The Commanding Heights Are No Laughing Matter
Dear Reader (including those of you don’t get the jokes),
Andrew Yang began an answer last night, “Now, I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors…”
Personally, I liked his Asian joke from the second debate better:
“We need to do the opposite of much of what we’re doing right now, and the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math…”
I tend to come from the school of thought that the only test for whether a joke works is whether relatively normal and decent people laugh at it. I offer that caveat because the audience matters. What passes for a knee-slapper in the Aryan Nation’s corner of the prison yard is not necessarily funny at Presbyterian Old Age Home.
The funny thing about humor is that it is at war with reason, which is why when you explain a joke, you ruin it. (Exception to the rule: When Dug in Up explains, “It is funny because the squirrel gets dead.”) Reason alone should dictate that if racial stereotypes are bad for one race, they should be bad for all races. But audiences do not laugh by reason alone—or by reason at all. They intuitively get where the lines are, and often laugh precisely because they didn’t recognize the lines in the first place.
So Yang can play on stereotypes about Asians, in part because they’re positive stereotypes and in part because he’s, you know, Asian, and members of specific groups have more leeway on such things. If Biden had turned to Yang and said, “Andy, you’re Asian, you must know a lot of doctors…” some might have laughed, but not in a way that’d help Biden much.
Everybody Yang Fun Tonight
Still, as I struggled to fight the soul-leaching ennui of last night’s debate, I thought how wild it would be if everyone on the stage began an answer about healthcare (or anything else) by first invoking an ethnic stereotype.
Joe Biden: “Now, I’m Irish so I know a lot of people with cirrhosis.” Or, “Now, I’m Irish, so I know a lot of people who end up in the E.R. on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Bernie Sanders: “Now, I’m Jewish, so I know only suckers pay retail.”
Kamala Harris: “Now, I’m Asian and African-American, so I know lots of doctors too, but I also know the patients those Asians overcharge.”
Elizabeth Warren: “Now, I’m, uh…Can I take a pass on this one?”
The Funny Thing About Funny
I haven’t followed the latest developments in the war over comedy too closely. I haven’t seen Dave Chapelle’s new show or Bill Burr’s either (though I did read Kyle Smith’s excellent dissections of each special). But I’ve followed it enough to know there are people who argue with a straight face that there’s such a thing as post-comedy:
Comedians and comedy writers are increasingly pushing the bounds of what it means for something to be a comedy in the most basic sense, rewiring the relationship between comedies and jokes. So what is comedy without jokes? It’s post-comedy.
Remember the old joke:
Q: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
A: “That’s not funny!”
Post-comedy would change the punchline to: “One. Because feminists are just as capable of changing lightbulbs as anyone else. Shame on you for thinking this is something to joke about.”
It’s still the same joke; it’s just that now the joke is on the “comedian.”
Still, looked at from a certain angle, it’s not all as idiotic as it seems on first blush. I just think people are trying way too hard. Basically, post-comedy humor is a modern form of satire, which has never required laughs. Jonathan Swift’s call to eat the Irish isn’t full of guffaws, but it’s literally a foundational work of satire.
The Commanding Heights Are No Laughing Matter
What I find interesting is the sociology of all this.
There are lots of kinds of comedy. The Three Stooges were very different from Bob Newhart who was very different from Eddie Murphy or the Coen Brothers or Amy Schumer. It’s telling that the folks going to war against comedy aren’t against comedy per se. Though I’m sure someone has written a brilliant-12,000 word essay on the heteronormative normalization of male violence in the Stooges (“…the consequence-free impact of the bowling ball on Larry’s skull demonstrates how violence is the currency of patriarchical discourse…”). But in general, they’re angry about a particular type of comedy: “politically incorrect” comedy (to use a hackneyed phrase).
So, here’s a theory. Ever since the age of court jesters went out with the Divine Right of Kings, “stand-up comedy” or “political humor” subverted or transgressed authority (and even before that, there was a long tradition of esoteric rebellion in comedy). In other words, politically incorrect humor made fun of the Powers That Be or The Man. What made it politically incorrect wasn’t necessarily its orientation toward conventional politics, but its willingness to tease, test, or tear down taboos. This is why sex and race have always been such rich veins of stand-up comedy, like the old vaudeville humor of the Burlesque, Redd Fox, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, et al.
This is also why, for most people over the age of 40, comedy was vaguely associated with progressivism. I think this was deeply tied to American religiosity. It may not always be obvious, but jokes about sexual taboos are usually at the expense of The Prudes, and until the day before yesterday, prudery was almost synonymous with religious devotion.
What’s changed is that a variant of the ancient American Puritan tradition has shed its religious doctrine and orthodoxy and emerged on the left. This isn’t to say that the Puritan tradition is dead on the right—one might even argue it’s undergoing a renaissance, as some folks metaphorically throw the Constitution into the trashcan fire, the brightening light of the embers making it easier to spot the Drag Queen Storytellers in our midst.
But it hardly takes a lot of imagination to see the woke Twitter brigades and campus Comstocks as modern day Puritans, furious that someone somewhere is living or thinking wrong. And just as the prudes of old controlled the newspapers, the mainline churches, the Harvards and Yales and, let us not forget, the television networks and movie studios, the new prudes and puritans control the same commanding heights of the culture. What makes it all so confusing to them is that they don’t realize they’ve won the culture war (though in fairness, no one ever thinks he’s won a culture war).
When historians write about this period, I suspect they’ll look at the mid-2000s as the inflection point. About 20 years ago, I wrote a piece for NR arguing that The Simpsons—already TV’s longest running sitcom!—constituted a victory for the right in the culture. It wasn’t that the show was conservative, but that it aimed at all of the “false pieties” of the culture:
What should dismay liberals about this is that so many of today’s pieties are constructs of the Left. Conservatives are accustomed to being mocked constantly in the popular culture. But the experience must come as something of a shock for hothouse liberals. For example, Homer Simpson’s mother is a ’60s radical still on the lam. How did she dodge the feds? “I had help from my friends in the underground. Jerry Rubin gave me a job marketing his line of health shakes. I proofread Bobby Seale’s cookbook. And I ran credit checks at Tom Hayden’s Porsche dealership.” Some important pretensions are being punctured here—but not the usual ones.
Around the same time, Andrew Sullivan and Brian Anderson were making the case that South Park represented the same dynamic. Sullivan called it “the best antidote to PC culture we have.” Anderson noted that “Lots of cable comedy, while not traditionally conservative, is fiercely anti-liberal, which as a practical matter often amounts nearly to the same thing.” He quotes Matt Stone, South Park’s co-creator: “I hate conservatives, but I really f**king hate liberals.”
What fascinates me is the way that, in the years since, the enforcers of political correctness, perhaps not entirely consciously, recognized the threat of anti-PC humor and cracked down on it. This is exactly what Joseph Schumpeter, borrowing from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, would have predicted. What Schumpeter called the New Class of intellectuals (and what Nietzsche called the priestly class) undermine virtues that don’t benefit them by turning them into vices. For Nietzsche, Christianity overturned the old virtues of pride, bravery, and strength and turned them into vices, elevating humility and meekness. For Schumpeter, the new intellectual classes turned industry and entrepreneurialism into rapaciousness and greed.
Even if you don’t buy all that, it is remarkable how angry the wokesters are at Dave Chapelle and co. I think it stems from the fact that, even though they prudishly want to police comedy, they don’t want to give up on the vital myth that to be left-wing is to be rebellious. The problem is they can’t have it both ways. They can’t control the commanding the heights of the culture and also claim to be the cultural subversives and rebels.
But they can try. Which brings me to…