Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

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  • Published: Jun 11th, 2015
  • Category: Society
  • Comments: 1

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Jerry Seinfeld has come out to complain about how difficult it is to do comedy in today’s politically correct world. This is amusing, because Seinfeld hasn’t been funny in years. “I could imagine a time where people would say, ‘that’s offensive to suggest that a gay person moves their hands in a flourishing notion, and you need to apologize,'” Seinfeld argued recently in an interview. “There’s a creepy, PC thing out there that really bothers me.”

Comedians have always dealt in the taboo. Seinfeld in his heyday dealt in the taboo, the wanton opinions of the characters in his eponymous sitcom series the most obvious example. However, dealing in the taboo doesn’t by itself make one edgy, offensive or avant garde. How one handles the taboo determines such. A good comedian is incisive and insightful; peeling away sore spots of society like an onion and allowing us to ease up on ourselves. Seinfeld used to be the king at this with his observational humor. What a bad comedian is is dismissive and cavalier; alienating certain people in order to evoke laughs from others.

The question as to why this “gay people wave their hands like this” (itself evoking overtones of “black people walk like this”) would be offensive is as simple as figuring out what the punchline is and what it’s directed at. Louis CK, for instance, famously does bits where he comes to terms with his own inborn racism. This turns the punchline on himself, as well as finding human parallels with his audience. What would be the punchline when it comes to how gay people act? It has to be more than simply “they’re different, and that’s funny.”

This is why “oh, such and such offends everybody equally” is not an excuse: Because the type of humor, even when broaching taboo topics, need not be offensive. If the butt of your joke is an entire people, maybe you should rethink the joke. Not the subject – the butt. The subject can be any fucking thing you want, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Rape jokes aren’t inherently offensive, nor holocaust jokes or any other sensitive subject. Rape victim jokes, however… just ask Daniel Tosh, who got an immediate backlash for attempting to shut down a heckler with, “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”

As example, I think South Park is shrill; a soapbox for two people who are little more than elevated internet commentators – their humor caustic, their targets simply lambasted on a larger stage, their acceptability predicated solely on the acceptability of denouncing their targets; fine when it’s Scientology in the crosshairs, not fine when it’s multiculturalism. Another elevated internet commentator, with all the implications there-in, is Dane Cook. I think Jeff Dunham is an abomination who plays to the base bigotry of his audience. I think Adam Sandler was never funny, and his entire career – along with proteges such as Seth Rogen – was based on cheap, lazy humor that paints in broad-stroke caricature.

By contrast, I think Dave Chappelle was able to toe the line of taboo because he understood the nature of that issue. His targets were stereotypes, not people. I know he quit initially because audience members started taking his punchlines to be broad-strokes caricatures – he hated when people started shouting back his Rick James skits to him, just as Chris Rock hated when people would start reading into his “two kinds of Black people” skit, turning him into an ersatz minstrel show. I think In Living Color was a fantastic example of how taboo topics could be broached, and in my opinion it launched the careers of funnier comedians than Saturday Night Live ever did, even if their seminal Chevy Chase / Richard Pryor skit was legendary.

It’s not about the topics. It’s about the punchlines, and if Seinfeld can’t figure that out, he’s about as unlovable as his television persona was.

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