If It Don’t Hurt It Ain’t Comedy

What do Joan Rivers and Shane Gillis have in common?
I had never heard of Shane Gillis until he was unceremoniously dumped from the incoming cast of Saturday Night Live. I’ll bet you never did either. Gillis got the hook when it was revealed that he had done fake Asian accents and made some racist jokes. It begs the question of whether anyone associated with SNL actually bothered to do any research, but several other things strike me. Some of you won’t like them.

I wonder why the same people who want to rein in the Second Amendment don’t give a damn about free speech rights guaranteed by First. I despise haters, but I’m not on board with anyone who would replace dialogues with monologues. Those seeking to make the world “safe” for marginalized people often do more damage than good. Gillis was once obscure; now he’s a martyr who will get lots of opportunities to spread what they find objectionable. He will become the darling of the right. When his jokes start showing up on You Tube, Facebook, and elsewhere, PC warriors will have no one to blame but themselves.

Noam Chomsky was right when he said that the answer to hate speech is more speech. I’d put Gillis on SNL and let his work address the court of public opinion. It will decide whether he’s funny or just a jerk. Maybe he’d stick even though he’s conservative–like Dennis Miller,  Norm Macdonald, or Jeff Dunham. IMHO, Miller is funny, Macdonald not so much. I also think Dunham and his puppets are a paint-by-the-numbers embarrassment, but  he’s not going away as long as he’s filling auditoriums.

My second point is that good comedy always has a butt, even if it’s humanity in general, one’s in-group, or oneself. Rodney Dangerfield was the master of self-deprecation; his tag line, “I tell ya’ I don’t get no respect” signals it’s his rear-end in the line of the arcing boot. Comedy exists in the absurdity that lies in the gap between logic and how we actually live and think. Lucille Ball made that approach classic and Steven Wright’s career is built upon it. Did anyone ever do it better than George Carlin? Carlin was assuredly not a PC kind of guy.

Where did anyone get the idea that comedy is pretty? The best comics bring the pain and derail the train. They often use profanity and ribaldry, even when they had to invent or twist it to get past the censors. W. C. Fields coined the word “drat” because he wasn’t allowed to say “damn.” Mae West pulled a fast one on the humorless when she uttered the hysterical line, “A good man is hard to find, but a hard man is good to find.” Give me stuff like that any day of the week over the cloying “cuteness” often mistaken for comedy.

Groucho Marx is my favorite comic of all time. On You Bet Your Life–one of TV’s very first quiz programs–Groucho interviewed people for the sole purpose of making fun of them. He once had a male guest who had something like 14 children. A leering Groucho remarked that he and his wife must be mighty friendly. The guy bit and said that was the case. That prompted Groucho’s immortal riposte: “Do you have any other hobbies?” Priceless!

Comedy also has context. In films made in the 1930s-40s, the Marx Brothers lampooned everybody and everything. A sequence in Day at the Races saw the lads smearing their faces with axle grease and ducking into a black community to evade the law. Today this and the song-and-dance number that followed are viewed as racist. It makes me cringe when I see them, but here’s the deal: In its day–not ours–the controversy was that the Marxes included African Americans at all.

I weary of those who read history from front to back. To be sure, there are comics who have been either total jerks or just not very funny. I have never gotten Andrew Dice Clay, for example. Nor did I like Don Rickles, whose one-trick insult of calling his target a “hockey puck” was only funny the first dozen times he uttered it. Still, truly brilliant comedians rub your noses in things you don’t want to hear–and make you laugh. Richard Pryor’s take-down of white culture was sidesplitting; Dick Gregory’s was a stiletto in the back. Chris Rock certainly isn’t known for being polite. And while we’re at it, don’t you privately feel that Louis C. K. was speaking truth to bullshit in his now infamous “N-word” routine?

How about the brilliant Joan Rivers? She made fun of suicide, women’s bodies, her husband’s penis, and whatever else came into her path. She once told a joke about some terrible condition–I don’t remember if it was cystic fibrosis or autism–that made an audience member blurt out, “That’s not funny.” Rivers’ response was, “Fuck you!” She said she had a family member with condition X and that humor made things bearable. Actually, she wouldn’t have cared even if that hadn’t been the case. Comics such as Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Wanda Sykes are her children.  

If you were to make a list of truly great comics, there’s nothing “nice” about any of them. Henny Youngman was really sexist, but who can resist this joke: “My wife told me she wanted to go somewhere she’s never been for vacation. I said, ‘How about the kitchen.’” Remember the 1990s when every other standup pretender built acts around airline jokes. Nothing deathless about that prose! Who now recalls their names?

Let Shane Gillis do his act and we’ll decide whether he’s funny or not. If you want a monologue, talk to the mirror. If you need cute, watch cat videos. And if you need safe, join a monastery. But watch out for predator priests. Was that nasty? Yeah, but did it make you snort?


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