In 1996, the late American comedian George Carlin opened his set at the Beacon Theater in New York with a blistering question: “Why is it that most of the people who are against abortion are people you wouldn’t wanna f–k in the first place?” Fellow stand-up Patrice O’Neal, in Elephant in the Room (2011), proposed an official “Harassment Day,” where he could openly profess his desires for a co-worker, repercussion-free. In 2015, Louis CK, in front of Saturday Night Live‘s audience of millions, offered a tight-rope syllogism about the presumed irresistibility of paedophilia to paedophiles. For a comedian, these are career-making insights; for a politician — at least before the 2016 election — they are career-ending. What’s the difference? What is it that allows comedians to dodge the blade of scrutiny?
Of course, comics don’t always avoid punishment. In recent years, a wave of comedians — Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer, Tracy Morgan — have crossed the line into controversy. Even while overtly working within charged and provocative topics, they still transgressed carefully limned boundaries of stand-up. Violating boundaries can occur around the codes and rituals that shape a comedic performance, the almost mathematical sequencing and structure of jokes and joke-logic, or in a misfired “connection.” (The poor connection can perhaps best be summed up as ill-will, or belief that the performer is acting needlessly maliciously, or out of harmful ignorance.)
In 2012, Tosh veered into tasteless and extreme audience-interaction when he responded to a woman who’d shouted out: “Actually, rape jokes are never funny,” by replying: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?” A year earlier, Morgan bungled the portrayal of skewed perspective (in the favorable interpretation that Louis CK gave him) when he said on stage that, if his son were gay, he would stab him to death if he didn’t talk to Morgan “like a man.” And in 2015, over the course of several stand-up bits and a hosting appearance, Schumer improperly defined the contour of a “dumb white girl character” when she made flat-footed racial jokes. (It bears mentioning that Tosh and Morgan’s bits were reconstructed second-hand.) These misadventures were particularly catastrophic in that they dealt with the darkest, most sensitive and controversial topics possible.
Comics have also complained of having to self-censor to avoid compromising a college-campus paycheck, and the politicized taboos, subjective pains, and special interest groups that this represents. But moralizing pushback isn’t new. As Kliph Nesteroff explains in The Comedians (2015), the phrase “working blue” comes from the blue envelope that religious vaudeville operators would send to performers backstage, indicating off-limits content.
Yet comedy requires passage into the ugly, uncomfortable areas of the human heart, particularly in a live forum. So, in the manner of jesters before medieval kings, comics need a temporary pass, a stay of execution, to do their work. Calling oneself a comedian is tantamount to issuing a personal-injury disclaimer. Like philosophical BDSM, the audience’s response gives signals to the performer in play. Stand-up audiences trust the stunt pilotry of the comedian — to watch the looping-through-obstacles of apparent offense into a broader pay-off.
The intent of comedy makes the artwork a distinct and separate object of scrutiny. If an artwork is recast as a “routine,” it is judged for its success by its final outcome: whether the bullet hits the apple or the performer’s head. In the concrete pay-off of the laugh, the stand-up is also immunized to being judged by intention; either a joke works (laughter) or doesn’t work (no laughter).
The comic’s free rein and near-impunity are alluring to other artists, who often label their work as comedy or satire. Once an artwork is cast as “comic,” darker and nihilistic elements can more easily be introduced as part of the “routine.” If an author invokes the persona of the comedian, a wedge immediately arises between artist and art. This gives the artist a certain freedom. Negative blowback can be reframed as an audience not “getting it.”
The American author Bret Easton Ellis attributed the misapprehension of his now-notorious novel American Psycho (1991) to this tendency. The book was once reviled as an obscene screed against women, but is now considered something of a satirical epic. In a 2016 interview with the online magazine Complex, he explained that the mistaken response was due to a critical inability to see that “just because you’re writing about a misogynist, doesn’t make you a misogynist.” The injection of “humor,” and the protective layer of one’s status as “comic,” can offer an even more detached distance of author from art object. The misanthropy of the protagonist Patrick Bateman and his general cluelessness are, to an outsider, humorous. American Psycho is a comedy of manners under the hood of grotesque violence.
The persona of the comedian can also be used to write about uncomfortable ideas in fiction. The French author Michel Houellebecq is no stranger to controversy. His novel The Possibility of an Island (2005) features a comedian as its narrator. The comedian puts forth provocatively titled farces that are intended to be nihilist, pseudo-critiques that play on the misguided, supposedly enlightened ideologies of their target audience. He proposes Let’s Drop Miniskirts on Palestine!, evincing the tone of a “light Islamophobic burlesque,” and Munch on My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler), a parodic porn film with a “touch of anti-Semitism,” and pitches them as merely aloof, high-concept works of political satire based on opposing prejudices. The narrator ironically calls Gaza Strip a “rather elevated form of comedy” and scoffs at the intelligentsia, who praise what is devised from the beginning as inflammatory and pornographic sensationalism. Houellebecq and his narrator are the same in this regard: Both combine volatile and controversial social elements, yet only to neutrally watch the consequences, like a scientist in a lab. There is no innate moral in the premises’ construction. Yet, while the comedian of Possibility receives praise, Houellebecq receives notoriety.
In 2014, Louis CK remarked on NPR that comedy is intended to “go to a scary place and laugh,” to defuse and demystify that fear. It is part of the darkness, uncertainty, and ineffability of this “scar[iness]” that allows comics to connect with a deeper, human truth that might be difficult to articulate — hence the explosion of laughter as the point of inarticulate reaction. The German cultural critic Theodor Adorno made a similar recommendation in rejecting a model of “committed” — or overtly political or ideological — literature, which had been proposed by the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre. Instead, Adorno argues for an avant-garde aesthetics, presenting incomprehensible, often ugly, forms. These uncontainable works would be liberated from preconceived agendas. The outcome, for Adorno, was the readers’ confrontation with uncategorizable truth, forcing them into a primal “shock of the unintelligible.”
In requiring a visceral “shock,” comedy aims for a standard beyond any single prescribed principle. Effect is primary to Adorno and, for comedy, this ultimate arbiter is the laughter of the audience. The joke must elicit a response from the audience to verify that it contains some kernel of truth. A sum, holistic feeling of “rightness” emerges for jokes that touch on a right nerve, or aesthetic feeling. Louis CK has said that his turn toward the grim and incomprehensible feelings of parenthood — “Now that I have a baby I understand babies in the garbage” — was met with gratitude from soccer moms. There is then a mystery of intention in this results-based perspective. Either the outcome triggers a reaction (whether intended or not), or it receives silence; the failure sputters out and slips from view. And this murky intention is perhaps at the heart of comedy’s appeal. It allows for an uncertain probing and fumbling into the corners of human experience, knowing something to be true when it provokes the desired reaction.
To “bomb” is to have a joke’s philosophical integrity tested in a moment of intense and heightened scrutiny — and fail. If artists are considered as comedians, then artworks will be judged by results (successful or otherwise) rather than intent. Such a perception allows art to go deeper — into Adorno and Louis CK’s dark territory, even if the passage is painful or perplexing — instead of a more restrained place that allows its audience to walk away with predetermined answers or outcomes. As long as the jester produces a laugh, he is allowed to keep his head.