#2. Who Has the Power?
In the past year, I've spent a lot of time in comedy clubs, making friends with a bunch of comics, and I can tell you, by and large, comics are not the power elite directing the zeitgeist of the public's perceptions. Comics might be one of the few groups of people who get less respect than bloggers, and I feel confident (and depressed) saying that advertisers and reality television stars hold more sway over popular culture than the overwhelming lion's share of comics. In our world it seems, only the treasured few comics are exalted and when they are, only for doing something that isn't just stand up: a TV show, movies, books. For reasons that make no sense to me, the public is more inspired by pretty actors than the combined writer-performers that comics are, but there it is.
Something else about comics: They want to be liked. Desperately. It's their job to make you happy. Go into a comedy club. See how hungry the majority of comics are for approval. Watch the comics before they go on. Do you know what they're doing? They're watching the audience. Feeling the vibe, seeing what's getting laughs,and who's in the crowd. They're doing that so they can tell the kinds of jokes that audience wants to hear. They're thinking about adjusting their sets, changing their jokes, changing their demeanors, even. The audience is the boss. If they go up there and no one laughs, they lose. Nine times out of 10, if a comic tells some "joke" where the punchline is "Ha, someone got raped," that comic will lose that crowd. The 10th time? Well, apparently, the comic is telling shitty, awful jokes, to a shitty, awful audience that apparently likes shitty, awful things. But most audiences will rightfully hate you. I got boos onstage once for an anti-Canadian rant where I said I would never compare Canadians to Nazis because Nazis are efficient and good at something. Personally, I find nothing unPC about saying Nazis were efficient and good at genocide, but that's the point. Most audiences are sensitive even to the proximity of an edgy joke when none is being made.
Me, reacting to an audience member apparently finding me anti-Semitic.
In support of the power of words, Lindy West explained to Jim Norton that 50 years ago there were more wildly racist jokes towards blacks, and now that we don't tell those jokes anymore, society has become less racist. In science, they call that a temporal association. Two things happening at similar times with no proof of actual causation. Like you might be reading this on the toilet, but there is no proof that my prose causes defecation. (Anecdotal evidence doesn't count). The credit for our society becoming less racist should probably go first to men like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and --if you need to throw white, funny guys into the mix-- men like Norman Lear and his socially relevant shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons. Respectfully, Ms. West has it backwards. Comics cleaned up their acts because audiences would not tolerate mere racial hatred masquerading as humor. These hack comedians who Ms. West rightfully finds so offensive are not capable agents of social change. They're half-talents in bad haircuts grinding out livings, at best, in basements.
#1. So Now What?
The thing that's so frustrating about this debate is its lack of a clear goal. What is being sought? In her original Tosh piece, Ms. West's goals were clear: She wanted the right to criticize Tosh for his unfortunate remarks. She did not feel his status as a comic safeguarded him from the consequences of his words, and I absolutely agree with that. (Remembering that we say all sorts of unspeakable things and only some of us have the misfortune of saying them spontaneously on stage.) At the start of the Norton-West discussion, she reiterated this point, recognizing the constitutional right to free speech for both rape-joke tellers (never defined) and the people calling rape-joke tellers dicks. Again, I agree, and I'll go even further and say I disagree with Norton, when he says people shouldn't threaten sponsors to pull ads from things they find offensive. Norton says the market should decide instead what is good or bad, but people threatening sponsors is exactly what the free market is. Do I find most protest groups who seek to limit speech attractive? No, I usually don't, but that is society. That is a right we all have.
But something is getting lost in this discussion: Just as any good comic should be mindful of the ramifications of words while mining dark territory for jokes, good protestors also have responsibilities. By the end of that Norton-West discussion, it did not seem West was content merely to call hack comics "dicks." Instead, she was putting forth an undefined rhetoric that "rape jokes" are just bad for society generally and shouldn't be told, which takes us back to the first point: What jokes are we talking about exactly? It's not possible to speak about this in the abstract.
Or on the 'net, but here we are.
Not surprisingly, attempts to have this "debate" without specifics has gotten incredibly ugly because emotions have filled the void. Unfortunately, the two biggest catalysts for joining causes are hatred and pain. Look at the monsters saying unspeakably ugly things to West. They are haters, and not in the 21st century bullshit vernacular, but in the truest sense of the word. Their hatred of this woman reveals an obvious hatred of women generally and a clear hostility towards the undeniably right cause of a safer world. And look at some of the activists referring to Norton as if he were some sort of mentally-impaired barbarian. They are protesting from a place of a pain, reacting to a world that has been hostile to them.
At the end of the day, I'm not comfortable having people make decisions about the validity of art when they're coming from places of pain or hatred. When you do that, it's really easy to go off the rails. Remember the PMRC in the '80s? No? Ask your mom. That was that group started by Tipper Gore who, despite perceptions, was hardly a square. Anyway, Tipper was surprised to learn that her children's music had lyrics supporting cocaine use and fucking like a beast. Things she didn't know until after she had purchased the music. She sought to start an organization to put warning labels on records to advise parents about this content. Of course, from that noble or innocuous intention, came more and more followers placing increasing pressures on artists to keep the children safe. By the end, the PMRC was a mockery. I remember taking special delight in their press release that Eurythmics were a bad influence for children because Annie Lennox occasionally dressed like a man, but Michael Jackson was a wonderful role model for kids.
And this isn't even the worst thing to show.
It's absolutely true: There are words and jokes so indefensible they should be rejected. They should have consequences. Still, it's just as important that we be highly specific with our criticisms. It's no secret that everyone from geniuses like Jonathan Swift and Stephen Colbert to average unnamed comics have been accused of supporting things they were opposed to by people who simply didn't get the joke. And if we're going to have consequences for humor, then we better have specific indictments. Because only in response to specific charges can comics defend their work and let the public judge. If the court of public opinion is going to deem what's offensive without hearing the details of that offense, it will hand down sentences based not on bad acts, but subjective beliefs about unspeakable words and untouchable topics. I want to live in a world where convictions are based not just on good intentions and passion, but evidence and reasoned discourse.