Let me tell you about my morning. Michael Che, comedian and co-host of “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live, supposedly talked some shit in his Instagram stories about serious stand-up comedians. The type of serious that’s, like, not really jokes at all? “Anti-comedy comedy,” as he supposedly put it. Basically: Nanette. And I keep saying “supposedly” because I can’t find these Instagram stories. I looked! They’re gone! That was what my morning entailed, Googling shit Michael Che may have said on his Instagram and coming up empty-handed. All I have to go on are two articles praising Che’s comments… on The Federalist.
And look, I figured I’d be dragging Che for saying that Netflix should create a new section for “stand-up tragedy” or this shit right here:
ya know some critics say rape jokes arent funny. but you know whats DEFINITELY not funny? rape stories. just flat out, fully detailed rape stories. I dunno about you, but that hasnt made me laugh once.
But I didn’t actually hear him say it. I can’t verify these quotes (though, let’s be honest — it’s not like Che hasn’t talked plenty of other nonsense in the past). So instead of focusing on whether Che should be an arbiter of what should or shouldn’t pass as comedy, I’m more interested in the conclusions The Federalist draws from his supposed rants.
Because while I can’t verify the context of his quotes, or see if he said anything else on the matter, I sure as shit can verify THEIR quotes. And what’s clear is that Che is being used as a symbol to justify a bunch of whingeing about how comedians should just focus on being funny instead of trying to use their platform to talk about serious social issues.
No really — that’s how the follow-up opinion piece started:
The hottest trend in stand-up comedy is to fill as much time on as possible on a political soapbox, and perform no actual comedy. The new rock-star comedians praised by progressive millennials do not make uniquely funny observations about life, but reveal deeply personal tragedies to their audience, usually with a strong call to social action. They seem to have one, strong characteristic in common: They are not funny. That’s not an opinion, that is the comedians’ intention.
Look, I dunno if Hannah Gadsby, Cameron Esposito (misspelled as “Carmen” in the article, natch), or that time “Jimmy Kimmel famously cried on his show after a terrifying health crisis involving his infant son” counts as a hot trend. After all, you can still watch plenty of stand-up comedy specials full of punchlines. And some of those jokes DO happen to be political, or social, or about serious topics. Comedy has always pushed the envelope of how we view the world, bringing up taboo topics and exposing them to the light. And now maybe the role of comedy is becoming reflexive, examining itself and the role of comedians as much as anything else in the world. Criticizing Nanette for not having enough laughs is deliberately missing the point of the special, after all.
It’s said that comedy is tragedy plus time, but when everything seems like a fucking tragedy these days, maybe we don’t have time to wait for it to fit into a pithy punchline.
The one holding the microphone has all the power, and saying something incendiary about Trump is a guaranteed way to get a televised audience to applaud. Even better is to get the audience to applaud your bravery for sharing a story about something terrible. Who needs laughter when you can use your broadcast time to lazily slam the president or talk about a rape and be hailed as a hero?
So, true story: I went to see David Cross last month, when his stand-up tour came to my town. And yes, he did an extended bit imagining what would happen if we put Ron Perlman up as the Democratic nominee against Trump in the next election — a bit that devolved into Cross pantomiming Perlman kicking the shit out of Trump during a debate. By the end, Cross was sweaty and out of breath and acknowledged that maybe none of it was really that funny. But it was really fucking cathartic. And what I think The Federalist might be missing is the fact that, well, humor is subjective. The topics that look like lazy, easy wins to them might be things the rest of us desperately need to hear, and talk about, and not feel alone with anymore. It isn’t easy to make me want to laugh OR applaud these days. Just because these topics make some people uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a craft to how they are presented. And just because you might not be laughing, it doesn’t mean these aren’t still jokes to the rest of us.
But here’s where the opinion piece really lost me:
Comedy-less comedians have also invaded social media. Once followed for their hilarious, quick-hit takes and goofy photos, many have traded comedy for social activism. Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, Michael Ian Black, Adam McKay, and many others have taken on new careers of outrage and calls to action, while indefinitely suspending their attempts to be funny. It feels like a bait-n-switch for those who have followed them to laugh a few times a day. They use their substantial visibility to push politics onto their fans, who are definitely not there for a comedian’s political prowess.
Um, excuse me, but just because you have a career, it doesn’t mean that you ARE what you DO 24/7. Comedians are human beings, not fucking joke machines. Expressing opinions on Twitter isn’t a “bait-n-switch” and nobody is “pushing politics.” Fans can unfollow these comedians if they disagree, while other fans may choose to follow these comedians BECAUSE they are vocal, and take stands. But either way, the comedians have the right to not be funny on Twitter, especially since they aren’t getting paid to tell jokes there. They aren’t performing monkeys, there for our amusement all day long.
Look, if listening to a “leftist shill” isn’t what tickles your funny bone, then don’t do it. There are plenty of comedians to choose from. Jeff Foxworthy is still touring! But to act like there is no space for serious topics in comedy is a disrespect to comedy, and to the talent of the people who work hard to make us laugh — and to think. And for that matter, there are plenty of ways to be an unfunny comedian WITHOUT talking about trauma or Trump. Just look at Michael Che.