A few years back in the before-times my partner and I visited New York City. We both had friends there and neither of us had ever been so taking advantage of a business trip my partner extended his stay and I flew out to meet him.
We did all the touristy things and the first day my high school friend stopped by our hotel so he and I could grab New York bagels together before he headed off to work. It was awesome. On our tourist bucket-list my partner and I really wanted to go to a comedy club and experience that in a New York setting first hand.
The two of us are aficionados of Late Night comedy particularly the Daily Show and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. When we found out that Ronnie Cheung was making an appearance at a comedy club at a time we could make, wild horses couldn’t have kept us away. Once again, for the most part it was awesome.
Ronnie Cheung being the headliner was also the last act and he had a bit about duck sauce that, delivered by any other person would have just been a bit strange, but coming from him was truly hilarious. And of the several comedians that appeared including the host who joked about how he tried to get swoll and utterly failed all but one were incredibly funny and entertaining.
So let’s talk about that one guy. The rest of the comedians with the exception of the host were either women or of colour. And the host made a point of using self-deprecating humour. But this guy … oh dear …. this guy.
He strode up riding a wave of laughter from the last comedienne smiling amiably and looking as ready to entertain as any of the previous comedians. And then it all went pear shaped.
The first set of jokes — if they can be properly called that — were about his Italian heritage and how he felt robbed ‘now that being 100% of anything is no longer fashionable.’ These jokes weren’t stated in a manner that was really racist and so they earned him a smattering of nervous chuckles. It was funny, but it certainly wasn’t that funny. His jokes were about the anxiety of status threat among white men and he was talking to a diverse audience. If he had followed the lead of the other white guy and made them about self-deprecation he probably could have done better.
But then, oh dear god.
The audience at this club was really supportive. This was meant to be — besides Cheung — a showcase of new talent. This was not about hooking a comedian off the stage if they bombed, it was supposed to be about giving them a show with a big headliner and letting them get their material out there. We WANTED to like this guy. And, I dunno about anyone else, but I was pretty drunk at this point and I am one of those people who thinks everything is terribly funny when I’m drunk.
This poor fool decided he wanted to do a joke about the MeToo movement. He started strong saying how much he enjoyed consensual sex which earned him a big round of applause, but then … he described a sexual encounter with a woman who had an outie bellybutton that … while they were having sex her outtie bellybutton somehow managed to go into his innie bellybutton and … the joke was that he felt that that was rapey and was therefore saying “MeToo.” Not only was it in really bad taste but it was every bit as awkward and weird as it sounds with a smattering of “man, women’s bodies are dumb amirite?”
The club went completely silent. I swear I heard crickets. He was clearly expecting a big hardy laugh at his punch-line and instead there was no sound. Not one person clapped, there wasn’t even awkward laughter. An entire club full of people laughing and drinking went entirely still. It wasn’t funny, it was a “joke” about the anxiety of status loss and the rise of equality, and none of us there felt even compelled to laugh.
He scrambled to recover and carry on with his routine, but it just wasn’t salvageable. The joke played to privilege and was delivered to a room full of people who had at some point in their lives dealt with the sort of discrimination and dismissal that this errant “comedian” was trying to pass off as funny.
The question is, why did he think that it was going to be funny?
If I were writing a history of comedy though his assumption that this “joke,” about dismissing women’s autonomy as frivolous and reinforcing white male supremacy would land is actually a good one. It’s not funny and never has been funny even to other white men, but it is performative. Jokes about gender and racial stereotypes have been a mainstay of comedy for centuries. The entire expression, “he’s such a hambone,” or he’s a “ham actor” refers to black-face and how white actors would create caricatures of Black people playing up offensive and inaccurate stereotypes for laughs. It’s not funny, but it plays to power and silences minority voices and for that reason it is — or at least was — celebrated.
To be fair, I don’t think this comedian truly meant to make a derogatory joke and play into societal expectations and privileges. I think he saw that in the past such jokes landed quite well and — lacking the experience to inform him otherwise — simply believed that it was actually funny. I don’t think he was malicious and I wish one of his friends had warned him before he had such a rude awakening in a sold-out club, but here we are.
One laughs at the despotic king’s wit, regardless of how weak, while he is in power. But when he is deposed we are finally able to react authentically to our degradation.
I’ve spoken about the sort of contract with the devil that white women made with white supremacy in the past despite the fact that white supremacy does not even serve white men. But a more applicable dissection of the phenomenon is Amy Dunn’s monologue or diary entry on the “cool girl” in the movie or book Gone Girl. In this monologue with no small dose of derision, Amy explains how the “cool girl,” sublimates herself for her man’s pleasure. Her thesis is that by making herself an object of desire as a “cool girl,” she has lost or has had forcefully removed her own subjectivity, personhood, and even life. She explains that she has been essentially murdered by changing herself for her husband.
Gone Girl is one of those genius creations where despite how despicable the characters end up being the audience can identify with them. Without spoiling it, all the characters in the novel and movie are both unreliable narrators and deeply flawed people. But written and filmed before the MeToo movement, Amy’s “cool girl,” monologue taps into something that was very real at the time and remains so today. This is the woman who exists for male approval, who is always sexually available but also chaste, who is always beautiful without being ostentatious, who never challenges her man, and crucially who will ally with white men before women or people of colour regardless of the situation.
The “cool girl,” would have laughed at a joke dismissive of an epidemic of sexual assault.
For centuries the powerful have made the argument that their power over the rest of the world was justified and even mandated largely on the basis of silent compliance or slavish complicity. There is no excuse for oppression, but the continual dismissal of uncompliant minority voices has rendered white men utterly naïve to the experience of the majority of the world.
And this is why they’re so frightened right now. They don’t understand what’s happening or what part they’ve played in it.
A joke capitalizing on stereotypes can actually be funny. But it has to come from a place of understanding. The best example of this is Trevor Noah. Noah firstly is just adorably cute. He’s of about average height, but he’s got a very thin frame and looks a bit like a child when he smiles despite being in his late thirties. To this end he’s somewhat incapable of being intimidating even if he wanted to be. His humour is based largely on vocal impressions and he has entire bits where he will alternate between accents rapidly as if two characters are having a dialogue. He does do physical humour and it basically always lands, but his real talent is in his impressions. But the reason he’s so good at this and the reason his fake language imitations are never offensive is because he is a linguist and he understands and even loves all the people he’s poking fun at. Noah is pointing to the absurdity of situations and taking them one step further into absurdity. He’s laughing with rather than at.
Noah is funny and successful because his humour strips away the power structure and looks at how silly various assumptions and standards of behaviour really are. The best example of this is a routine he did where he deconstructs and skewers the n-word. It’s genius, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about treat yourself to something great. Search for “Trevor Noah: Son of Patricia,” and you are welcome.
Trevor Noah’s definitely a stand out, but he’s hardly the lone really funny comedian who is not white and male. It may speak to my sense of humour but I can only think of three white male comedians that I like and of them only one do I consistently find funny (more on him later.) But my own experience aside, I think this is a trend. Quick, name five SNL comedians. How many of them were white men? And did you think of Tina Fey?
In the nineties and early 2000s comedy was flooded with white men and their *checks notes* humour. But not a lot of these men have been able to hang onto their previously meteoric careers.
The discrepancy in the careers of the cast of Seinfeld is possibly the best example of this. The four main characters in that show were played by white actors and of the four, the only woman was Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She’s also the only one of the four who has maintained the spotlight. Jerry Seinfeld who was the titular character is now widely regarded as just generally not that funny, Michael Richards who played Cosmo Kramer wrapped his career around a lamppost after a racist outburst, and Jason Alexander or George Costanza seems to be booking jobs just fine, but he has never matched his previous fame. Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the other hand played Selina Meyer on the spectacularly popular and hilarious HBO series, Veep and remains relevant and pretty much A-list to this day.
It was put forth that the rise in the 80s and 90s of the Jewish comedian was because in the United States most of the Jewish population is white. Jews were “the other,” but in a way that was still safe to white men. Jewish men have enough life experience of discrimination to be funny without having the threatening appearance of a woman or person of colour and were therefore more readily accepted as comedians and entertainers.
The thing about comedy is there’s this idea that you have to be a little broken or hurt to be funny. Humour is undignified. It almost has to be. So the king can be witty and clever, but he can’t be hilarious. Humour lies in surprise which is why a sly, dryly delivered comment from a generally serious person is so funny, but levity cannot be maintained alongside power except where a person in power is literally performing their power.
King Louis XIV performed as Apollo in Le Ballet de la Nuit, and was apparently a skilled dancer, but a king performing is never about the art so much as it is about the king himself. The relationship between him and the audience is fundamentally different. For normal performances a performer is pleasing the audience. But if a head of state does it particularly as a monarch rather than a democratically elected leader the audience is playing to the performer.
Imagine if Queen Elizabeth II regularly performed as a musician. She would likely be pretty good because as Queen she would have exceptional training and access to the best instruments and accompanists. But she would never be as good as a professional musician because her job is to be Queen. Say then she cut an album. It would probably be fine. And it would almost certainly sell well in part because she’s Queen and in part because people would be curious. But no one would dare criticize her in the way they would any other musician and if they did it would immediately become tied to their political ideological leanings as opposed to an analysis of her actual interpretation, talent, and technique.
Comedy goes even further than music or dancing. Comedy is not just undignified but subversive. And it always has been. That’s its point. That’s even why court jesters existed. They were baked into the power structure to make sure the monarch did not get too full of himself. You cannot subvert a power structure that you sit atop without upsetting your own throne. A man who brags about being heterosexual and 100% white cannot be funny until and unless he’s willing to topple and undermine himself.
And yet for years the only comedians really allowed to be famous who weren’t straight white Christian men were straight white Jewish men. The justification of this was the standard, “well we’d love to have more diversity, but they just haven’t earned it,” when in fact the comedic fortress was barricaded and the drawbridge drawn up.
There was even an idea in comedy that women and feminists in particular just weren’t funny or didn’t have a sense of humour. And of course the reason for this was not so much that women and feminists aren’t funny, it’s just that white men’s jokes are bad and they should feel bad.
Real feminists who disavowed white supremacy were openly refusing to laugh at the king’s “wit.” (Certainly this is also true of people of colour, but white men tend to isolate themselves from people of colour and therefore are less likely to interact with them and observe them not finding your joke about white supremacy terribly funny.) But if the only comedians who perform are white men and their audiences are also basically only white men, the lack of laughter from the occasional white woman will be unremarkable.
White men as the solitary arbiters of comedy did not have a lot of longevity. How could it? If you want genuine laughs from a diverse audience you have to field someone willing to play to them. Everyone will clap for Louis XIV, but they clearly were not fans of his grandson. If you want the people’s love you have to give them a reason to love you.
You can construct absurdity and thereby earn a laugh, but a truly successful comedian has to be authentic. The stories can be exaggerated but they have to have a ring of truth to them with which the audience may identify. I don’t want to go so far as to say an artist must suffer, because that encourages cruelty and puts artists in a precarious position, but artists must have empathy. This is true of great musicians and dancers, but it is especially true for actors and comedians.
Trevor Noah can have an entire routine about the n-word because he roots it in empathy and even radical love, but the joke about bellybutton rape didn’t land because it was dismissive and lacking in empathy.
So I hope that dude switched careers and is now doing something he might be good at like chartered accountancy.
At this point, especially because I segued straight from commentary about how white, culturally Christian, men aren’t funny into a joke by white, culturally Christian, men who are quite funny you might have questions re: whiplash.
Again, it’s all about empathy. White men are absolutely capable of empathy meaning they can be funny. The issue is, white men have so much entitlement and privilege and rarely see or care about the suffering of others that they are both unwilling and afraid to dethrone themselves. White men believe they can have everything without doing the emotional work and they’re usually proven right.
John Cleese is a pretty good example of how an empathetic white man can be uproariously funny, but I think the best example is Stephen Colbert. Colbert is Irish Catholic and had a very privileged upbringing which included extensive literary, philosophical, and musical training. He remains a practicing Catholic and regularly references what he considers his home state of South Carolina — although he was born in Washington, D.C. and spent some of his childhood in Maryland. On paper he seems like the sort of man I, as a liberal woman, would steer well clear of. And yet he espouses none of the bigotry so many white men do and is almost universally funny.
I do not know why Colbert turned out so well and how he nurtures his empathy as effectively as he does, but he does regularly dismantle his privilege. I also wrote a short piece on how as a Catholic myself I don’t recognize Amy Coney Barrett, but I do absolutely recognize Stephen Colbert. Perhaps it’s his brilliance, perhaps he genuinely cares for others, but for whatever reason he is deeply empathetic and therefore a truly great comedian.
Clearly, regardless of the excuses white men have had for the dearth of women and people of colour in comedy, the issue is not that white men are just naturally not that funny. The issue is that they’re still afraid. For the most part white men want to maintain their privileged position in society. They’re afraid of knowing what the rest of us have gone through entirely because they haven’t been through it. Comedy was a weapon they used to perform power, but now it’s back to being subversion of power.
A performer to be good must put herself at the mercy of her audience. For someone who is powerless that’s a relatively easy role to fill. But white men struggle with it. They don’t want to give up their power.
And it just isn’t funny.