Maybe it’s because of the pandemic, but I haven’t watched stand-up comedy in a year.
In the past, comics were, in many ways, the standard bearers of culture. They emphasized the things we were supposed to care about – they were the cultural warriors we never could be.
But fundamentally, a comedian needs to frame things in the form of a joke. Even George Carlin, as philosophical as he was, still made jokes. But jokes require you to make fun to make fun of other people. And good jokes require you to make fun of people while speaking truth to power.
But what is power now? And what is the truth of it all? And where does humor lie within that? With comedians like Louis C.K and Aziz Ansari being felled by their own antics – and the public’s reaction to them – there are only two comedians who have retained the national spotlight in their own ways: Dave Chapelle and Bill Burr.
Dave Chapelle, currently has amassed the most cultural power of any active comedian. But he is very much from a different era. Even though he is the comedian who has best blended social commentary and comedy – and is uniquely positioned to do so – he still pals around with Elon Musk and performatively courts controversy. He’s not challenging the established order as much as making himself a part of it – and although he is often funny, he is, in own words, “…what’s known on the streets as a victim-blamer.”
Bill Burr, of course, also speaks for a particular experience – for someone who watches Joe Rogan but also voted for Bernie Sanders, or at least the type of person who hypothetically would do so. But neither of these comedians have anything close to the cultural power of George Carlin or Louis CK. And maybe it’s ok that they don’t.
There are new comedians, and new comedy specials that I have enjoyed. But these comedians frame their comedy in identity and people’s reactions to it. I enjoyed Ronny Chieng’s Asian Comedian Destroys America in 2019, but it was very much about his experience as an Asian man in America. From what I remember of it, the humor came from him commenting on and dismantling Asian stereotypes, but the jokes were generally about his immigrant experience and confronting these stereotypes head-on.
In many ways, this isn’t something that is exactly a joke. It speaks truth to power, but that power is something that can’t be challenged – at least through the vehicle of comedy. As we’ve seen, Asian Americans have been blamed for the antics of the Chinese Communist Party, and many Asians have been senselessly attacked for this purpose. Ronny Chieng can make all the jokes he wants, but it’s not going to change anyone’s mind on the matter.
All of this leads me to say that I haven’t really watched any stand-up comedy in a year. I don’t necessarily know what people are joking about these days – or if there is even any humor to be found in our new reality. From what I can tell, in my limited experience, it is difficult to publicly joke about someone not wearing a mask or police brutality. That’s not say that you can’t find humor in any situation – but that humor can’t be channeled through the vehicle of stand-up comedy.
Anything that a stand-up comic has to say, with the notable exceptions of Dave Chapelle and Bill Burr, is not something that ends up being discussed in the public arena. These days, Discourse happens on the internet, and it is hard for stand-up comedians to compete with every-day social media users, each of who have their very own stage and very own microphone. Hell, I’m one of them.
But it’s hard not to think what a prominent stand-up comedian may have to say about the times we live in. Our whole lives have been upended, and there’s a lot of observational humor to be found in the contradictions of the world we currently find ourselves in. Still, it’s difficult to find common ground on the things we find funny. Comedians of the past spoke to a particular American experience that was intransient, but rooted in occupying a shared reality. But ‘what’s the deal with airplane food?’ doesn’t have quite the same cut as ‘what’s the deal with this asshole not wearing a mask on an airplane?’
If we can’t agree on the reality of the world we live in, then the power that comedians try to speak to can’t exist. We can joke all we want, but if we don’t all get the punchline then it just isn’t funny. Stand-up comedians can and always will exist, but it seems to be me that they won’t occupy the same cultural perch that they have in the past. And if comedians can no longer act as our barstool philosophers, then maybe that’s ok.