Comedian Dave Chappelle (Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images)

The comedy of inclusive disrespect

Laughter can unite us

Artillery Row

Some years ago I was sitting in a park in New York next to a group of funny, elderly Jews who were, as is the wont of funny, elderly Jews, discussing sex. At which point a tall Black man passed, dressed if I recall in a delivery company’s uniform, causing one older Jewish man to turn to him and ask — “Hey, are you circumcised?” 

The man paused for a moment and broke into a grin before signalling a wide gap between his raised hands and saying, “You’d need a knife THIS big.” 

Everyone collapsed into laughter.

I’ve never forgotten this moment as a kind of avatar of good cheer: spontaneous, multiethnic and democratic. You could describe it as “the comedy of inclusive disrespect”.

Nowhere is this shift more palpable than around race

Recently, the idea of comedy as equal-opportunities mockery has been replaced with a more careful attempt to calibrate harms, centred on the idea of “punching up”. By this yardstick, acts of comedy always take place within a hierarchical framework, and individuals had best avoid making jokes about groups who have experienced historical oppression, particularly if they are not members of that group. In the past, there have been plenty of amazing routines from people discussing groups they do not themselves belong to — a personal favourite is Steve Hughes’ routine on “gay as the new straight” — but doing this kind of material is now to invite inevitable condemnation and really only an option for acts with established audiences. Dave Chappelle may be too big to cancel, but John Takeanygig certainly isn’t.

Now, of course there remains comedy to suit every taste, and explicitly “woke” comedy remains a minority pursuit. What has changed, it seems to me, is the critical culture around comedy. That change has been in line with social justice politics. To the extent that comedy criticism has historically had a role, it has been to communicate to audiences the need for risk-taking and audacity in comedy, but this has been replaced by a continual assessment of the potential harm being done through the comedy presented. That in turn creates comedy audiences more likely to take offence. Mean acts talking through complex issues get attacked for the complex nature of the issues themselves. The issue here isn’t defending the right of comedians to use racist language or revive offensive terms — the debate about the right to “shocking” material is always schematic and dull, and can be summarised as, “Yes, comedians should have the right to do entirely unsurprising material about human tragedies.”

The more crucial thing at stake is the right for all comics to go to the uneasy places, to walk the tightrope between offence and insight that often marks out great comedy — the right of comedy to exist in an ethically complicated space. Very Online People mock comedians who are concerned about issues of “Freeze Peach”, but my God, if comedians can’t get animated about matters of free speech, who can?

To return to our opening, nowhere is this shift more palpable than around the issue of race. The weird thing is how divorced all this seems from the actual experience of living in a multicultural society. My Caribbean friends make Caribbean jokes, my East Asian friends laugh at East Asians, my trans ex used to send me vulgar memes about “trannies”. Even the Jews I know who have no money frame it in terms of “I’m the one Jew who doesn’t have any money”. 

For any group, stereotypes become an orienting point, a quick way for them to identify themselves to the world. The stereotypes can be subverted or confirmed, but they are always in currency. The only way most contemporary comedy seems to be able to engage with this at present, is by having a white person almost saying something racist and then going “Imagine if I said something racist though!” — a kind of comedy-adjacent stressing that, even though we are aware of the stereotypes, we don’t endorse them for an instant!

It all goes down a bit rougher in my Welsh-Jewish-Chinese household, where my spouse tells me whenever I put on a hat “You look like Jew” (not even a Jew, just “Jew”, some Platonic avatar of Jewishness) and never fails to mention to her friends that I once said she resembled a pancake with a single knob of butter on top. We insult each other because we love each other. At a certain level we do that with all our friends, playing around with stereotypes because we are familiar enough with each other to transgress. Of course, we can go too far, but our laughter is in part because we give each other licence to do so. It’s fun, and it shows that, as much as we notice the differences between us, none of them rule out offering a good piss-taking. I appreciate this is idealistic — but at least it seems like an ideal worth reaching towards.

Personal morality is not the decisive factor in this process

That isn’t where comedy culture is now, in part because of the critical endorsement of the aforementioned idea of “punching down”. Let me be absolutely clear — nobody who has ever done comedy with any seriousness thinks the measure of a joke is whether it is “punching up” or not. “Punching up” is very much a layperson’s conception of how power works in comedy. Comedy as an art form constantly plays with power dynamics, between act and audience, audience and society. The disabled comedian who refuses audience sympathy for their disability. The foreign comic who surprises the audience with their knowledge of the local culture. The straight man who wins the heart of an audience of lesbians (I recognize this last one might be impossible, and believe me I have tried). And there is always a more fundamental issue of power at play, the struggle of the performer to prove to the audience that they’re funny at all. Every comedian knows the moment they land a few good jokes in a row, power shifts; and the audience starts listening to their every word.

Furthermore, the idea of “punching down” vastly overestimates a comedian’s options. No comedian sits there with a big old bag of jokes and plucks out which ones to do based on the historical experience of each one’s target. Instead, they embark on a desperate attempt to land any punch at all. If the audience laughs, it stays, and the comic’s best set is simply all the jokes which work. Personal morality is not the decisive factor in this process. Like Yeats, who said his inspiration in poetry came from looking for the next rhyme, so the inspiration of the comic is constantly defined by laughter. In comedy, the final editor is an audience’s laughter or lack thereof — and that laughter occurs long before the precise societal implications of each joke have been thought through.

Despite my observations, comedy that practises equal-opportunities offence is still out there. An outstanding example of this is the creative team around Danny McBride, who make great comic capital of the perceived racism of the American South. In their masterpiece “Vice Principals”, McBride and Walton Goggins form a revenge scheme after being passed up for promotion. Their rival, the new principal, happens to be Black and female. In one indelible scene they take out Kimberly Hébert Gregory’s Principal Brown, an alcoholic, in order to blackmail her, finally getting her so drunk that she ends up urinating on a police car. The comedy isn’t necessarily “coming from a good place” — it’s risky and messy, and walks the queasy tightrope between mocking racism and just being racist. But the sheer universal wrongness is so all-inclusive, there comes to be something generous about it. 

In the final analysis, isn’t it discriminatory to hold back, out of fear of giving offence, from offering everyone a chance to mock and be mocked? A comedy of inclusive disrespect says we are all in these weird bodies, we are all capable of acting terribly, and the individual difference between you and me just isn’t that significant given the laughable human condition we share. That type of comedy may not be in fashion right now, but it offers us something that our cultural tastemakers seem increasingly reluctant to grant us — an experience of freedom.

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