Are Insult Comedians Gone Forever?
The year is 2002. There’s a long line outside the historic Ziegfeld Theater, a charming single-screen cinema in Midtown Manhattan that, tonight, is hosting the world premier of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. Bespectacled geeks holding plastic lightsabers crowd around nervously glancing at the camera crew from Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is on the prowl.
“When are you due?” Triumph asks a pregnant fan who is wearing an extra large novelty t-shirt commemorating the premier. She cheerfully informs Triumph that her future Jedi is due in six weeks. “Wow,” Triumph retorts, “that's the last time he'll ever see female genitalia!"
Fast forward to modern day – the insult comic is now a niche profession that has become less and less common over time, not unlike the travel agent or the talk radio host. Long gone is the era of the Don Rickles or Andrew Dice Clay style comedian when audiences would pay top dollar just to get verbally harassed by their castigator of choice. Nowadays, the shambling corpse of Jeff Ross remains the last bastion of beratement in a comedy scene mostly devoid of purely disparaging comics. Much like print media, the insult comic is a casualty of the Internet Age, and it might soon go extinct.
The knee-jerk reaction that some of the Internet always seems to have towards any kind of comedy struggling in modern times is to blame the “woke” crowd – after all, political correctness is inherently incompatible with a style of comedy designed to attack the most noticeable features of its targets. Race jokes, gender jokes, jokes about someone’s body, their accent, their job, their upbringing, pretty much any kind of joke about a person’s most easily identifiable characteristics now run the risk of “cancellation” for the perpetrating comic.
I would argue, however, that the advent of so-called “woke” activism has only removed the low-hanging fruit from the lexicon of insults that you can get away with onstage. The rule of thumb for offensive jokes is that they should always be more clever than they are offensive – Andrew Dice Clay is a lot of things, but “clever” isn’t how I’d describe a guy who jokes about murdering gay people and hanging them from street signs. The stiffening of audiences towards Clay’s signature punching-down style just means that the bar is being raised for lazy comedians looking to score a quick laugh off of disenfranchised groups who – until recently – didn’t have the platform to hit back.
One issue with insult comedy in the modern era is that it’s become synonymous with a single program. The Comedy Central Roast series started in the ‘90s when the channel began televising the legendary annual roasts put on by the New York Friars Club. In the early 2000’s, Comedy Central decided to produce their own celebrity skewerings, starting with comedians like Denis Leary and Jeff Foxworthy before moving onto bigger fish like Pamela Anderson and William Shatner.
The roasts were a great platform for launching the TV careers of young comedians like Anthony Jeselnick, but no one benefited from the success of the series more than Jeff Ross. Jeff might be the last pure insult comic left, and he’s appeared on a record fifteen consecutive Comedy Central Roasts. Whenever Comedy Central puts out a new roast, it’s tradition to tune in to see what Jeff is wearing – and if he’s still breathing.
The problem with the Comedy Central Roast series is that it’s cheapened insult comedy to be a tool for celebrity image rehabilitation – as Hannibal Burress so aptly put it during “The Roast of Justin Bieber”, “you should thank me for participating in this extremely transparent attempt to be more likable in the public eye. And I hope it doesn’t work.”
The roasters are seemingly plucked at random – who can forget Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino bombing at “The Roast of Donald Trump” – and the professional comedians only agree to appear in order to promote whatever new project they have coming out. The event just feels cheap and rushed, which might be why they haven’t made a new one in three years, the longest such drought since the program’s inception.
Finally, the biggest reason that pure insult comics are so rare these days is that there’s simply too much competition – not from other comedians, but from everyone. Everyone in the world is an insult comic thanks to Twitter, and there’s simply no way for stand up comedians to match the savagery and the immediacy of a runaway Twitter thread whenever anyone in the public eye says something dumb, or wears something dumb, or makes a dumb movie, or eats a dumb sandwich. Heck, Jimmy Kimmel’s best recurring segment of his show’s entire run is his “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” series.
The anonymity of the Internet brings out the ugliest humanity has to offer, but let’s be honest, sometimes that ugliness is just too funny. It’s darkly comforting to know that the last great equalizer in the Internet Era is the equality of mockery – anyone can be the subject of a scathing comment thread. There’s even an entire community on Reddit devoted to this principle – /r/RoastMe is home to a whopping 2.5 million sadists and masochists.
Insult comedy isn’t going anywhere. If humanity faces a mass extinction event and only three people survive, you’d bet your last bottle of clean water that two of them are going to flame the third one when he trips on a charred corpse and lands face first into a puddle of irradiated mud. Perhaps it’s because the appreciation for targeted jokes is so universal that it’s unlikely we’ll see another Don Rickles in an age when anyone with an internet connection can mock LeBron James in front of millions of other internet smarties.
That’s not to say that there aren’t countless talented stand-up comedians out there on the front lines of ridicule. Most comedy clubs worth their salt have some kind of regular roast battle show, and, now more than ever, those mean-spirited clowns need your support, as well as your price of admission. Give them a shot. You might just catch a stray and leave with a brand new insecurity.
Top Image: Wikimedia Commons / Exploring the Right Brain
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