If Comedy is Important, Nothing is "Just a Joke"

Comedian Jim Norton and feminist blogger Lindy West recently debated a comedian’s social responsibility vis-à-vis rape jokes on W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased. I don’t want to talk about the rape threats West received or Norton’s call to end the barrage and defend speech by saying something meaningful (well maybe a little of the latter). I want to address the underlying question in this on-going debate: whether comedy matters. And not just in the basic “it’s therapeutic to laugh” way — but whether it shapes public opinion and the culture at large.

Madeleine Davies, who published her opinion on the matter last week on Jezebel, thinks this question has already been answered and we’ve reached a consensus: that comedy does matter. However, she’s speaking in the general therapeutic, community-forming sense. But can comedy be a social force? The fact that Norton fundamentally disagreed with West on how comedy affects public opinion is a clear demonstration of the debate on whether comedy has an effect on and therefore an obligation to society.

Yes, to laugh when faced with adversity can be therapeutic. One of the sweetest bits of comedy I’ve seen recently was when Daniel Tosh made a girl without arms laugh at her own condition on an episode of Tosh.0. Maybe his jokes came from a place of privilege, but if the "victim" is laughing who are we to define that as malicious?

On the flip side, as comedian Bo Burnham said on Pete Holmes podcast You Made it Weird: “Laughs can be terrible, I mean you know that from growing up. Like some of your worst moments were of being laughed at.” And the line between therapy and bullying can be gray. But people don’t like gray, they like black or white, allowed or off-limits, offensive or defensible. It’s not so simple.

Nevertheless, as Davies pointed out, the fact that we keep coming back to this debate is an indicator of the importance of comedy. Here’s one place where I think Norton got it wrong. He complains that comics are unfairly targeted as the catalysts of controversy, as opposed to actors, for example. Actually, actors aren’t exempt from controversial debate. Ben Stiller’s "retarded" character in Tropic Thunder earned some negative attention. No one is exempt from his or her society’s political climate.

I understand that a comic might want a pass on controversy; especially if they feel what they’re saying is not meaningfully contributing to the conversation. Not to rely on an old comedian cliché, but part of the reason Shakespeare’s clowns may have felt the freedom to address what was considered taboo was because they didn’t feel they were being taken seriously.

However, I don’t know if these jesters petitioned their courts for the title of "artist." Comedians want to be awarded the same freedom as other artists but many complain when they’re hit with controversy. The fact that there is a controversy demonstrates that comedy matters. If what comedians say were inconsequential, the media wouldn’t pay attention. Though we applaud the humility of an artist saying "they’re just in it for the art" most get in the game because they feel they have something of value to express. You can’t plead for people to take you seriously "as an artist" then, when faced with criticism, flip to “Why do you care? I’m just a dumb comedian saying flippant inconsequential things.” Choose one.

The other consequence of comedy mattering is that people have the right to be offended. They just do. Comedians mock being offended all the time; as if to imply that being hurt by jokes that are often meant to offend could demonstrate some kind of weakness.

First of all, do you think Daniel Tosh and Anthony Jeselnik and Amy Schumer say what they do, hoping that people are unfazed by what comes out of their mouths? OF COURSE NOT. That’s why it’s called Shock Humor. Maybe they don’t like that description. But regardless of the label, many comedians are trying to say something that’ll push the audience out of their comfort zone; past where they feel comfortable at their Thanksgiving tables, to recognize their own ‘shameful’ sense of humor — this ugly ape on their back that they don’t want to introduce to the family but maybe need to let loose every once and a while.

A lot of comedians agree with Doug Stanhope in that they were annoyed Tosh decided to apologize. And I think that’s because to comedians, what they say on stage is "sacred" in a way; those jokes DO matter. Even if the audience hates it, don’t back away from your joke or you’ll be marked as a coward. If comedy didn’t matter, then why would Tosh have to apologize and why would people be annoyed that he did? Like a teenager pleading to be taken seriously and treated like an adult, society is listening to what comedians are saying. However, like any adult, respect can be lost and replaced with anger if what you’re saying offends someone.

As long as humans remain emotional creatures, people will have emotional reactions to controversial statements, either a laugh or a groan. Exaggerated or not, we will have moral outrage as long as we are not soulless automatons. Emotional responses are essential to the reception of art, especially comedy. A laugh and thus joy is one side of the emotional spectrum and anger is on the other. Don’t embrace one side and condemn the other. That’s hypocritical.

Furthermore, the fact that jokes matter allows us to ascribe the "philosopher" title to some comedians that deliver something resounding. These guys might not be ready to admit that they shape popular opinion but I prefer a world where "jokes," even the exaggerated inflammatory ones, are treated with more weight than none at all. Davies also mentioned this but let me reiterate; when someone says something is "just a joke," to me it dismisses the whole of comedy in a way. As if jokes don’t mean anything to society.

Norton betrays himself here in a way. The fact that he, "a lowly comedian that has no weight in affecting public opinion," would call for an end to West’s harassment indicates that even he believes he has some influence. Perhaps he is hoping that someone out there might read his article and stop and think before sending a dumb clichéd rape threat. He makes it clear he doesn’t like telling people what to think, and then he berated the idiots that chose to exercise their freedom of speech to say something stupid. Though comedians never want to admit there is "a line," obviously rape threats is a line one should not cross in Norton’s books.

Thus, a comedian’s voice can have an impact. And Thank God! When Pete Holmes talks about the decline of wonder in the modern age of instant information, or Louis C.K. points out that white people are privileged and still miserable, or that Patton Oswalt reveals the gluttonous nature of America through parody … if any of these brilliant people make us weary of an element of human nature we take for granted … these are not “just jokes.” They are revelations. They uncover humanity’s ugly nature and encourage us to laugh in realizing our absurdity. Comedy can be painful if one feels victimized but also (sometimes not always) can be therapeutic.

What I’m saying is, even when someone’s offended, there’s no such thing as "just a joke."