As I’ve stated in this column many times before, stand up comedy, for many reasons, is a much different breed of cat than other art forms. Unlike film, music and visual art, comedy — especially stand up comedy — doesn’t often get the same pretension of subjectivity that these forms do. For one, people tend to think of themselves as intuitively good judges of comedy because it’s the one art form they participate in every day by telling jokes, even when they’re not that funny.
However, there is another equally important factor for why stand up comedy can be so difficult as both a performer and consumer. The work of comedians is almost entirely judged by the audience’s immediate, in-the-moment reaction to it. Audiences are the ultimate judge of whether or not a joke works — because they’re who it’s meant for.
Sure, sometimes a comic might get a bad crowd that seems more inclined to judge than enjoy a performance, but for the most part, the consumer is always right. It’s why the notion of “political correctness” has been such a hot-button issue in comedy — it’s a perceived battle between the audience and the performer.
Still, as I’ve discussed in earlier columns, the concept of political correctness means many different things to many different people. Why shouldn’t comedians joke about marginalized communities? Why is it that some comedians are able to talk about certain things but others aren’t?
One of the most obvious, if sometimes unfortunate, rules in stand up comedy is that half of a joke’s success depends upon who is telling it. Reputation plays a pivotal role in how well an audience receives a joke from a comedian in the moment. A live audience is much more predisposed to laugh hard at a half-baked joke from Whitney Cummings than a meticulously conceived joke from Joe Schmoe.
There’s no way some of Dave Chappelle’s material from his recent specials would be lauded as brilliant if he wasn’t already grandfathered in as an all-time talent. Some of his jokes — especially those about alleged rape victims and the LGBTQ+ community — have received a fair amount of backlash from critics and viewers. Yet, audiences were overwhelmingly pleased with what Chappelle put out. Hell, he even won a couple of Grammys for it.
Would these jokes get the same kind of reception coming out of Shane Gillis’ mouth? Almost assuredly not. We know Chappelle; that’s just the kind of humor he’s always done and we continue to praise him for it. Audiences and critics obviously love him enough for him to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2019.
Are these jokes bad? Is someone a bad person for laughing at them? That’s certainly up for debate. What’s not debatable, at least to me, is that they definitely sound a lot funnier coming from Chappelle than they do from many other people.
In addition to reputation, context also matters in why we laugh at some jokes versus others. It’s always been my belief that certain, darker types of comedy operate on a suspension of belief. When Anthony Jeselnik jokes about dropping a baby, the audience laughs because of their fundamental understanding that he’s not being serious.
It’s for this reason why I believe Louis C.K.’s attempt to come back to stand up has been an ill-conceived dumpster fire to watch as a consumer. Some Louis C.K. diehards might claim that, no matter how he went about it, there was no avenue for him to convince certain audiences to forgive him and allow him to continue performing comedy, and they’re probably right. Many people would not forgive him after he admitted to sexual misconduct.
However, there was a large number of fans and nonfans willing to let the disgraced comic at least try to demonstrate that he had truly learned from his mistakes through his material, which is as dark and self-reflective as one can get.
Unfortunately, his comic response, which is included in his new special titled “Sincerely Louis C.K.,” was so tonedeaf and irresponsible to not only his career but the notion of dark comedy in general.
Again, dark comedy thrives on the suspension of belief — you know that the people joking about these subjects aren’t actually bad people. You wouldn’t be laughing at Jeselnik’s dead baby jokes if he had a history of clumsiness around infants. It’s the same reason why Louis C.K.’s once-brilliant darkness seemed rebellious, groundbreaking and strangely comforting when he didn’t have the reputation of being a real-life scumbag. It’s strange that the man whose whole stage persona once revolved around his fragile self-esteem now seems so eager to protect it.
In the special, C.K. does pull out some classic Louis-isms, including one bit about how he understands how one could be attracted to teenage boys, but these jokes that once seemed unbelievably dark and hilarious now seem strange and sinister. His act used to be so effective because it seemed to be him talking earnestly about his worst demons, the ones you never act on and are scared to talk about.
The jokes hit differently when you know he’s the type of person to actually act on some of the disturbing things he talks about. Add the fact that he won’t apologize for the horrible things he’s actually done, and it becomes difficult to still find his material all that funny.
These situations are obviously all very different, and I am not the ultimate judge of comedy’s moral line. If I was then I’d be killing the open mics (in 2021). Though, if there was any purpose in writing this column, it was to spread one gospel — that comedy is an incredibly nuanced and legitimate art form, and it must be treated as such. It’s not just the jolt of “haha” that you get from consuming a funny TikTok (although it can definitely be that as well). It’s an art form built upon analyzing the missteps of life and finding truth within them. When it is done well, comedy is as important of a reflection of our culture as any creative interpretation. When it is watered down and weaponized, it only corrodes the medium for everyone who wants to participate in and enjoy it. It’s not that serious, but take it seriously — ya know?
Matthew Philips is a senior writing about comedy. He is also the wellness & outreach director for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Waiting for the Punchline,” ran every other Thursday.