Generational Cycles – The Death Of Comedy?
Kobus Cilliers | On 25, Aug 2019
Comedy is in a period of extraordinary flux. It wasn’t so long ago that it seemed like comedians were filling stadiums and everyone was saying comedy was the new rock-n-roll. The past two years, however, have witnessed the reputations of revered comics, such as Louis CK and Aziz Ansari, implode in the wake of #MeToo allegations. Then there is the culture of unearthing old tweets, with standups being held to account for problematic “jokes” they’ve made online (for Kevin Hart, it even cost him his most high-profile gig to date, hosting the Oscars). There are also increasing fears around political comedy and censorship. This month, Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special was pulled because he criticised the Saudi regime over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, while Michelle Wolf’s searing political set at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2018 led to the board announcing that 2019 will be the first time in 15 years that a comic would not be presenting the event. Elsewhere, Jim Davidson, a man once so vile he was almost immune to judgment, was reported for hate speech, at his own birthday party no less (although no action was taken). The comedy goalposts are shifting and there is a demand that the art form gets more socially conscious. But can you be woke and funny? And are we living in a time of such change and heightened awareness that the two can now never be mutually exclusive?
Comedians can say anything and nothing. Which sounds like a contradiction. And a generational one at that. Nomads, history tells us, make the best, most enduring comedians. But now we have the Millennials taking over. And moreover, taking over at a time in history when the most common word used in media headlines seems to be ‘crisis’.
“When comedians say: ‘Oh you can’t say ANYTHING these days!’, what they are actually saying is, ‘I don’t know how to be funny without stomping on people.’ Which is fair enough: not everyone has those skills,” says Danish standup and podcaster Sofie Hagen (Millennial) (photo at the head of the article).
Hagen is part of a new generation of comics retaliating against the old template of comedy. Nights such as The LOL Word (for queer women and non-binary performers) and FOC It Up!, standing for “femmes of colour”, have emerged, along with the new comic voices including Chloe Petts, Jodie Mitchell, Kemah Bob and Sara Barron. Hagen is also emblematic of this new kind of comedian. Last year, she demanded that every venue on her Dead Baby Frog tour was “anxiety safe” (meaning audience members with anxiety could be allowed into the venue before others arrived, or be warned of any words or topics that might be triggering for them), had gender-neutral bathrooms and were wheelchair accessible. She had a positive response from fans, but faced an inevitable backlash online.
“The people who come to my shows, the people who enjoy my standup and my podcasts, they’re on the right side of history. They get it,” she says. “And I know that a lot appreciated it. The negativity I got was mostly online: loads and loads of hateful tweets and comments from people who were never going to go see my show anyway.”
Is this the future of funny? Perhaps it is the only way to survive right now? Comic Dane Baptiste (Millennial) thinks it could be detrimental to a comic’s career to plough on with problematic humour: “It’s not an obligation for comedians to be socially aware in their narrative but I feel that if you have no commentary on the mechanics that affect your life and lives of others, you might find yourself rather detached, and eventually irrelevant.”
Comic James Meehan (Millennial), on the other hand, says. “The thing about standup is you can joke about absolutely anything. Nothing is off limits. It’s just how well you can write and frame the joke. I know lazy comics who only complain about political correctness because they don’t want to update their material. The other people who complain are those who want a platform to spout hateful rhetoric.”
But it is not just about laziness; sometimes there is a deliberate attempt to rile. Here’s the other side of the contradiction, the ‘say anything’ story. Before the recent allegations, Louis CK’s (Nomad) comedy was subversive: poking fun at the inequalities of American society, while simultaneously acknowledging the ways they benefited him. After allegations of sexual misconduct appeared last year, however, the comic seemed to react with horror at a new world that threatened his unexamined patriarchal mindset. According to reports, at a recent New York show CK made jokes about survivors of gun violence and minorities such as non-binary teens. When some listeners appeared shocked, he allegedly responded: “Fuck it, what are you going to take away, my birthday? My life is over, I don’t give a shit.”
It was as if CK had reacted to the new wave of wokeness by indicting political correctness; he became an almost Trump-like figure, amplifying for shock value and catering to an audience who probably felt as if accusations about him were false or insignificant.
When it comes to how people balance freedom of speech versus social responsibility in their comedy, there is, it feels like, a generational divide. “The received wisdom would probably be that there is,” says comedy writer and actor Liam Williams (Millennial). “Though it would be complacent just to assume that any backlash to increased nuance, consideration, and empathy in comedy is just coming from nearly-dead Daily Mail readers. There’s a new sense of panic about tolerance and not just among older people.”
As if to clinch that point, just before Christmas, Russian-British comedian Konstantin Kisin (Millennial) pulled out of a gig for the Unicef on Campus society at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies after refusing to sign a “behavioural agreement form”. The form stated: “By signing this contract, you are agreeing to our no-tolerance policy with regards to racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism.” Kisin told the Daily Mail: “I grew up under the Soviet Union. When I saw this letter, basically telling me what I could and couldn’t say, I thought this was precisely the kind of letter a comic would have been sent there.”
“As far as I could see, the bulk of the outrage – coagulating around the idea that this represented a threat to free expression – came from older comedians and rightwing broadcasters, whereas younger people in the industry seemed to struggle to apprehend what the fuss was about,” Williams says of the Kisin incident. “Most decent comedy clubs offer some kind of disclaimer on their websites that abuse or discrimination will not be tolerated, from either audience members or acts. That’s not a new thing, but maybe the intensity of the hysteria surrounding it is,” he adds.
So, what’s going on here? Is comedy about to die in a sea of political correctness? Or is it that the world has made a step-change that comedians are still trying to work their way through? Is James Meehan right when he says its possible to joke about anything? Is the nothing/anything contradiction solvable?
As with all things in comedy, the answer lies in timing. There are times when jokes about a given topic make a lot of sense. And there are times when it doesn’t. Just after a problem becomes visibly a problem, there is a lot of anger and depression. This tends not to be a good time to make a joke. It might be funny to a few, but to many it will merely stoke resentment:
Take sexism and the differences between genders, a seemingly perennial comedy topic. Or not. At the peak of the Suffragette movement, it probably wasn’t a good idea to joke about the issue. Later, when the anger has turned to depression and bargaining, it’s possible to be funny again. And when a majority are consciously competent and can see an end to the problem, it becomes comedy prime time:
The problem the Millennial comedians have to cope with is that, as the world, passes through the current ‘Crisis’ period, there’s a lot of anger and depression about a lot of topics that become effectively out-of-bounds for large swathes of the population. Anything can be funny, just not to all the people all the time. Maybe, therefore, its not that Millennial comedians aren’t as funny as the Nomads that preceded them, just that the Millennials have come of age during a period in history when the population at large is looking elsewhere and has other things to think about, and wants to laugh at something that takes peoples’ minds of crisis-stuff. Or maybe the main job of Heroes during Crisis periods is to solve the Crisis. Let someone else joke about it afterwards.