Only comedy can save us now

Melissa Kite

Melissa Kite says that stand-up is the last bastion against compulsive offence-takers

16 September 2018 22:55

‘I’m like Evil Knievel,’ says Dave Chappelle, explaining why no one in the audience is getting their money back. ‘I get paid for the attempt.’

And so he should be. Attempting comedy in the age of offence-taking deserves danger money, especially when trying to navigate the meme-infested waters into which many jokes inevitably plummet.

Comedians have been reduced to explaining jokes lately, which I find about as reassuring to watch as news reel of books being burned in 1930s Germany.

With an ever-expanding array of complainants lining up to allege injury to feelings, how do we laugh? I mean, who makes us laugh? Who is going to have the relentless, inexhaustible gall, the nerves of steel and the iron will to do this dirty but essential work of lancing society’s boils and releasing the world’s pressure valves?

Maybe not me. I’ve just been the subject of a racism complaint because of a joke I made about a type of plant. By calling ragweed ‘invasive’, I committed hate speech against a species, this blogger from some nature campaign group claims. I’m speechless, but Bill Burr has the answer in his Netflix special I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: ‘Fucking stupid ass groups, bitch-moaning and complaining. Fuck you and your group.’

I’ve just been the subject of a racism complaint because of a joke I made about a type of plant.

You see, only the most turbulent and aggressively motor-mouthed can help us now. Only those so tough that they are prepared to double down to the brink of annihilation and beyond have any hope of entertaining us in the Age of Wokeness.

As Burr says: ‘I’m a fucking psychopath.’ And that’s what it takes now. Burr faces down the overweight – ‘Don’t come at me like it’s my problem and I need to rewire myself’ – and resists arbitrary rules restraining how we discuss difference:

‘Me, I’m a racist at the end of the day. I don’t care who you are in the morning, but as the sun starts to go down and the fear starts coming up that’s when I start thinking the worst of people.’

He qualifies this by explaining that the ones you’ve got to watch are the people who hate Jews over breakfast.

Burr never ends a joke before it has been taken to the most uncomfortable conclusion. When he’s fantasising about blowing up cruise ships as a form of population control, he is pushing back hard against the offended classes for the right to use hyperbole.

Gavin McInnes succeeds in this too, by furiously spewing out so much political incorrectness that even the most assiduous offence-takers cannot object to 1 per cent of it because it would be too much admin to unpick it.

They try to take him out of context, but he just keeps coming – like a demented Tommy running across No Man’s Land. I love that he dresses in camouflage to deliver some of his YouTube monologues.

‘Feminists are idiots… food stamps are bullshit. I’d like to talk to a hungry child, I can’t talk to them they’re too big, they can’t get off their chair…’

Then there are comics forged in disaster, like Britain’s Frankie Boyle, who was hounded off mainstream television for comparing a female Olympic swimmer to a dolphin. ‘Why is it always comedy that brings out the worst in everybody? People don’t go along to Hamlet and shout out “my husband feels melancholy!”’ he ruminates.

He’s depressingly right when he says: ‘Turning something into a joke is a way of codifying information so that only a few people understand.’

If the offended classes are bullies, and they are; if the professionally outraged are pushing the rest of humanity around by silencing our desire to make light of life’s difficulties in order to process them, and they are; then the only people who have any chance of backing off those bullies to give humanity the space it needs to breathe are those who are prepared to entertain ruin every time they open their mouths. We are talking big cojones.

The only people who have any chance of giving humanity the space it needs to breathe are those who are prepared to entertain ruin every time they open their mouths.

As Dave Chappelle says: ‘I didn’t come here to be right. I came here to fuck around.’ I want those last two sentences on my gravestone, which might be needed soon if these plant pro-lifers have anything to do with it.

Chappelle’s joke about Kevin Spacey is a masterclass in how to screw with snowflakes. ‘This 14-year old victim of Spacey was forced to carry a grown man’s secret for 30 years,’ he says solemnly, before adding: ‘If he had been able to carry that secret for six more months, I would have got to know how House of Cards ends.’

That’s brilliant because deep down that’s what most of us were guiltily thinking.

His take on OJ is an exquisite tour de force in irony. Describing how a female friend castigated him for shaking ‘that murderer’s hand’, Chappelle says: ‘With all due respect, that murderer ran for over 11,000 yards. And he was acquitted so, you know, get over yourself.’

On the subject of his wife’s gay friends: ‘She has a lot of gay friends. Stuart is their leader. I don’t like them. It’s not because they’re gay. They’re just not nice, sitting on my couch, eating my macaroons.’

See, it’s not a joke designed to make people hate gay people. It’s a joke using the glorious fact of gayness as material to make people laugh at life.

As Ricky Gervais explains in Humanity, when addressing the criticism of his Golden Globes routine about Caitlyn Jenner: ‘People mistake the subject of a joke with the target. I’m playing with the notion of stereotypes… the target of the joke is a celebrity killing someone in their car. Just so we’re clear.’

When Gervais utters the word Bruce a dozen times in answer to ‘dead-naming’ charges he is not trying to insult Jenner, he is trying to assert his legal right to state a fact.

Comedians may well be the last people on this planet who are allowed to tell the unvarnished truth. If mental health is a commitment to reality, then we have to assume that when we turn away from reality, when we pretend a sex change op is something other than it is, eventually we lose our minds.

Wokeness. In fact, that term denotes a kind of metaphysical coma, an embracing of the entirely bogus notion that preference no longer exists in good people as a human trait, that we have evolved to naturally care about everyone – and, here in the UK at least, every creature and every weed – in equal measure to the amount we care about ourselves.

Here’s Louis CK defending what I would call Unwokeness: ‘I don’t want to be gay. I have every right to oppress and discriminate against my own possible budding homosexuality. It’s mine to violently push down.’

So comedians are the last prophets. And the good ones self-immolate in the name of freedom.

While Trevor Noah gets easy laughs by criticising the British Empire and Brexit, his comrades are out there on the front line outraging public decency; for example, in Burr’s case, by trying to explain why a 67-year-old old Duck Dynasty actor who grew up in Louisiana in the pre-civil rights era has said something deemed racist: ‘What did you think he thought?’

Or in Louis CK’s case, explaining abortion thus: ‘Women have judgement, men have intent. They just want to spray the world… more of me! It’s her job to say, that’s enough of you.’

So there’s the easy joke about how bad things happen, and there’s the infinitely more difficult routine that forces us to explore why, which I would argue is more valuable.

And then there is the fact of being told you are not allowed to do that exploring, a situation so hazardous it almost transcends the danger of all the prejudice in the world put together.

As McInnes says: ‘This world is becoming a dangerous place and the only way to navigate it is by not being careful, not watching what you say and being really fucking offensive.’

While hilarious in his YouTube clips, McInnes is a car crash when he tries to be a serious commentator, a living illustration of the importance of humour. As he says: You’ve got to spoon-feed people the truth.’

Burr is particularly heroic for daring to explore the artistic issue of whether jokes which do not assert the right moral outcome can be funny because they are well crafted.

He defends this line on the wall of a bar, ‘We like our beer like our violence, domestic’, because, as he explains: ‘There’s no fat on that joke.’

When Burr compares Hitler’s kill rates to famous sporting records he turns on his audience: ‘People, it’s an analogy. Am I going to be on a split screen tomorrow with a blogger?’

Incidentally, you can tell whether a stand-up is going to be any good now because the rating warns of ‘discriminatory remarks’. It’s a useful system.

That said, what happened to Chappelle when someone claiming to be a fan started a narrative of complaint about his transgender jokes was nothing short of a public gelding. Can I say that I’m worried that transgender campaigners aren’t going to be happy until the rest of us have cut off our figurative balls, in print or live on stage? Can I say that? Because that’s how I feel.

‘I don’t understand all the choices that people make,’ a depressed-looking Chappelle says by way of apology. ‘But I do understand that life is hard and that those types of choices do not disqualify you from a life with dignity and happiness and safety in it.’

It’s about as desperate a situation as if an actor did indeed have to stop during Hamlet and explain that he is, in real life, very engaged with mental health charities.

Ugh. Horrible. Horrible that there are people out there who feel the need to neuter a comic. It’s about as desperate a situation as if an actor did indeed have to stop during Hamlet and explain that he is, in real life, very engaged with mental health charities.

Apology destroys art. Forcing comedy to explain itself is comic cleansing. And when you cleanse the joke, you cleanse the truth.

Unless we can laugh at everything, we end up laughing at nothing. Racial differences, the indignities of sexual attraction, the absurdities of being stuck in the wrong body are essential ingredients of comedy because if we leave them out we are lying about ourselves by omission.

And then we would only have Chappelle’s words ringing in our ears: ‘I was right once. Remember that.’

Or perhaps I could end with this joke. Some people say speech is violence. So if anything I’ve written here has offended you and you’re thinking that, I’m happy to come and punch you in the face and then you can decide how you really feel with the proper points of reference.

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