Why Are Our Conversations About Comedy So Awful?

There's a bit of buzz on this topic in the sexism thread, but I think splitting it out may invite a bit more discussion from people who have gotten bored with that thread.

Especially after reading this take. I've never been able to figure out why people get so upset about criticism of comics, or why I should feel guilty for enjoying Ted.

But criticize a comedian, whether he’s standing on a club stage, soft-shoeing in front of the Dolby Theater audience on Oscar night, or Tweeting from an institutional account, and a different set of rules seem to apply. The act of criticism is taken as proof that the critic speaking lacks critical judgement. We’re told that comedians get a pass because their job isn’t to make people comfortable, but to speak difficult truths—but if that is their privilege, we’re also not allowed to ask questions about whether or not they’re fulfilling that responsibility. Criticisms that suggest that jokes were cliche, ineffective, or fail to live up to the standards that are invoked to argue that comedians deserve special protection get recast as evidence of bias or humorlessness. A perfect example of this is how frequently feminist calls for rape jokes to be constructed precisely and their targets to be chosen with care are recast as evidence that feminists don’t understand comedy. Unlike every other form of pop culture, comedy seems to have a special status. At one stroke, the idea that people are allowed to have multiple opinions is invalidated, and replaced by the idea that there is an objective correct view of any joke—that it’s funny, and the comedian was correct to make it.

I do, of course, understand why people get upset when something they like comes under criticism. When you love something, you want other people to share that reaction, and if they don’t, or if they affirmatively dislike a joke, show, or movie you’re getting something out of, it’s upsetting. People have a tendency to conflate criticism of something they like with criticism of not just their taste, but their whole person, as a byproduct of the increasing importance of cultural preferences to our identities. And when the criticism is based in an argument that a piece of art is racist, or sexist, or homophobic, people often jump very aggressively to assuming that said criticism is a judgement of their entire person.

Well...isn't it? I know the author says she doesn't do that, and goes on to list things about MacFarlane she finds progressive and admirable, but that's just her. I'm not sure how representative she is. If we go out and look at the actual examples of criticism, is that a bad assumption? I don't think it is.

In fact, I'd go further and say that people conflate criticism of something they don't like with a feeling of connection with the critic not only on matters of taste, but as a whole person. What we hate in common can define our identities as much as what we love in common.

People like to link to this video; personally I preferred it when it was done as a conversation between Renee and Mary Elizabeth on Any Day Now, but whatever. The issue is that the judgement for What You Did doesn't look a whole lot different most of the time from the judgement one would expect for What You Are.

In other words, I think there's a lot of people arguing semantics. They're calling what they do a criticism of What You Did and saying their criticism is just a matter of taste, but in reality, they're behaving in an indistinguishable manner from someone with a Who You Are criticism of the whole person. There should be a much harsher judgement of someone who is evil than of someone who made a mistake, but it doesn't look like that in practice. To run with the analogy from that video, it feels like when we run the pickpocket down, we don't just punish him for a single instance of pickpocketing, we punish him as a habitual criminal.

And maybe that's why people ask for more of a pass when it comes to comedy as opposed to other art forms. We don't criticize Michael Douglas for playing a villain like Gordon Gekko so well--we praise him for it. We don't wonder if Faye Dunaway is actually a big fan of child abuse because of her performance in Mommy Dearest. Maybe they call it a comedy act for a reason.

I agree with what she's saying, I just wonder if it's truly applicable to very many people besides her.

I didn't watch the oscars because they bore me, so I cannot comment too much. I do know that deconstructing comedic bits is not funny. I have mellowed on it in recent years. Race humor seems in no risk of going away, despite Richard Pryor's and Bill Cosby's efforts. The gold standard of obscenity is "I'll know it when I see it." Pretending objectivity seems folly. To paraphrase Patton Oswalt, a joke is funny so long as someone else is laughing. I think Carlos Mencia is a hack, but he has fans.

I did want to add, that I may have come up with a new barometer. If Springtime for Hitler were written by Garth Brooks, rather than Mel Brooks does that make it offensive (or more offensive)?

Entertainment is subjective and nuanced in its nature. I don't see comedy as being any different in that sense. Those who try to place objective standards on entertainment are supplying a false framework. Sometimes the framework is useful, but it's still a set of silly rules which attempt to simplify reality and quantify the unquantifiable. If you're going to break such frameworks, comedy is made for that job!

It's all open to interpretation, and expecting the artist to know and prepare for every single interpretation is unrealistic.

I saw Seth McFarlane's song and laughed because it, to me, was a kind of criticism of the movie industry (and let's face it, entertainment as a whole) and how it uses sex and the sexualization of its male and female members to sell its stuff. Would that have worked better if we'd had an abs/butt/junk for male actor's section? Probably so, and I would have laughed at that too.

From the original thread:

SpacePPoliceman wrote:
People have said that, others have said the same joke could have lasted 10 seconds and had him citing fewer films where the boobs appear in scenes where the character is being or has been raped.

Either way, McFarlane's best joke is how little I've ever laughed at his jokes. It's hilarious.

CheezePavilion wrote:
In other words, I think there's a lot of people arguing semantics. They're calling what they do a criticism of What You Did and saying their criticism is just a matter of taste, but in reality, they're behaving in an indistinguishable manner from someone with a Who You Are criticism of the whole person. There should be a much harsher judgement of someone who is evil than of someone who made a mistake, but it doesn't look like that in practice. To run with the analogy from that video, it feels like when we run the pickpocket down, we don't just punish him for a single instance of pickpocketing, we punish him as a habitual criminal.

I apologize because I haven't read the other discussion, but I think this is wrong. Here's why: to criticize someone or something someone did is to imply that the person can take that criticism on board and do better next time. It is implicitly saying "You may or may not be better than this right now, but you certainly could be." If you somehow know someone is absolutely, irredeemably evil, it's a waste of your time to lecture him or her about how they're wrong, because it won't do any good. It's a mistake, I think, to consider criticism to be the equivalent of punishment. Besides which, one can mete out the same punishment with different intent, e.g. compensatory/vindictive/discourage others from doing the same thing etc. and I don't think they should be considered identical even if in some ways the effect is the same.

I am kind of wondering something. What is the overall point of criticizing this the day after?

My point being. You get reviewed and critiqued at work, to alter your behavior and to get your work in line. The overall point is to get your work product up to snuff.

Movie critics or game critics review and publish before a film is released ostensibly to inform the public in their buying decision.

TV critics are there to watch, review, and inform the public on what is out there worth seeing, to buy on DVD, etc.

Some critics "review" just to heckle and troll. There is not a shortage of those online. Either hatchet a movie or show, or take some celeb down a peg.

What is this article aiming at? Is it to get Seth McFarlane off the Oscars next year? Because he already said he won't return. Is it to get his 3...or is it 4 cartoons off the air?

Is there a gender neutral form of beard scratching?

juv3nal wrote:
CheezePavilion wrote:
In other words, I think there's a lot of people arguing semantics. They're calling what they do a criticism of What You Did and saying their criticism is just a matter of taste, but in reality, they're behaving in an indistinguishable manner from someone with a Who You Are criticism of the whole person. There should be a much harsher judgement of someone who is evil than of someone who made a mistake, but it doesn't look like that in practice. To run with the analogy from that video, it feels like when we run the pickpocket down, we don't just punish him for a single instance of pickpocketing, we punish him as a habitual criminal.

I apologize because I haven't read the other discussion, but I think this is wrong. Here's why: to criticize someone or something someone did is to imply that the person can take that criticism on board and do better next time. It is implicitly saying "You may or may not be better than this right now, but you certainly could be." If you somehow know someone is absolutely, irredeemably evil, it's a waste of your time to lecture him or her about how they're wrong, because it won't do any good. It's a mistake, I think, to consider criticism to be the equivalent of punishment. Besides which, one can mete out the same punishment with different intent, e.g. compensatory/vindictive/discourage others from doing the same thing etc. and I don't think they should be considered identical even if in some ways the effect is the same.

I think you're missing my point: to try and put it simply, it's that there are responses to Who You Are that are inappropriate if it's simply a case of What You Did.

There's an ironic twist in saying 'I had a different intent' if the 'effect was the same' when criticizing someone for What They Did.

KingGorilla wrote:

What is this article aiming at? Is it to get Seth McFarlane off the Oscars next year? Because he already said he won't return. Is it to get his 3...or is it 4 cartoons off the air?

Is there a gender neutral form of beard scratching?

The point is to sell eyeballs to advertisers, because there is a percentage of the population that eats up that stuff.

KingGorilla wrote:
I am kind of wondering something. What is the overall point of criticizing this the day after?

I dunno, maybe to share an opinion or something like that? What's the overall point of asking what's the point? Does it need one?

LouZiffer wrote:
The point is to sell eyeballs to advertisers, because there is a percentage of the population that eats up that stuff.

Yeah, that's the only reason.

SpacePPoliceman wrote:
KingGorilla wrote:
I am kind of wondering something. What is the overall point of criticizing this the day after?

I dunno, maybe to share an opinion or something like that? What's the overall point of asking what's the point? Does it need one?

Yeah, it's a discussion some find interesting to look at entertainment and its place and implications for society at large.

If people don't find it interesting and all they have to say is this is boring or pointless this is they are welcome to not take part.

A blog post or a newspaper article is a poor medium of conversation. I am not sure many of you start a conversation with "Did you all read the review of Inception in the Village Voice" so much as "What did you think of Inception?" The conversation, so far as I can see it is about the Oscars, and Seth McFarlane.

The article states it is criticism, not a conversation. That is why I asked what it's point was. So far as I can tell, it fits more into the heckling variety than the constructive or reviewing variety. Or maybe, more generously, it is Monday Morning Quarterbacking.

I think the point of writing criticisms of the performance is pretty clear, especially since most of the writings are coming from TV/Film/General Pop Culture critics--like I said, they have an opinion, and I'll add that, since they are sundry commentators, critics, and journalists, they're asked to share. Generously, it's a very silly question to ask.

Seems to me the problem is with MacFarland's sense of humor, not the American idea of what humor should be. Some comedians make their living by "pushing the boundaries of good taste", or whatever the current phrase for appealing to the lowest common denominator is. MacFarland's career is based on "shock humor"; if this were 20 years ago, we'd be talking about Andrew Dice Clay; if it were the early 70's, John Waters name would crop up, but the point would be the same.

If we do anything other than turn it off, he's succeeded. All this conversation afterwards is free publicity. If you like "Family Guy" and it's ilk, you're probably fine with the piece. If not, you probably didn't like it. What's changed, really, by his getting the Oscars as a platform?

I like Family Guy just fine, but found MacFarlane to be pretty unfunny on the Oscars. Some humor doesn't translate well from, say, cartoons to real life.

If they really wanted to shake things up, I wish that they had had George Carlin host when he was alive.

I've renamed the thread, and I'm re-linking the article to try move this away from MacFarlane, because the discussion is broader, and the article actually isn't about MacFarlane.

But we also recognize that if a movie, television show, or book fails to achieve what the author seems to have intended, including in cases where those pieces of art—be it intentional or unintentional—glorify sexual assault, racism, or violence, we’re allowed to critique its creator without being accused of violating the First Amendment. But criticize a comedian, whether he’s standing on a club stage, soft-shoeing in front of the Dolby Theater audience on Oscar night, or Tweeting from an institutional account, and a different set of rules seem to apply. The act of criticism is taken as proof that the critic speaking lacks critical judgement. We’re told that comedians get a pass because their job isn’t to make people comfortable, but to speak difficult truths—but if that is their privilege, we’re also not allowed to ask questions about whether or not they’re fulfilling that responsibility. Criticisms that suggest that jokes were cliche, ineffective, or fail to live up to the standards that are invoked to argue that comedians deserve special protection get recast as evidence of bias or humorlessness. A perfect example of this is how frequently feminist calls for rape jokes to be constructed precisely and their targets to be chosen with care are recast as evidence that feminists don’t understand comedy. Unlike every other form of pop culture, comedy seems to have a special status. At one stroke, the idea that people are allowed to have multiple opinions is invalidated, and replaced by the idea that there is an objective correct view of any joke—that it’s funny, and the comedian was correct to make it.

Why do comics get defended for indefensible behaviours, when other creatives don't get a pass? Why does Adam Carolla, or Penny Arcade, get people coming to their defence? Would a serious TV show or movie get away with being flippant about rape, racism, or sexism? I doubt it.

MrDeVil909 wrote:
Why do comics get defended for indefensible behaviours, when other creatives don't get a pass? Why does Adam Carolla, or Penny Arcade, get people coming to their defence? Would a serious TV show or movie get away with being flippant about rape, racism, or sexism? I doubt it.

I think that's the place to start towards finding the answer right there: flippant things have more of a pass to be flippant than serious things. Comics do comedy, and comedy is flippant about things.

Also, consider this: there are things you can do in a horror movie that you get a pass to do that you would have a harder time getting away with in a standard drama:

The final girl is a trope in thriller and horror films (particularly slasher films) that specifically refers to the last woman or girl alive to confront the killer, ostensibly the one left to tell the story...The term was coined[2] by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.

...

According to Clover, the final girl in many of these works shares common characteristics: she is typically sexually unavailable or virginal, avoiding the vices of the victims (sex, illegal drug use, hedonistic lifestyle, etc.).


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_girl

In a lot of horror movies, some guy runs around plunging knives and other phallic weapons into screaming women who die in a fountain of blood, but he's foiled by the power of virginity. I think that reveals there's more complexity to what gets a 'pass' than we might think at first glance.

I figured I would mention, Mad Men gets applauded with the way women are treated. The show wins Emmys.

KingGorilla wrote:
I figured I would mention, Mad Men gets applauded with the way women are treated. The show wins Emmys.

It's about the perceived context. As a period piece, Mad Men is able to narrow its context with a historical perspective. People think that it does a good job of that so it wins awards. Without the proper perspective, entertainment falls flat. Comedy probably depends more on the audience's individual perspective than any other form of entertainment. If you don't lead them there, you'd better hope they're already there or it won't be funny. IMO that's why it's hard.

Neal Brennan sums it up nicely in an interview with Marc Maron. Bill Burr has similar experiences. Both Brennan and Burr did a lot of work in black comedy clubs, did Apollo festivals.

After one show, a couple walked up to Brennan. The girlfriend or wife laid into him for being a racist, for telling black jokes, stealing humor that is for the inner city. And then she storms off. The guy walks up and apologizes, says Brennan was really funny, he really liked his set.

And this is the wisest thing I have heard on the subject, it is total hearsay: The man said that he knew, and everyone who was laughing out of their chairs that Brennan's jokes were in sport, and did not have hate. But his wife/girlfriend has a lot of racial hate in her. She could not see the humor through her own hate.

And hearing Mel Brooks last week. When the Producers premiered and the big Springtime for Hitler number came up, a large Jewish man stormed up the aisle, screaming that the film should stop. He was screaming that he fought in WWII for the army, that he is a Jew and this is a crime. Mel Brooks was also in the army in the latter part of WWII, with advanced engineers.

I think equating criticizing racism with "having a lot of racial hate" is one of the most annoying bits of faux-clever rhetorical jiu-jitsu white dudes have invented.

Not really sure if you can really think Neil Brennan is a racist. He might be. But he has been Dave Chapelle's writing partner for years, and wrote or co wrote most of the Sketches on Chapelle Show.

Switchbreak wrote:
I think equating criticizing racism with "having a lot of racial hate" is one of the most annoying bits of faux-clever rhetorical jiu-jitsu white dudes have invented.

Yeah, it's deeply repugnant. There are a lot of reasons to not like comedy, especially if it is (or seems) racist. But jumping to 'racial hate' as the default is just the sort of thing I expected us to have conversations about.

I don't think there's a conversation to be had here though. It's just going to go round in circles.

Thanks to Cheeze for the comment which has given me plenty to think about though.

*edit*

On reflection I guess I have the answer to the question posed by the thread title. Conversation about comedy is so awful because the response to criticism defaults to the most awful extreme.

I don't see KingGorilla's point that way. Though the guy speaking for his girlfriend could use some lessons on tact, KG is shoring up the point that I was trying to make: Comedy relies very heavily on the perspective of the audience at an individual level.

Nothing is sacred in comedy if you're able to take the audience mentally to a place where the jokes are acceptable. There are routines and shows where certain individual jokes would be utterly abhorrent if they were extracted and examined on their own, but they sit just fine with nearly everyone when in context. (I feel for the folks who walk in in the middle.)

All of this is central to any sort of entertainment, but comedy has the extra onus that it's expected to make people laugh. It's irreverent and skirts the edges of being offensive more frequently than any other form of entertainment, and can be more divisive than any other as well. Frankly I expect arguments to arise during discussions about comedy, and am generally happy with how well everyone here seems to deal with them.

Whee, double post.

MrDeVil909 wrote:
On reflection I guess I have the answer to the question posed by the thread title. Conversation about comedy is so awful because the response to criticism defaults to the most awful extreme.

That's one reason, sure. People hate it when something they like is criticized, because of knee-jerk taste tribalism and such.

However, I think one of other the reasons critical conversations about comedy are crap is that people have a vested interest in making sure they can say horrible sh*t and get away with it, by pretending it's just a joke. Even if, coincidentally, it's also what they really believe.

Alien Love Gardener wrote:

However, I think one of other the reasons critical conversations about comedy are crap is that people have a vested interest in making sure they can say horrible sh*t and get away with it, by pretending it's just a joke. Even if, coincidentally, it's also what they really believe.

I'm sorry, but unless you inflate your argument to an absurd degree in order to satirize what you're talking about, it's too nuanced for me to understand.

LouZiffer wrote:
I don't see KingGorilla's point that way. Though the guy speaking for his girlfriend could use some lessons on tact, KG is shoring up the point that I was trying to make: Comedy relies very heavily on the perspective of the audience at an individual level.

Nothing is sacred in comedy if you're able to take the audience mentally to a place where the jokes are acceptable. There are routines and shows where certain individual jokes would be utterly abhorrent if they were extracted and examined on their own, but they sit just fine with nearly everyone when in context. (I feel for the folks who walk in in the middle.)

It depends on the comedian. Jeff Foxworthy is talented, but does not really take risks or find the edge to push in his albums or specials. He is pretty safe. He can tell Redneck jokes the same way Mel Brooks can make Jewish Jokes and Chris Rock can make N----- jokes. Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan are very funny, but that is from timing and craft, not a hard edge. Patton Oswalt has some great material on abortion, and was fired from VH1 for saying Paris Hilton should get AIDS and die. He should probably not host the Oscars (though I think he is a voting member thanks to Ratatouille).

As much as Family Guy, or South Park, or the Simpsons have pushed the envelope on what is acceptable, that does not change that the Oscars is an uptight and old timey event. And there will always be people who cannot or will not get the joke-Remember when Colbert was asked to speak at a GW Bush dinner? Regardless of the jokes, the Oscar committee will be picking another milk toast host for next year. What happened with McFarlane is that they put David Lee Roth into the London Symphony Orchestra, and people got uptight.

I'm a firm believer in people's right to make offensive jokes. And frankly, I have no interest in policing what people joke about between friends, where the rules for what qualifies as "genuinely offensive" are exceptionally malleable and muddled. That said, when those jokes are brought into the public sphere, "it's just a joke" isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card for whatever you said.

I always thought, when it came to that kind of humor in the public sphere, different jokes have different levels of difficulty to overcome, and those levels of difficulty are different based on who is telling the joke and what it's about. Jewish people making jokes about Jews during WWII? Low level of difficulty. German man making jokes about Jews during WWII? MUCH MUCH HIGHER LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY. It's possible to make that joke, sure, but you're going to have to craft it expertly to make it sound like something other than you just punching down.

That's the key, I think. Most of the humor i've seen that's most legendary and loved punches either on the same level, or punches up. There's no real "humor" in punching down, you're not taking on anything or skewering anything, you're just... well, punching down. Bruce punched up, Carlin punched up, Pryor on his level and up. Punching down is the easiest, laziest humor.

Alien Love Gardener wrote:
However, I think one of other the reasons critical conversations about comedy are crap is that people have a vested interest in making sure they can say horrible sh*t and get away with it, by pretending it's just a joke. Even if, coincidentally, it's also what they really believe.

Well that, and from what i've seen from a few cluster-frabbles on Twitter, a lot of comedians genuinely do believe that they have the right to say whatever they want on-stage and be totally exempt from criticism on grounds of taste/offensiveness/what-have-you. I do wonder, and I mean this not as some sort of rhetorical trap but as a genuine question, how those people felt about Michael Richards' spectacular on-stage meltdown*, which I remember hearing he was, at one point, claiming was part of a "bit" as well.

(* - As a sidenote, I saw the recent YouTube video Richards did with Seinfield, and I'd like to see him... if not welcomed, allowed to be a performer again. I think he's paid his penance, and moreover, it seems like the person who has beaten him up the most over that thing is himself.)

Good post, Pred.

I would add that the more offensive your joke, the better it should be. All too often comedians barf out material where being offensive IS the joke.

Last Saturday I saw an old Flemish comedian. He's considered to be the Godfather of Flemish comedy, even though he's always been more of a people's comedian. In the eighties he used to kick the Catholic Churches' shins, but in this show he was quite happy to lash out to Maghreb immigrants. I couldn't quite put my finger on why I found his 'joke' that Muslim babies' first word is 'racist' not only incredibly lame but also rather offensive, even though the audience roared in laughter.

But it's exactly that: his jokes at the expense of the Catholic Church were made by him, raised as a Catholic, to an audience of (mostly) Catholics. His jokes at the expense of (mostly poor) Muslims were made by him, a very rich white man, to an audience of upper middle class white people (judging by the ticket price).