As an adolescent, I had a habit of watching too much stand-up comedy. Every Friday night, when there were football games and dances I was too anxious to attend, I would fall asleep to whatever performer I could find on Comedy Central Presents, and all was right with my life as long as I could laugh.
I think I inherited this habit from my family, whose core philosophy — if they were to choose one — would center humor as a way to communicate with and understand others. My little brother used to tell me he could make anyone laugh once he got to know them. My mother told me how she laughed at her brother’s funeral, only because crying would have been too difficult. Not to mention she remembered how much my late uncle made her smile.
But in these long, cold days of Netflix Originals, all the former specialists seem to fall short of making me chuckle. This year has seen the return of Dave Chappelle to the public eye. Louis CK and Amy Schumer and Bill Burr are all alive and well, putting out new material. Yet I’m wondering why each of these comedians — plus the many others that have decorated our video players and TV screens — feel so hell-bent on making audiences gasp with stale jokes and pseudo-edgy punchlines.
Moreover, I’m also curious as to why so many of these funny folks market themselves against the grain of “political correctness” and the “overly sensitive” public, which still provides a demand for their material, ironically. I guess I can answer my own question when I realize that we love breaking rules as much as we love making them. Comedy, like many forms of art, deals with topics we’re often too afraid to discuss. It provides a textbook form of catharsis that relieves us of our worry.
Still, I don’t feel out of line when responding to older comedians who, saying audiences have become too uptight, refuse to play college campuses anymore. Maybe it’s not that young people have regressed into a bubble that no humor can pop. Maybe it’s that we’ve heard all these damn jokes before, and we want new ones.
I’ve heard plenty of dark jokes. I could tell you 20 racist and sexist bits that have planted themselves in my head due to how terrible they were (each one of them told to me as if they were God’s gift to the world). And I can guarantee that all the people those jokes target have heard them in spades.
“Well,” I always hear, “it’s not comedians’ fault you can’t take a joke.” But is there any value in holding jokes sacred above all else? What good does it do to believe that everyone loves a joke when it seems more the case that only a specific group does?
The free speech defense is a complete con, too. When you’re arguing for someone’s right to make a joke versus someone’s right to protest that joke, you’re in the wrong camp, especially because the world of comedy is a wasteland for any sort of politics. Plenty of comedians will be the first to tell you they don’t care if their jokes hurt or anger people.
I suppose the sobriety of younger audiences can also cause some frustrations to comedians who thought they had discovered universal methods to cheer everyone up. Overall, though, I feel little sympathy. I love laughing, especially to cope with pain and death. I love making others laugh. I know plenty of people who have no trouble getting people to laugh without reverting to boring clichés and stereotypes of which we’re supposedly too afraid to speak.
It’s not that we’ve never encountered any sort of “real world” where everything is not how we want it to be, and therefore we must shut our eyes and cover our ears and drown out dissent. It’s that we’re used to trolls, provocateurs and shock-value. I can go online and see police shootings, suicides or beheadings with a single mouse-click. Every single teenager with a sense of curiosity can follow suit.
Trauma invades our daily life every chance it gets. Yes, there are many people out there who need laughter because of this fact. It is an intuitive yet unconfirmed truth that those with the most difficult lives often laugh the loudest.
If, however, you crack jokes not to make them feel better but to fulfill your need for controversy and attention, or if you judge the quality of joke by how much it pisses people off, you’re distancing yourself from what you wanted in the first place: to make others laugh, to make them happy.
Comedy involves empathy. My little brother had it right when he said that getting to know someone made it easier to get a laugh. My mother had it right when she had the courage to mourn her brother in a way that helped her survive, a way in which I’m sure he would have approved.
The lesson I learned from them is that humor is personal. Like all types of expression, it involves reaching out to others in a way that forms a connection. When you tell a joke, you make yourself vulnerable. You ask others to laugh.
So why use comedy to dig our heads further into the sand, to enforce old ideas and lazy thought? Sooner or later this shallow kind of comedy will stop working. Then, God forbid, comedians might actually have to stop and listen instead of locking themselves in.
Stephen Meisel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Appearances appears alternate Mondays this semester.