Skip to comments.Comedy’s Authentic Lies
Posted on 11/10/2017 3:03:30 PM PST by nickcarraway
Since (not entirely voluntarily) retiring from screenwriting, I wrote Funny: The Book / Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Comedy. When sales skyrocketed into double figures, a university invited me to a conference about ethics in standup comedy. But really, what kind of humorless, self-important asshole would go to something like that?
I landed amidst 50 philosophy professors from around the world, plus one other non-academic; a critic who gave a talk on authenticity, which seemed to say that the idea of authenticity in comedy is and I hope this academic jargon isnt too thick bullx.
He quoted Louis C.K., who has what I think is the best joke about standup comedy in history, the definitive statement on the question of authenticity: I went to a bar the other night. Where isnt important, because Im lying.
Beat, huge laugh. But think about it Of course hes lying we knew that. Where doesnt matter because its a setup, a premise, a gimme. Theres a contract between artist and audience: we suspend belief and you give us pleasure. When no one yells Hold on, whats the name of that bar?, the contract becomes enforceable. Comedy, like all art, doesnt give a shit about accuracy. But art cares deeply about the truth.
Of course, everyones truth is different; standup truth is one the audience either shares or comes to share by dint of the comics comic persuasion.
You could say comedy is similar to religion: in one, accept the premise and get a laugh; in the other, accept a higher power and get eternal life, emotional support, and answers to all questions. (This may explain why there are more religious people than standups.) Accepting a premise means suspending disbelief.
In Chewed Up (2008), Louis talks about a comedy club waitress who comes to his hotel; they make out, she stops him; he tries again, she stops him; she leaves. The next night she says, What happened? Whyd you stop? Louis is baffled: Cause you werent into it. No no, I just like to be forced. Louis is astonished: Are you out of your X mind?! You think Im gonna rape you on the off-chance youre into it?!
Hilarious. And it makes a point. But doesnt authenticity believing it really happened play a role in that point? I asked the critic if it mattered whether Louis made up the waitress and he said no.
I respectfully disagree. The bar joke is brilliant, playing off the truth that all comedians, like all artists, lie. But its truth the location of the bar isnt important.
Its different for waitress rape; whats the truth being exposed there? Some women are like that? If thats the insight we get and the story is a lie, then, Id argue, Louis is taking advantage of the trust and good will hes earned (which allowed him to get away with his 2015 SNL monologue about child molesters) to make an unearned point. Were encouraged to think Yeah, sure, there are women who expect men they barely know to give them sexual pleasure even if it means being arrested for rape. Which may be Louiss truth but is, arguably, one thats a smidge shy of universal.
Standups who make social commentary Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Lewis Black usually represent clear moral points of view, and audiences who embrace them usually embrace their perspectives. The counter-argument seems to be that comedians personas have no relationship to who they actually are. But isnt that classic cake-having and -eating? Successful standups shouldnt be judged on the personas that make their fortunes?
I was a comic for a few years. Not a great one (although, throat clear, The New Yorker called me witty), but one night I was killing and discovered I felt uncomfortable the audience loving me was weird; the false intimacy of the moment turned me off. I quit because I shrank from the love of strangers, which most comics lust after, for purposes both artistic and nefarious.
Nefarious? Imagine a legendary, genial, storytelling comedian, considered a paragon of paternal wisdom, who turns out to be a ruthless predator of women. Isnt that a betrayal of trust? I would think so, though no real-life example comes to mind. At least not till hes convicted and I cant get sued for libel.
While most comics speak in the first person, almost all say they perform as characters. But most character examples Andrew Dice Clay, Gilbert Gottfried use affected voices to signal theyre acting. Other personas are slippery; Amy Schumers stage character relates to who she is but is exaggerated. Still, even false personas provide no cloak of ethical invisibility no one claims they can say anything on stage (like Lets kill all the Jews) (which would, of course, decimate the ranks of comedians) because it isnt really them.
I agree that the idea of authenticity in a standups persona is bullX, but subject matter is a different matter specifically, when a comedian moves from personal observations to cultural critiques. Wouldnt we feel betrayed if we found out that the political routines of Bruce, Carlin, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor (then), John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers (now) didnt reflect their beliefs? Being Muslim-American is central to Hasan Minajs identity as a standup wouldnt we feel differently about him if it turned out he was Baptist?
The vast majority of comics acts are based on their lives. We know everything they say isnt literally true but we expect that its at least truth-adjacent. Take the comedian who invented truthiness, perhaps the most prescient comic concept in history. Stephen Colbert, now freed from his Comedy Central mock-conservative character, revels in what seems to be personal political judgments. His routines get at least some of their impact from our belief that hes talking to us (and Trump) from the heart as well as the writers room. If we learned that wasnt true, Colbert would lose a lot of his comic force.
When Bill Maher used the N-word, some of his TV audience reacted with astonishment and he said, almost contemptuously, Its a joke. But they knew it was a joke; they reacted because it was offensive. Something being a joke doesnt buy you that ethical-invisibility cloak.
Amy Schumer challenges her audiences with sexual, cultural, and occasional political edginess. But sometimes her outrageousness masked problematic material, getting easy laughs from cultural stereotypes: I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.
There, authenticity isnt the point; if shed actually been raped by a Hispanic guy, would the joke be less racist? And how is it different than Trumps referring to some Mexicans as rapists? Not very and among the people who agree is Schumer: I used to do dumb jokes like that. Once I realized I had an influence I stopped. Tossing the cloak aside, Schumer admits that her persona raunchy, but feminist and inclusive requires a higher degree of responsibility.
Sarah Silverman talked about an ex-boyfriend who was half-black, then chided herself for being such a pessimist. Hes half-white. Then, when the audience reacted, the capper: I dont care if you think Im racist. I just want you to think Im thin. Which played off her (sometimes) persona as an oblivious, narcissistic white chick, commenting on racism from a faux-naïve perspective (thats actually left-wing).
At a club, Daniel Tosh talked about rape jokes, a woman called out Rape jokes arent funny! and he said Wouldnt it be funny if that girl got raped by five guys right now? The internet exploded, Tosh apologized. (And The Onion headlined, Daniel Tosh Chuckles Through Own Violent Rape.) But most standups defended him, if not the joke, because he was responding to a heckler with an ad-lib. Sure, it was a failed ad-lib but whats the punishment for that?
Comedians have the right to be tasteless or offensive, accidentally or on purpose. Criticize Tosh (or Maher or Kathy Griffin), boycott, but to prevent experimentation is to prevent art. Standups need to fail to learn how to succeed. (Noted comedian T.S. Eliot said going too far is the only way to find out how far you can go.)
And, by the way, Toshs joke could be more complex than it appeared. What if his question wasnt rhetorical? Wouldnt it be funny if that girl got raped? No. Which could have been Toshs wry, subtle far too subtle way of pointing out the difference between rape jokes and rape.
Bill Cosby (who Im mentioning for the first time) became famous telling stories about his childhood. While Mr. Cosbys reputation for probity is, lets say, diminished, in the 1960s no one wondered no one cared whether his stories were true, because they felt true. People knew (or were) Fat Alberts in school and could relate.
Thats how most standup works: think up a joke then pretend its part of your life. But authenticity is the key; stories are more effective when they feel like they could have happened. Yet a successful joke depends not on its realness but on the artfulness of its construction and delivery. Which is as it should be; standup is about being funny, not having a funny life.
Authenticity doesnt require truth but it does depend on whether a joke reveals truth or is just there for a cheap laugh. Now Im all for cheap laughs (my own oeuvre contains the occasional fart joke), but the calculus for every standup is how much a cheap laugh costs for her relationship with the audience.
Picasso defined art as the lie that reveals the truth, but we all have our own truths. When Louis C.K. asks us to take significant moral leaps, we have the right to expect that his stories, the points he makes, the insights he has, reflect his beliefs.
So what meaneth the waitress joke? This: if its wrong to extrapolate a cultural insight from an anecdote (Spoiler Alert: it is), then its even worse to do that from something which never happened.
Fake authenticity is fine if used in the service of a comics actual world-view, but not just to make an edgy joke work; that, Id argue, is deceptive to the comics fans and destructive to his persona. If standups ask audiences to make a leap of faith based on a premise, they have to accept that audiences may look back after they leap. (Risking serious neck injury.)
As for Louis C.K.s bar, the answer is very simple: I saw Louis at a club that night. Its in Soho.
David Misch is a screenwriter (Mork and Mindy, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Saturday Night Live), author (Funny: The Book, A Beginners Guide to Corruption), teacher (his own comedy courses at UCLA and USC), speaker (The Smithsonian, Oxford, Austin Film Festival), and recovered standup.
Problem is today most people believe the lie.
And the lie is presented as true.
No, David. Amy Schumer did not say, I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.
What she said was, “I used the date Hispanic men, but now I’m into consensual sex.” She wasn’t squeamish about using the word ‘sex’ as you seem to be and has a better ear for delivery.
Yawn....actually...if you think about it...most jokes are about someone being harmed or suffering through some harsh treatment...physically,mentally,financially,.prejudicial....etc..most..not all...
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