That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

When you have a hateful demagogue on your talk show, or taunt a man for his father dying on 9/11, or hire Ann Coulter to be a human punchline, you flatten out evil.

We’re all mad at Jimmy Fallon. And why shouldn’t we be? This twerpy hack-Leno-in-the-wings has long been a hair-tousling buffoon coasting on the always-funny-but-don’t-get-me-started-on-her-inability-to-find-Afghan-actors-for-that-goddamn-movie Tina Fey’s writing and Lorne Michael’s amoral largesse. But Fallon fully realized a higher state of being a feckless schmuck by having Donald Trump on his show last week. Donald Trump, serial racist and dangerous fool, has been long and correctly hated by anyone with skin in the game or with an iota of sense about the world. He was a loathsome heft of self-aggrandizing bigotry when he called for the lynching of the Central Park Five and has never, not once, done anything but suck value from our cultural existence since. He never should have gotten a reality show and he never should have been on SNL and he sure as shit shouldn’t have been invited on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. But he was, and Fallon, in a suckdog caricature of himself and his pathological need to be ingratiating, strived mightily to be America’s sweetheart of all lives mattering. It was collaborationist pageantry, unsubtle by Vichy standards, and it’s only in trying to avoid an entirely scorched earth essay that I will say I pitied Norm Macdonald and The Roots for their hopefully contractual failure to boycott.

But hating on Jimmy Fallon feels a lot like hating on his forebear Leno, a never entirely satisfying act of muscle memory. He was, after all, seemingly following an unspoken dictum by NBC to soft-pedal Trump and the neo-dork fascists/drunk-aunts-on-Facebook/safe-space-for-anime-avatars crybabies that support him. There’s certainly a long precedent for “all is fair in this mode of communication we call jokes”—even Colbert danced with Kissinger like it was no big thang. But comedy has, as of late, been especially wild in its kissing the vicious on the mouth hard.

Rob Lowe’s Comedy Central Roast was, like most comedy roasts, equal parts funny and soul-crushing. I’m as easily amused as anyone. When comedians stop me on the street and ask if I like to laugh, I usually think, “for sure.” I hate “The Borowitz Report” not because I hate comedy but because I, in theory, love it. Give me a “Defend Comedy” shirt with a jaunty AK-47 under the text and I’ll happily wear it bottomless to bed. Love to laugh, me. So I laughed a few times at the Rob Lowe roast; I don’t remember at what jokes, as none of them were particularly good. But that wasn’t the point of the thing: the point was empty-headed nihilism, the lazy void-fucking that comes when a society finds empathy square and “politically correct.” There were many jokes about the comedian Pete Davidson’s firefighter father who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Said jokes were, in a moral throwing up of hands reminiscent of the excusing of any ’70s (… ’80s … ’90s … current …) musician’s cruelty, subsequently listed in “Best Jokes from the Roast” articles in places like Rolling Stone. I am a fogey. I know. I’m tedious and self-righteous. But I understand using humor to explore darkness and I don’t pretend that the downing of the towers exists on a higher level of trauma than horrors that occur world-wide every day. September 11 jokes are not off the table. Gilbert Gottfried’s infamous 9/11 joke, while yes yes “too soon,” seemed like a genuine attempt to work through something. The jokes at the roast were not. It comes down to the laziness, the pointless inhumanity and, along with presence of Ann Coulter, the flattening out of cruelty.

Nihilism as a comedic ethos is, of course, pretty popular, and I’m loath to disavow it completely, as I realize it’s probably a generational thing and possibly a pot thing. And I, in theory, love the kids and think drugs are fucking great.

I am not a relativist nor, despite my targets here, as far to the left as many of my peers. I believe in evil as a force (no matter how esoteric its form) to be combatted against, actively. I also believe in a justice that is perhaps based on a higher innate reasoning (I hope), but one that is malleable to social norms. When you have a demagogue on your talk show, when you taunt a man for his father dying in the towers, when you have a virulent racist like Coulter on a show only to discuss at length her hairy pussy, you flatten out evil. If we actively behave as though it’s all equal, that we can embrace racists and bigots in the name of “jokes,”11And, yes, calling Coulter horse-faced is embracing her: it normalizes her, makes her sympathetic. She was right not to laugh because none of that shit was funny. then we are saying both critical thinking and compassion are strictly the province of saps and squares—those who don’t “get it.”

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Nihilism as a comedic ethos is, of course, pretty popular, and I’m loath to disavow it completely, as I realize it’s probably a generational thing and possibly a pot thing. And I, in theory, love the kids and think drugs are fucking great. Rick and Morty is my favorite show on TV and I don’t know that I could explain in a court of law why it’s brilliant and Family Guy is trash—aside from the fact that references aren’t jokes, but that’s beside the point. So I’m nervous about discussing Sam Hyde’s new Adult Swim show, Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace—nervous mainly because I don’t want to be hacked by fifteen-year old (or the developmental equivalent thereof) Nazis (a fear seemingly shared by the usual big boys of leftist irony Twitter who like to pile on obscure preachers but seem averse to taking fellow potential ironist Hyde on … I get it, though), but also because I’m not sure of what to make of it. I don’t find it funny at all, but I’m not sure if anyone does or if we’re even supposed to. It’s part of a lineage that includes Tim and Eric and The Eric Andre Show, absurdist sketch shows that at their best can be bracingly grotesque and at their worst can be exercises in pulling wings off flies, with audience and performer both serving as the insect. Sam Hyde’s cast is clearly capable of being amusing but usually opts not to, instead going for non-sequiturs, insider outsider humor, and self-flagellation. Occasionally an actual joke slips out in World Peace and the performers seem vaguely embarrassed that they let such a sellout move taint the proceedings. Not being a pot smoker, I don’t have the propensity for giggles that I think is required to enjoy the humor (or “anti-humor,” which is so wildly elitist a concept that I’m surprised it took people known for their contempt for huge swathes of the marginalized population this long to embrace it) and, not being one of their fellow travelers, I’m not a big enough appreciator of alt-right signifiers to get … whatever else is going on in World Peace.

Hyde, a newly semi-famous avant damaged prankster/sketch artist/inspirational figure to goons who gained prominence doing an inspired fake TED Talk and repeatedly being named on Reddit/4chan as a mass shooter, has an online persona (or actual personality) that is pretty terrible, full of J. Edgar Hoover inter-office memoranda rehashed in a way that’s comprehensible to young men equally concerned with white genocide and ethics in gaming journalism. But I’m unclear if it’s a put-on or just a tedious continuation of the Gavin McInnes effect, where hipsters surround themselves with the absolute dumbest leftists, knee-jerk react viciously, then consider themselves brave and iconoclastic. Hyde has defenders like the Dane Cook of All Things Harambe, Brandon Wardell, who, while exceptionally pretty, doesn’t seem to have any fondness for any master race proselytizing. And he was a Bernie man. But Wardell, a gifted and arguably more popular comedian of the young, newly woke (both in ironic usage and non) MTV/VICE set, is also largely a proponent of the, “If it’s funny it’s good—isn’t ‘intersectional’ a funny word?” view of comedy. His refusal to grapple with, you know, the human soul/body politic or whatever is more of the Seinfeld variety, but replacing “what’s the deal with?” foibles with knowing a lot of rappers’ names. So who knows what vouching from him means. For his own part, Sam Hyde is definitely part of the McInnes school of aggrieved manhood and ahistorical Western Civilization bootlicking. I used to know Gavin. He was always nice to me and, perhaps because I badly wanted to be liked by VICE types, I failed to see or understand what he was. He seemed smarter than me but not quite as smart as he thought he was. Surrounded by coked-out electro-clash deejays and sycophants and avowed leftists like David Cross (whom he’s apparently still friends with, which is … not my problem), he was rarely challenged in any meaningful way. If you only argue with the dudes in bands, a worldview can be reified in a particularly unhealthy way. I naively thought he’d end up as a sort of PJ O’Rourke character, a funny conservative to be occasionally indulged like Mallard Fillmore, so his descent into fringe John Birch cosplay and, on his garish and embarrassingly Spike TV-esque Rebel Media shows especially, DayGlo Hot Topic racism has been dispiriting to watch. Both he and Hyde subscribe to an entirely gnarly bullies-(or in this case, feminists)-kick-sand-in-our-face Charles Atlas ad view of manhood. McInnes even has an organization, Proud Boys (lol), that serves as a sort of paleo diet philosophy club. Even the readership at that bit of New York Press detritus, Taki, doesn’t seem to take him seriously as a proper fascist. His facial hair has never felt like more an affectation, a plea to be grizzled.

It’s not an intellectual exercise when Gavin McInnes gleefully and with deliberate cruelty denounces Aziz Ansari for the most mild advocating for his parents’ civil rights.

Hyde seems to also suffer from the parallel crisis of having attracted a fandom that consists of Red Pill geeks who talk about sexual politics like it’s an exhausting mixture of Wall Street and American Psycho, a corny gaggle of self-improvers whose congenital emotional weakness will probably only be cured by the grave. What’s the merit of being serious with such profoundly unserious men? Maybe it’s easy for me to be glib here—I’ve been punched and punched people, been occasionally brave and occasionally been a total fucking coward and lived with it, and I’ve never had trouble making friends with other men. (I mean, Jesus, how many guy friends, or friends at all, do these dudes need? I hate to be a video game alarmist but I do fear it’s stripping some boys of the capacity for a satisfying inner life.) Anyway, I don’t see my masculinity as a unicorn to be courted. It just is. (Or isn’t. Who fucking cares.) My fiancée watched World Peace and, despite being of a background that Hyde often targets in his online blather (which, it should be noted, she has not read), didn’t want me to be too mean. “Aw,” she said, “it’s just a bunch of boys who have a hard time meeting girls. Let ’em have a show.” Honestly, maybe I’m being naïve, but it’s hard to not feel sorry for men who worry this much about manhood. The Western Civilization stuff is of course more pernicious. To use a problematic framing Hyde will hopefully appreciate: Richard Pryor and Bob Newhart are Western Civilization, worth saving, our Shakespeares, penicillin, our first Cro-Mags albums; World Peace is Yu-Gi-Oh! syphilis hentai writ small as a Worldstar Vine. The show, if not the online ravings, is inoffensive enough but not really a book I’d fish out of the fire at Alexandria either.

The words “dangerous” and “important” are thrown around with abandon, for clicks, to win arguments. But some things are dangerous and some things are important. Hate crimes against Muslim Americans are up seventy-eight percent over 2015, and this does not occur in a vacuum. Comedians like Fallon, provocateurs like Hyde, human blow torches of contempt like McInnes all believe that words matter, or they wouldn’t bother doing what they do. What they advocate and who they make common cause with matters. I have future family members, children and babies, the most precious wide-eyed rug-rats you can imagine that my fiancée has helped raise from birth, with names like Omar and Amir, who will be bearing the brunt of the hate and the violence inspired by the words that these men, in their desire to provoke and subvert and yet be no more free than their skin color already guarantees, spew. It’s not an intellectual exercise when McInnes gleefully and with deliberate cruelty denounces Aziz Ansari for the most mild advocating for his parents’ civil rights, and it’s not a small thing when he and Hyde both endeavor to convince the barely and rarely inconvenienced, their fan base, that said impressionable fans are actually the oppressed, that their historical angst at no longer being the best and most handsomest boys in the world is equal to the pain of those whom we rain bombs upon and systematically imprison.

And of course these assholes have the right to espouse whatever nonsensical backwash they wish. To them it’s just entertainment, an extension of alt-comedy discomfort and outré ’90s ’zines like ANSWER Me! with no real stakes to be seen, at least within their social circles. Gavin has children. A whole bunch of them. I bet they’re cute as hell. I hope they are happy and successful. But I wish he and his ilk could, for even a moment, want the same for Omar and Amir. That, however, would require being able to look past their fear of the passing of white ascendancy, past their denial that invading and occupying other countries might have consequences, and conceive even briefly of others’ humanity.

At this juncture, my sympathies even extend to the makers of South Park. As the Big Mama Thorntons of Libertarian anti-PC persecution complexes, it must be vexing seeing their big hit, “Why Can’t I Say What I Want To Anyone At All Times, Feelings Be Damned,” taken to the mainstream in others’ hands. Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, if recent interviews and/or perpetual online defensiveness and overreliance on the term “outrage machine” is any indication, share at least components of a mindset with all these people (I doubt they’d want to be grouped in with Hyde and nameless roasters, but I don’t make the news). The people who for whom “comedy” may as well be a matter of faith—for whom taking issue with jokes, expecting humor to explained, is akin to flushing the holy text down the toilet. Rock n’ roll, religion, comedy: the three bad boys of self-justification, never beholden to mores or morals of man. And just as Tom Lehrer retired from satire after Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, what purpose does a South Park serve when Donald Trump, right before the election, appears on Jimmy Fallon? How do you skewer a vortex of truly witless celebrity and an evil no less banal for its orange glow, a Libertarian Cthulhu wet dream, minus only the Primus opening credits? Pity faux-subversive comedy, no longer vapid or cruel enough, now left behind. Light a candle in the window for Rosie O’Donnell jokes long time gone.

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I have no idea if we’re living through a historical bottoming out, but I have no loyalty to what has come before in that regard, especially when, “well, such-and-such era was worse” is used to excuse cruelty today. And I don’t know if comedy has a responsibility to “punch up” or whether, like any mode of human communication, it’s basically neutral. But I know that systematic oppression, a rising far right, a wholesale dismissal of our complicity in worldwide suffering are only rhetorical points if you remove yourself, either through nihilism or, yes, fuck it, privilege, from the world as it is, and the responsibilities one is born with to not be a complete cancerous prick.

This year, this week, right now, the practitioners of humor seem more intent on defending their right to make jokes about rape, 9/11, and Syria; to mingle with those who’d facilitate more rape, more 9/11s and more Syrias; to occasionally throw a self-satisfied jab where it can do the least damage by calling Chris Christie fat or Ann Coulter ugly or pronouncing “Trump” as “Drumpf”; to pretend that they’re a class to themselves and by extension an oppressed one; to be about nothing, for nothing, just inanity and depravity with nobody at fault and nothing at stake at all, nothing at the core but weakness and spite, a burnt out bowl and a laugh track, a laying down of arms to the darkness, a trowel of bullshit and the blinders to go with it.

I do, however, still really like Billy on the Street.

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