Matthew Goldin

Telling It Like It Is: Laughter, Idiocy, and Art


In 2008, Michael Richards (better known as Kramer) ruined his career as an entertainer by losing his temper onstage with a group of black hecklers, whom he referred to not-so-affectionately as “niggers.”

At first the audience laughs at the sheer audacity he exhibits in being overtly racist. But it quickly becomes apparent that Richards is genuinely angry, and there is a very tangible moment when he truly “crosses the line,” abusing the audience and gleefully describing a time in America when blacks would have been lynched for heckling him. The hecklers, who are no longer hecklers insofar as Richards’ rant is no longer a performance, yell back at him, “That was uncalled for!” And you can see it on Richards’ face as the crowd begins to disperse—he knows he’s lost.

It’s a moot point whether Michael Richards is or was “a real racist.” In his public apology on David Letterman, he claims that he didn’t understand why those words came out of his mouth, because he’d never been a racist. But really, the most offensive aspect of the incident is that he’d ceased performing. Perhaps it’s true that he’d never harbored racist feelings, and, in a vulnerable state of irritation, having chosen to respond to his hecklers with a mock display of racist extremism, he simply fell victim to his own mask, found it amenable to his agitated state of mind, and committed himself seriously to what started off as a mere joke.

Responding to hecklers is all part and parcel of being a stand-up comedian. Most of the time hecklers are just drunks trying to steal some attention. It’s important for a comic to remember not to lose his or her cool, to integrate the heckling into the performance so that it can continue to flow seamlessly. Steve Martin famously put one heckler down by saying, “Yeah, I remember my first beer.” But other times hecklers are more self-righteous, defending society from what they perceive to be a comedian’s threatening or offensive material. These instances are of more interest to us, because they invite many questions about what it means to be a comedian in the first place.

In early January of this year, Daniel Tosh, like Michael Richards, was performing at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles when a woman in the audience, objecting to his material, raised her voice and shouted, “No, rape is never funny!” Daniel Tosh paused a moment before asking the crowd if it wouldn’t “be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now… like right now.” The woman’s subsequent tumblr post triggered a huge media response and a Twitter apology from Tosh, but the rape joke didn’t affect his success that night onstage, nor end his career. Perhaps this is because in the United States it is considered more acceptable to make rape jokes than nigger jokes, but there are plenty of comedians who successfully joke about race as well. The real difference between the Richards and Tosh fiascos is that Daniel Tosh was clearly still joking, even if the joke was in poor taste for many.

W.H. Auden, in his essay, “Balaam and His Ass,” writes about the relationship between Shakespearean kings and their fools. Despite one being master and the other the lowliest possible servant, they tend to function as equals, because only the fool, in his harmless craziness, is permitted to utter truths to the king for which any other person would be executed. Auden further remarks that in any master-servant relationship, the master, as the maker of demands, reveals his entire will and thus his deepest self to the servant who executes them. Auden argues that, for example, in King Lear, the fool functions as a kind of superego to Lear’s otherwise unchecked id-instincts, and that the fool’s disappearance midway through the play marks the point at which King Lear’s sanity is truly shattered.

Illustration by Naomi Bardoff

It is in this sense that we can understand the utility of comedy’s provocations. Comedy is inherently subversive, checking the expectations of a culture and casting off its demands. Society has always needed its fools, people who hold the high office of being allowed to offend. Michael Richards’ error was in casting off his role as fool and taking on the serious persona of, say, a duke, and for that he was summarily executed. People reacted much more leniently to Daniel Tosh, because they understood that part of the comedian’s craft is trying to make jokes about the so-called forbidden topics, and Tosh was acting in good faith as a comedian. But in my opinion, this is off the mark. Comedy is now beginning to operate in an artistic void, without any real cultural mores to fight against—the very opposite of Auden’s King Lear. Instead of losing our foolish agitators, we’ve lost our kings, and the fools are thereby becoming irrelevant.

I was 16 when I took my first improv comedy class at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. I had no idea that comedy classes even existed. The idea seemed pretty outlandish, especially since I’d spent my entire life up to that point disrupting “real” classes with the very kind of material that the UCB promised to teach. In class, we learned never to go for the cheap laugh. We read Truth in Comedy by Del Close (the father of American-style improv), which advocated a commitment to truth and honesty at all times. We learned how to structure a scene in order to make it funny. And we learned to take comedy seriously as an art form with attendant dignity. It turned out that the UCB maintained a curriculum just as strict as my academic classes.

I started doing stand-up because I didn’t have to follow any theory. Of course, I met plenty of comics who had read articles or attended classes to learn about “joke structure,” but what truly surprised me was the number of people I met who believed they had an idea of what kind of material was most artistically valid. Comics asked me why I never wrote material about my own life for the stage. Classes, websites, books, and podcasts (most prominently “WTF w/ Marc Maron”) have perhaps inadvertently introduced a notion that the best material comes, as it were, from the heart, and that the only way to maintain artistic integrity is to be honest. I know a guy who would get up on stage and tell white-knuckle stories about being caught masturbating to gay soldier-porn by his homophobic dad. His unflinching honesty in telling these stories was effective, but I also knew plenty of comedians who followed the standard of honesty to a fault, with nothing to show for it but hours and hours of insufferable honesty.

I once had an argument with a friend about whether stand-up comedy is or isn’t a form of theater. I told her I’m always playing a role on stage, and she told me in that case I wasn’t doing stand-up at all, which is different from theater insofar as the performer must be completely himself and totally honest. This serious approach to comedy strikes me as aesthetically unplayful and morally dangerous. The idea that comedy should always aim to tell the truth naturally inhibits the license for speaking the truth that, according to Auden, fools possess only by virtue of not having that responsibility. I’m not alone here. Vladimir Nabokov and Oscar Wilde were both proponents of artful lying and fought tooth and nail against the cult of sincerity.

I realized, too, that there were two main camps of stand-up comedians. There were people like me, people who got into comedy because they were huge comedy nerds, mostly young white guys with disposable incomes. We performed for other geeks and urbanites without any real expectation of pay. And then there were the paid comedians who were mostly, by our standards, unfunny. They eked out a sad pathetic living touring the USA’s dingy little towns, doing crass material for ignorant people. There was a prevalent idea among us that those paid comedians achieved their success by appealing to the lowest common denominator. We were above that. But most of the people I knew “practicing comedy” in Los Angeles were making zero attempts to go professional; rather, comedy for most of us was simply an exciting “creative thing” and a cool social scene to be a part of.

Like any newly defined art form, comedy’s exponents and apologists are insecure and feel the need to ascribe some beautiful purpose to it. But it’s ironic that those doing so are the amateurs. The word “amateur” is derived from Latin “amator,” meaning lover, and I suppose, in another sense entirely, it is characteristic of lovers to define the objects of their love in accordance with their particular ideals. The elitist snobbery of the amateur community has conceived an idea of comedy that is more than just making people laugh—there’s a specific way to do it; there are rules to follow; and there’s a high aim in mind. But what’s ridiculous is the way this notion of artistic comedy—“alternative comedy”—has, like indie rock, continued to posture as an alternative long after rendering the mainstream obsolete.

In Henri Bergson’s “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” Bergson argues that laughter has an essentially social function, aiding a brittle and inflexible society by making it more malleable. The essence of what we find funny, as he puts it, is “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” The classic slapstick example of a man tripping and falling on his ass is funny because his foible is a result of behaving like an automaton, rather than a man, who, in possession of presence of mind, might have noticed the pothole in the middle of the road. In this sense, laughter functions as a self-corrective for automatic, unthinking behavior—it makes us more human.

Soon after Daniel Tosh apologized, many comedians came to his defense, including Louis C.K., who boiled the whole thing down to “a fight between comedians and feminists, who are natural enemies.” Surely there’s no way Louis C.K. meant that comedians are natural misogynists. C.K. himself is sensitive about feminist issues; in one of his bits, he describes his bafflement and outrage after a woman who had previously pushed away his sexual advances told him she had been hoping he would forcibly take her. No, when C.K. says that comedy and feminism are natural enemies, he’s not disparaging feminist issues. He’s referring to an application of feminism that is rigidly dogmatic and brooks no discussion, and moreover—I take a leap here—to dogmatism and rigid principles in general.

Naturally, rigid dogmatic beliefs are precisely the things people don’t want to hear ridiculed, and so comedians have to walk a fine line. Offending these beliefs, whether they’re religious or political in nature, can cause a backlash, but veering too far towards safe territory has its own pitfalls. Jerry Seinfeld’s “What’s the deal with airline food?” is ludicrously tame, and basically comes off as artistic cowardice. The jokes that are on the mark subvert expectations and reveal our own rigid ways of thinking. This kind of anti-conservatism is essentially apolitical, because doctrinaire thinking comes in all forms, from the right, from the left, from fundamentalist religion, from militant atheism, and from the tropes and facile montages you see in films and television.

When I originally heard about Tosh’s apology, I was indignant about what I imagined to be political correctness’s oppressive advance into a heretofore-unrestrained comedy scene. But that’s clearly wrong. Look at Lenny Bruce, who, by the mid 1960s, after being banned from multiple states and most performance venues, was basically harassed to the point of death by the courts and the police for his inflammatory social criticism. The situation is changed now. The public gives comedians more license than ever before. With the exception of certain cases like that of Michael Richards, most comedians these days need only make a brief apology when they really step in it. If the aim of comedy is, as Bergson writes, to curtail rigid doctrinaire thinking, then the real threat isn’t from politically correct reformers—it’s from comedians themselves, who have become conservative about their own craft.

It’s temping to read the Daniel Tosh incident as a battle, especially since heckling naturally entails a confrontation between comic and audience. Tosh’s defenders and detractors clash over their narrow personal agendas, but ultimately the rhetoric used by both camps has the same effect: quieting the voice of the comedian within society. While his critics may strive to limit comedy’s field of operation, his defenders offer a kind of harm more insidious than mere censorship. In respecting the comedian and his sacrosanct right to speak the truth, they drastically change his role. The freedom to tell the truth, as Auden imagines it, is derived only from a position of powerlessness and irrelevance. Possessed of a responsibility to be honest at all times, the fool’s ability to do so is undermined. Arguments about comedy’s importance only serve to deprive fools of their masks, turning them into unwitting dukes instead of the idiots they’re meant to be.

Furthermore, in justifying Daniel Tosh under the auspices of his loyalty to the spirit of comedy, in fetishizing his “risk-taking” and “honesty,” one ignores the central question of whether his joke was funny or not. What’s interesting is that before he was interrupted onstage, he was in the middle of arguing that rape jokes can often be funny. In fact, I agree with him—they can be—but a joke about rape isn’t funny simply because it’s about rape. Tosh, like the alternative comics who otherwise stand apart from him, seems to have accepted the idea that “telling it like it is,” whatever that means in his case, amounts to the same thing as being funny. But comedy is about making people laugh, not merely offending sensibilities, and the success or failure—the “truth”—of a joke lies in its humor, not merely the presence of something heinous. In the aftermath of the Tosh fiasco, probably the best rape joke I read was in the Onion: “Daniel Tosh Chuckles Through Own Violent Rape.” The article made me laugh not because rape is funny, but because it pokes fun of Daniel Tosh’s insistence that it is.

As appreciators of comedy become more sophisticated, they risk depriving their beloved art form of its violence and force. Yes, heckling is odious in practice, but its presence indicates that comedy is still alive and well, that the jokes told on stage are still capable of effect. In Shakespeare’s time, audiences got drunk, cheered, booed, and generally made life hell for the performers, who were still considered a fairly lowly bunch. In retrospect, his time is regarded as the heyday of theater. In the 19th century, people crowded on the docks to await the shipment of the next chapter of a serialized novel by Charles Dickens. But now literary fiction and theater have been portioned off to the cognoscenti. If some random person off the street goes into a comedy club and gets pissed off, that shows me that the form is still alive and well, and hasn’t crystallized into a form meant only for sleepy appreciation.

I suppose the article I’m writing now is basically conservative in its nostalgia, because I’m lamenting the demise of comedy as an exclusively popular genre. Any artistic movement always has a mantra, a philosophy, behind it, and this is what I decry, because any artistic philosophy is always self-limiting. Alas, it is the success of stand-up as a genre that has resulted in the formation of its schools, the codification of its rules, and a more rarified atmosphere for its performance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Comedy is merely changing and becoming more self-aware. I myself am a product of this self-awareness. The defenders of comedy as an art form are acting in good faith, and the articles that came out after the Daniel Tosh incident supporting comedians’ right to experiment and take risks onstage are on the money. But it’s important to remember that the guys onstage are basically just fools.

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