Some Serious Talk about Comedy

During the years that I lived in New York City, I frequented a certain scene wherein I got to be friends with a number of performers of various stripes, many of them stand-up comedians. I even tried my hand at comedy a few times, but apparently I am only funny when I’m not trying to be.

Some stand-ups have ambitions of parlaying their comedy routines into an acting career or some other creative field, but many are dedicated wholeheartedly to the art of the joke. There is something romantic (and terrifying) about being alone on a stage with nothing but a microphone and your wits.

Most of the stand-up comedians I know want to be, and should be, considered legitimate artists. However, a lot of them also cannot seem to endure the kind of intellectual scrutiny that “serious” novelists, musicians, actors, and painters undergo regularly. The nature of comedy provides the easy excuse that, of course, it should not be taken seriously. But there is almost always something more serious at work behind comedy, especially when it touches on politics, sexuality, race, or religion.

A comedian friend recently posted on Facebook: “Comedy is protected free speech, so if you hear someone tell a joke that you think is offensive, treat them like an endangered bald eagle and leave them alone!” Within minutes, dozens of people had “liked” this status post and made positive comments. It triggered a kneejerk comment from me about how the First Amendment doesn’t protect one from criticism; it only protects one from jail. It touched a nerve. I didn’t intend to be didactic, but I knew it would come across that way, so I deleted it shortly afterward. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Of course, a person could find a joke “offensive” for all kinds of reasons. Leaving the comedian alone is probably a good first step if that happens to you while watching a stand-up set. There is no need to disrupt a performance in progress to pursue whatever your issue is. At the same time, when comedians venture into sketchy areas, I think it’s fair for them to be prepared to defend their work in a public forum. Jon Stewart, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, and others are excellent role models in this area. Part of why these comics are successful is because they are engaged with the human experience in a very deliberate way. They don’t go for what’s easy as much as they go for what’s real, and they can talk seriously about the same topics that they cover in their acts.

It’s my nature to be serious, I guess, even about comedy. I’ve been accused a couple of times recently of “not having a sense of humor” because I wanted to probe some offhand humorous remark with mildly earnest rigor. I make my living now in academia. I ask my students to explain why jokes are funny as an exercise in critical thinking. Teaching is also a kind of performance that is a lot like stand-up comedy in many ways, and before I get up in front of the class, I think about everything I’m going to say, the reason I am saying it, and the reaction I expect to get. If the performance doesn’t get the response I hoped for, I have to think about it even more.

The comedians that are my friends are typically very smart, thoughtful people. Otherwise, I probably would not be friends with them in the first place. Even the silliest among them are capable of serious reflection about the impact their work may have on an audience. Comedy is a serious art form, and we should be able to talk about it seriously.

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