing to college campuses, whom he decries as an oversensitive bunch of snowflakes, he purports to "challenge" them by saying things like "Harry Potter and rape culture are both fantasy." Saying things like this does not count as provocation, it's an excuse made after-the-fact to justify your hate speech and direct the blame onto someone else for your own short-sightedness. It's also why actual, funny comedian Larry Wilmore's slap-down of this Ann Coulter-wannabe on Real Time with Bill Maher was so gratifying.
Oswalt says in his post that the problem isn't limited to the alt-right, but to the Purity Left as well, and one of the worst of them is Katie Halper, who attempted standup comedy in the late 2000s but now spends more time punching down at Resistance tweeters (including me), whose tweets she takes out of context to falsely depict them as racists, misogynists, or both. When Halper started as a comedian, she said she took provocative positions to emulate people like Stephen Colbert, but now all she does is send her trolls out to attack anyone who disagrees with her, particularly women of color. She has abandoned the guise of using a persona in her sense of humor to push buttons, and now just pushes them for the sake of luxuriating in the inevitable "how dare yous" that come her way, thriving on our outrage the same way Ann Coulter does.
What unites Cantwell, Yiannopoulos, and Halper is their belief that comedy exists solely as a license to be offensive without examining why given topics are offensive in the first place. It's not enough to say a hateful word into a mic and then say, "Why are you offended? It's a joke, snowflake!" For a provocative joke or routine to work, it must contextualize, explain, and ultimately tie back to what motivates it: anger towards injustice and hypocrisy.
Consider, for example, Lenny Bruce's famous routine about the N-word, which begins with the famous line, "Are there any niggers here tonight?" In the wrong hands, this kind of opener would kill a comedian's career, and no white comedian should dare attempt it today (Bruce performed it in the 60s, before the word became rightly off-limits for white people.) But Bruce's routine, after its shocking opener, develops into more than holding the carrot and whacking you with the stick, as Yiannopoulos might do; it examines what would happen if, through constant repetition, that most hateful of epithets lost all of its power. If such a thing happened, Bruce concludes, then it "would lose all its impact and never make a four-year-old...cry on his way home from school." Comedians who want to talk about the evils of racism might not reach Bruce's conclusion the same way he did, but for a like-minded routine to work, the motivation, and the conclusion, would both have to come out against the evils that allow the routine to exist in the first place.
It's hard to explain why comedy works, and the way I think it works isn't the way you think it works, or the way Patton Oswalt, Jessica Williams, Louis CK or Samantha Bee thinks it works. But all of us would agree on what doesn't work, and that's blaming the audience when they rightly call you out for striking low blows at those who don't deserve them. There are people who go through life never learning this valuable lesson, who then grow up into angry, disturbed adults, and lash out at anyone who doesn't share their twisted worldview stemming from a perversion of what humor is and why it exists. One of them's in the White House right now - his name is Stephen Miller, and he made a "joke" insulting the Latino janitors at his high school when he ran for student council. Maybe if he'd learned how to make people laugh the right way, he wouldn't be writing policy today.