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Comedy’s existential crisis

The Joe Rogan debate underscores comedy’s evolving conversation about morality, cancel culture, and how to be funny.

Aziz Ansari performs at the Comedy Cellar in New York in a new Netflix special.
Courtesy of Netflix
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

On Sunday, in apparent response to the Joe Rogan Spotify controversy, comedian Whitney Cummings broke out a much larger conversation that has preoccupied culture recently: the question of what comedy itself should be.

“Comedians did not sign up to be your hero,” Cummings stated in a viral tweet, casting popular podcast host Rogan as a comedian first and a cultural commentator second. “It’s our job to be irreverent and dangerous, to question authority and take you through a spooky mental haunted house so you can arrive at your own conclusions. Stay focused on the people we pay taxes to to be moral leaders.”

Setting aside Joe Rogan — his spreading of misinformation as well as his debatable (according to Twitter) status as a comedian — the issue Cummings raised has become a recurring theme throughout comedy culture in recent years. Is the point to be funny or to teach moral lessons?

Even in her “spooky mental haunted house” formulation, Cummings doesn’t claim that the goal of comedy is to be funny — as many, including another comedian-turned-podcaster, Marc Maron, were quick to point out. Comedians love to claim just about any territory for comedic fodder, from the morally neutral (think Jackass) to the transgressive, which is arguably where Joe Rogan’s commentary lives.

But comedians often wind up taking on the role of truth-telling, in highlighting the absurdity of a society where officials often seem to be driven by personal agendas and are prone to obfuscate rather than embrace morality or accountability. Many of those comedians are increasingly trying to grapple publicly with the moral role that such comedy foists upon them — and whether to lean into or away from it.

“I have absolutely no agenda,” Moses Storm insists early in his new HBO comedy special Trash White. Over the hour, Storm shares his (hilarious) childhood experiences with homelessness, the welfare system, and food scarcity. Storm spends his whole show subtly explaining cycles of poverty and systemic classism to the audience (“Trying to get yourself out of poverty in this country is like trying to fix a scratch on your car by repainting it with a rake”), but he starts out by insisting he isn’t doing what he’s doing.

“If I was doing a modern comedy special,” he ventures, “you know those ones where it’s more like a TED talk? Your friend asks you, ‘Hey, how was that comedy special, was it funny?’ and you’re like, ‘It was ... important.’ If I was doing one of those ...” Except, of course, Storm is doing one of those specials — one that has just carefully distanced itself from the notion that it’s another Nanette.

Since Hannah Gadsby’s intentionally sober 2018 special Nanette elevated the idea of the non-comedic comedy special, many comedians seem to be scrambling to figure out where they fall on the scale between “just jokes” and “glorified lecture.” Storm isn’t alone. Rose Matafeo insists in her 2020 HBO special Horndog that the performance isn’t “one of those fucking comedy shows where it’s like, oh, there’s a lesson to be learned at the end of it. I hate that kind of shit.” Still, her special is gently political, referencing the Me Too movement, sexist double standards for men and women, and the capitalist-driven faux feminist “empowerment” that leads women to fragile self-esteem.

The fact that comedians like Storm and Matafeo have to issue such “not a TED talk” disclaimers reflects how fully the “standup or TED talk” debate has saturated comedy culture. Comedy has always been unapologetically political. But the apologies have now seemingly arrived, thanks to a mix of the backlash over Gadsby and the idea, relentlessly pursued by comics like Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, and Kevin Hart, that cancel culture has ruined the average comedian’s right to free speech.

Chappelle’s continued status in the comedy community proves this demonstrably untrue, but it has definitely driven a wedge between comedy audiences. In one corner: those fans who’ve adjusted to the new style of comedy, one that often mixes the personal confessional storytelling with salient sociopolitical commentary and hopefully a laugh or two. In the other corner: fans who’d prefer to keep the personal, the so-called identity politics, and the vaguely empowering speeches out of comedy altogether.

In the center, we find the comics trying to satisfy both impulses — the Moses Storms building very political narratives without the appearance of any politicized agenda.

Missing the center mark can mean backlash — even for fictional comedians, like And Just Like That’s Che Diaz. My colleague Alex Abad-Santos has argued that one sex scene involving the nonbinary comic (played by Sara Ramirez) embodies the Sex and the City revival’s ethos: a bleak slide into obsolescence.

Che has generated particular backlash among viewers, not just because of their fuccboi characterization, but because of their comedic style. During Che’s fictional comedy routine (or “comedy concert,” as the characters insist on calling it), they interweave humor and queer pride into something that feels closer to activism than anything else — if not a TED talk, it’s at least akin to a Brené Brown speaking engagement. In one of the show’s more cringey moments, the audience spontaneously snaps its praise for Che’s coming-out story — snaps of approval, not laughs of enjoyment. A real-life viewer, far from finding Che’s jokes funny, dubbed them “the worst character on TV.”

Che Diaz’s fictional “concert” reflects a growing criticism lobbed at comedy, harkening back to the rise of daily comedy news shows like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight: the complaint that modern comedy is too politically tinged, tailored primarily for certain audiences. If comedy’s aim is to garner claps, not laughs, as Che’s does, is it still doing its job as comedy?

The defense of Che, as voiced by Rolling Stones’ EJ Dickson, is that the character is meant to be a counter to the privileged viewpoint of the original series. Some also argue that they’re unfunny and annoying because today’s comedians are unfunny and annoying — not exactly the world’s greatest rebuttal, from a comedy standpoint. Che Diaz’s flat, humorless irrelevance embodies what many people feel is the worst-case scenario for comedy as long as comedians continue to reconfigure themselves as activists and moral arbiters.

Where this gets tricky is that comedians have always set themselves up as moral arbiters — if only as arbiters of what constitutes “good” comedy. Dave Chappelle, for example, despite decrying modern comedy’s moral bent, is so convinced he knows what qualifies as good comedy that he’s devoted no less than six Netflix specials in a row to decrying its demise. In effect, that’s not unlike a revivalist pastor on a circuit, with a mission.

The best standup, too, is arguably structured like a sermon, delivering a similar catharsis of understanding at the close, whether it’s through a personal anecdote that becomes elevated into a moment of understanding the world, or through repetition of a joke that finally transcends itself to become something much bigger. The experienced comedy audience anticipates that moment of elevation from the best comics. And even Chappelle knows the power of using his pulpit in order to make a larger moral point: He did more or less exactly what Hannah Gadsby did in his non-comedic 2020 special “8:46” after the murder of George Floyd.

Whether comedy is good at being a source of moral authority depends on your position — which comedy denomination you ascribe to, perhaps. There’s clearly an audience demand for the kind of comedy that injects moral and social concerns into the performance. Perhaps that’s because for many modern secular audiences, standup comedy is the closest thing many of us have to the experience of going to church and being lectured for a while on the state of the modern world.

Of course, one enormous sticking point is the reality that comedians aren’t moral authorities and maybe shouldn’t claim to be. Even putting aside the obvious moral scandals, the Louis C.K.s and Daniel Toshes of comedy, the average comedian isn’t generally equipped with the training and set of life experiences that lead to good moral arbitration. The moral authority’s job, after all, requires setting themselves slightly apart from the world, while the comedian’s job is to be relatable — largely incompatible traits.

Still, comedians occupy a nebulous space between “authority” and “influencer” at a moment when many of our traditionally chosen moral figures no longer carry the authority they once did. Half of teens trust YouTubers and social media influencers over TV news, and traditional newspaper outlets see dwindling subscribers year-over-year. Cummings suggested as much in an earlier tweet about Rogan: “Don’t look to why so many people trust Joe Rogan, look to why so few people trust the mainstream media.”

There is something to the idea that a podcast host and a comedian (if, again, Rogan even counts as a comedian) occupy similar spaces in our lives as cultural commentators. And after all, where else except either a sermon or a standup special will audiences hear about poverty, or sexism, or how, for example, disinformation culture is driving wedges between us? That was the menu for Aziz Ansari’s surprise December set at the Comedy Cellar, which landed on Netflix last month as a half-hour special, Aziz Ansari: Nightclub Comedian.

Ansari, who’s largely kept out of the spotlight since weathering a 2018 accusation of sexual misconduct, was demonstrably quiet during his set, talking less about himself and more about the modern-day anxiety we feel over everything from Covid-19 to smartphone addiction.

Discussing the death of a relative who refused to be vaccinated, Ansari stressed the need for empathy above passing judgment, and blamed modern tech culture for the information and disinformation silos that increasingly divide us. “Unless we figure out how to talk to each other in real life again,” he told the rapt audience, “it doesn’t even matter what the problem is ... this current strategy [of] just shaming people isn’t gonna work.”

Granted, Ansari did toss a conspiracy joke in between points one and two. This is comedy that’s both aware of itself as comedy and as an attempt to be ethical. In fact, Ansari’s hesitance, his apparent awareness of his lack of qualifications to act as a moral arbiter, seemed to make him that much more suited for the role.

Perhaps therein lies the bridge between comedy as TED talk and comedy as a self-contained vacuum into which no modern political sensibility is allowed to seep. Instead of trying to define comedy as either purely funny or a secular homily, the unease about how to proceed is itself the way forward. Ansari’s set, on the whole, was quiet, sad, resigned, and, as he noted, reflective of how “everything’s a little bit shittier.” It was also really funny.

There’s a reason that comedians — despite standing on a stage, holding a microphone to talk at people who ideally aren’t talking back — don’t like to think of themselves as lecturing. Speechifying often has a ring of self-importance that’s antithetical to good comedy; it can be alienating. Most comics are looking to give people something to relate to, not aspire to.

Maybe that’s why Cummings’s tweet kicked off so much conversation. Comedians, as she noted, want to be able to question authority, not be taken as the authorities. But comedians also possess a unique ability to get their audiences to see the world through their points of view — like seeing poverty through the eyes of a self-aware, self-deprecating comic like Storm, for example. If those viewpoints can lead their audience to a deeper moral understanding, shouldn’t that be celebrated rather than reviled?

After all, what’s so wrong with having something to say, and standing behind it? As long as it’s actually funny, and actually true.

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