Tough Times for Comedy
By Wil Forbis
Nov 1, 2019
Two events in the world of comedy recently grabbed my attention. The first was the controversy over Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix comedy special “Sticks and Stones.” His filmed live performance was panned by a majority of critics on Rotten Tomatoes who complained about its political incorrectness and tone deaf humor.
The second was Saturday’s Night Live’s firing of (only recently hired) comedian Shane Gillis for racist and offensive jokes he told on various podcast episodes. More on that in a sec.
Now, the truth is, I would have never watched Chappelle’s special if not for the uproar. And I did agree in part with the critics. A lot of the jokes didn’t work for me, especially one where he glosses over the anguish of Michael Jackson’s molestation victims and implies that they were in some sense blessed to be molested by a man of such celebrity. But A LOT of it – say, 80% - was damn funny and the show was a couple hours well spent.
I never dug much deeper into the Shane Gillis controversy beyond reading a few articles on the subject. His controversial comments included calling writer/politician Andrew Yang a “jew chink’” and seemed singularly unfunny and basically indistinguishable from what genuine racist would say. I’m a fan of dark and edgy humor, but such humor works best when it reveals an unspoken but obvious truth about individuals or society. Gillis's jokes, from what I could tell, fell far short of such a goal.
All this uproar got me thinking: why are some jokes funny and some not? Will we ever create an objective measurement for humor?
To attempt to answer those questions, I’m going to switch over to the realm of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Many people have noted that the brain is a pattern-seeking machine. (I first heard this observation from technologist Ray Kurzweil.) Our ability to thrive and pass on our genes is tied closely to our ability to accurately understand the recurring patterns found within our environment*. Patterns are basically rules and we seek to establish the rules of our environment by observing and experiencing them directly, or being told these rules by authority figures who claim to have the requisite knowledge. These “rules” span from the physical laws of our universe to the social rules and codes of conduct that guide human interactions. Once we fine-tune our understanding of these rules we develop the ability to anticipate the behavior of people and objects around us.
*For example, if you watch several cohorts eat a particular plant and die, you adjust your own behavior accordingly.
Comedy often occurs when what we anticipate does not match reality. A classic visual gag is someone bending over to pick up a pillow only to discover that it’s filled with cement. What we anticipated was not what we observed.
We also often get a jolt of comedy when an authority figure - a purveyor of “the rules” – is revealed to be clueless. Think of a zookeeper saying, “there’s no way the animals can escape from my zoo“ while, in the background, a gorilla leaps over the fence. We expect authority figures to know what’s going on and it’s funny when that expectation is defied. (On the flipside, if some clearly deranged idiot makes a crazy statement, it isn’t funny, because it just confirms what we knew - that this guy has no sense of reality.)
In a sense these jokes are funny because we realize that reality sometimes defies our expectations. Despite what we anticipate, a pillow that turns out to be filled with cement cannot be lifted. Despite a zookeeper’s assertions, the flawed security in a zoo stands a good chance of being exposed by a canny gorilla.
I’ve mentioned the jokes that Chappelle and Gillis told that I didn’t find funny. Let me bring up a joke that did get a chuckle from me even though it was roundly condemned by the media. Louis C.K., after being exposed as a sexual weirdo several years ago, has been attempting something of a come back. His material was always kind of dark, though before his fall it was dark in a “woke” way, somewhat reminiscent of Bill Hicks. His post-comeback material is dark in a much less popular way; observe the following joke about the kids who survived the Parkland school shooting.“They testify in front of Congress, these kids? What are they doing? You’re young! You should be crazy! You should be unhinged! Not in a suit. You’re not interesting. Because you went to a high school where kids got shot? Why does that mean I have to listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way, and now I’ve got to listen to you talking?”
It was the “you pushed some fat kid out of the way” bit that got a laugh from me. So why that and not Chappelle’s joke about Michael Jackson’s victims? Well, I think it just comes down to my sense of reality. I think molestation victims suffer from their plight and don’t care about the status of their molester. I admit I haven’t studied this topic in detail; these are just my suppositions based on what I’ve picked up from the media over the years. Chapelle’s joke did not line up with what I believe to be reality. I do, however, think that when people are in a dire, panicked situation (like a school shooting) they will behave in less than noble ways. This was perhaps best illustrated in the classic Seinfeld episode where George Costanza accidentally starts a fire at a children’s birthday party and shoves aside toddlers and grandmothers in his desperate bid to escape.
(There’s probably more going on that could be analyzed in the C.K. joke. I’d argue he’s also holding his own jaded cynicism up for ridicule.)
Jokes work when they expose the differences between our description of reality and what reality actually is – you could say it’s the difference between subjectivity and objectivity (or at least our perception of objectivity, which, admittedly sounds like a contradiction in terms.) We think the pillow will be easily picked up until it’s not. We assume the zookeeper knows what’s he’s talking about until he’s revealed to be a dolt. We, or at least I, hear the intelligentsia laud the victims of a crime as endlessly noble but I suspect that in the heat of the moment they were merely human. (To be clear, I seriously doubt any of the Parkland kids pushed a fat kid out of the way - it’s a joke dependent on exaggeration.)
If you’re an ideologue, if you insist that reality is a certain way despite evidence to the contrary, you’re probably not going to find jokes that go against your sense of reality funny. And that’s why most political ideologues only find jokes that support “their side” humorous. But the magic of humor is that it can often get through the cracks in ways that argumentation or haranguing can’t.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - email@example.com
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.