Abraham Lincoln delivered this proclamation at the height of the American Civil War in 1863. These words, written 156 years...
The Progressive Death of Comedy
“To know the comic we must know the rational.”
So everyone’s heard by now that Jerry Seinfeld has joined the chorus of comics disturbed by the censorious culture on college campuses, such that they are refusing to play these venues anymore. “There’s a creepy, PC thing out there that really bothers me,” Seinfeld told Seth Meyers.
Chris Rock has also given up on playing colleges: “They’re way too conservative.” But by “conservative” he means, strangely, PC: “Not in their political views—not like they’re voting Republican—but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of ‘We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.’ ”
Students at UC Berkeley voted to disinvite Bill Maher, “a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for,” from giving the commencement address there. (The university authorities ignored the vote and reinvited him.) On a June 12 episode of Real Time, Maher commented on how he needed to go outside typical “liberal” audiences to get some room for his humor to breathe.
Colleges are feeding and are being fed by tendencies in the larger culture. Mel Brooks has said that his outrageous anti-Western comedy Blazing Saddles, released in 1974, couldn’t get made today:
They can’t make that movie today because everybody’s so politically correct. You know, the NAACP would stop a great movie that would do such a great service to black people because of the N-word. . . . You’ve got to really examine these things and see what’s right and what’s wrong. Politically correct is absolutely wrong. Because it inhibits the freedom of thought. I’m so lucky that they weren’t so strong then and that the people that let things happen on the screen weren’t so powerful then. I was very lucky.
Give progressives the benefit of one doubt: they understand the power of words.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, it seems like there were more things you couldn’t say or even suggest on radio and television than you could. But there was something of a cultural consensus in that regard. It was understood that these media came into people’s homes. And just as you wouldn’t walk into a stranger’s house, kick off your shoes, light up a cigarette, put your feet up on the coffee table, and start telling a dirty joke, the networks—and a healthy chunk of the entertainers—had no desire to offend the audiences that opened their doors to them. Call it small-minded if you will. Some would have called it polite, even civilized.
You could still provoke with ideas. The Twilight Zone and Star Trek tackled issues like racism and the Vietnam War—but they had to do so in acceptable language, and in ways in which a double meaning could be inferred, providing cover for the producers. (Science fiction was the perfect genre in which to perform this subversive task.)
Nevertheless, edgy stand-up comics from this era were champing at the bit to push the boundaries of acceptable language and “civil” discourse. Guys like Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, and later George Carlin, whose famous “Seven Dirty Words” routine pointed directly to the topic of censorship, knew they were flirting with the law and a swift end to their careers if they crossed certain verbal lines. And no one knew this better than the late comedian Lenny Bruce, who was repeatedly arrested for controversial material he performed on stage—outside people’s homes.
Perhaps Bruce’s most famous routine, at least given how easy it is to find via Google and YouTube, is one the title of which I can’t even repeat here. Check out the bit yourself, but I warn you, it is rife with verbal indignities that would disquiet even Tom Hanks’s rapping son. (Consider that a “trigger warning.” If you’re easily upset by un-PC language and fear you may suffer some kind of existential crisis, lie down, call your psychic, and ask whether tomorrow would be a better day for clicking on that link.)
Still with me? Why would Bruce engage in that cacophonous rant? Because he was racist? Hardly. He knew how this would come across: “Is he that desperate for shock value?” But just in case you didn’t get the joke—if the civil rights marches and the fact that Bruce already had a reputation for being a radical and a rabble-rouser wasn’t sufficient context—he explained himself: if everyone from President Kennedy on down kept using the N-word over and over and over until it became just a nonsense vocable, the word “would lose its impact” and never make some poor black child cry.
The light bulb goes on, everyone in his audience breathes a sigh of relief, polite applause.
Now let’s use our imaginations a bit and fast forward to 2015. Bruce, having survived the 1960s and now ninety years old (think a dangerous George Burns), is seated onstage at Berkeley or Oberlin or Columbia and delivers the exact same routine. Polite applause at the end? Or would he be hooted off the stage? What if he gave the exact same explanation, provided the exact same context?
He would be denounced. Why? In the 1960s, comics like Bruce knew exactly whose buttons they were pushing, also what they were pushing off from: the white, Christian middle class and the consumer society they had built.
Back then, the profane word was the message, was the “trigger” for that generation. Comics knew that merely to utter it was a way of drawing a culture-war line, a way of saying to Mom and Dad: “We’re tired of your moral preening. You like to play the law-abiding, morally upright citizen, but you wouldn’t share a church pew with a black person if your life depended on it, and you’re more than happy to stare blankly at the TV, championing law and order, as cops set their dogs on black folk in the South.”
But what is the social context today? What is the shared reality against which comics are pushing? One student wrote an “Open Letter to Jerry Seinfeld,” in which he argued this:
Provocative humor, such as ones dealing with topics of race and gender politics, can be crass and vulgar, but underlying it must be a context that spurs social dialogue about these respective issues. There needs to be a message, a central truth behind comedy for it to work as humor.
It’s that “context” issue that this writer is very confused about. The idea that there’s a “central truth” that he and his colleagues agree on, a common context, is a mirage. What objective moral order do students recognize? Self-spun virtual realities, each patent pending, are amenable to no known power of persuasion, only force. If our mythical ninety-year-old Bruce used the N-word or any of the other ethnically insensitive epithets today, it would “trigger” any number of unintended responses from any number of unintended targets. It wouldn’t matter what his intention was, or his context, his reality. All that would matter is what a given audient’s “reality” was, and how the mere utterance of that word made that person feel—and heaven help you if it’s a feeling of being unsafe, assaulted, demeaned, or disempowered.
Christopher Lasch diagnosed this condition as early as 1979, when he wrote:
Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. . . .
For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design.
Everything comes down to power: who has it, who defines it, who wants it. In the ’60s, “political” comics shared a wink and a nod with fans as to who was due a beat-down, a comeuppance, a reversal of fortune. The power was Johnson or Nixon, the big chemical companies that manufactured napalm, the military-industrial complex, the KKK and its think-alikes—even the networks themselves. When the Smothers Brothers (whose writers included Steve Martin and Rob Reiner) started doing sly political humor, stinging critiques of the Vietnam War, guns, and even censorship, CBS canceled the Emmy-winning variety show.
But now the one perceived as having the power—even as much as the one-percenters, the banks, the NSA—is the celebrity comic himself. He must audition for the right to deliver a pointed opinion as if it were just one more entitlement. Big names like Seinfeld, Rock, and Maher—rich, famous—have to prove they’re worthy of their privilege before their observations on the economy, civil rights, domestic spying, dating, marriage, you name it, are given a fair hearing.
The comic is barely performer anymore; he is more the audience. It’s his or her job to applaud the people in the seats for being exactly who they are, the evolutionary high-water mark of sensitivity to other people’s powerlessness, which is just a projection of their own inner insecurities and dissatisfactions. Like the poor kid whose immunity is shot and must live in a plastic bubble for fear of an errant sneeze, our college kids fear microaggressions and so construct bubbles of their own. Approach at your own peril.
In short, the students of 2015 are not the rightful heirs of hip ’60s audiences, willing to let the latter-day Bruces pull them—for good or for ill—they know not where, but of their grandparents’ sensibilities, only with the world as their living room. They expect to have their self-image reflected back to them, they tut-tut “abusive” language, they become outraged at wrong attitudes. Don’t you know what we suffered through in
the Depression, World War II, heteronormative patriarchy? Instead of calling the networks or writing a letter to the editor, this generation takes to social media to vent spleen as to what’s wrong with these kids today.
What’s lost in all this talk is what’s funny.
I opened this essay with a quotation from the great French comic playwright Molière. To the average secular and proudly progressive college student, what constitutes the “rational,” the reasonable, the nonnegotiable “reality” against which the absurdity, the comic effect, of anything can be measured? “Reality is a very subjective affair,” wrote the author of Lolita. Wouldn’t students at Berkeley and Oberlin and Columbia agree, for no other reason that they, the subjects, feel it so intensely?
Years ago, Murray Rothbard, in “Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature,” wrote that
the egalitarian revolt against biological reality, as significant as it is, is only a subset of a deeper revolt: against the ontological structure of reality itself, against the “very organization of nature”; against the universe as such. At the heart of the egalitarian left is the pathological belief that there is no structure of reality; that all the world is a tabula rasa that can be changed at any moment in any desired direction by the mere exercise of human will—in short, that reality can be instantly transformed by the mere wish or whim of human beings.
Seinfeld referred to how the “line” of what is acceptable keeps moving, but that’s because it’s a line drawn in the inner recesses of the student’s self-conception, and whether that conception is reinforced or challenged, which represents subtle shifts in the power struggle. Hence the perceived lack of a sense of humor among the most progressive and PC of audiences. When reality is subjective, the comic’s attempt at highlighting an incongruity becomes utterly meaningless and possibly dangerous. Focusing on patterns of human behavior, even for comic effect, can easily become in the minds of the ideologically correct the reinforcement of hateful stereotypes.
The ’60s generation that was tired of the phony, the hypocrite, the poseur wanted to hear the language of the streets, because that was deemed “authentic” and spoke to the real experience of “the people.” It wasn’t the stage English of white elites. The Left understood the power of language, even of a single word. But history is fickle, and that generation has given birth to one that has swapped out Carlin’s seven dirty words, with which it is quite comfortable, for others that reflect unacceptable attitudes toward power. Regardless of humorous intent or context, such attitudes—denoted and denounced as sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic—are likely to get a comic offender booted and boycotted.
Censorship and the vetting of language we have always had with us. It’s as old as Plato’s attack on poets, stoning for blasphemy, the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, Goskomizdat, Miss Manners, and the Hays Code. The penalties for violations may vary greatly from one generation to the next, but that anything should be utterable in any milieu is still a fraught ambition. (The only prevailing consensus regarding “propriety” appears to be in regard to children. Even R. Crumb admitted in the documentary devoted to him that he didn’t want his young daughter watching Goodfellas.)
Throughout history, the more clever comic minds knew how to work around authoritarian obstacles. When Molière tried to stage his Tartuffe, which skewered religious hypocrisy, he was threatened with censure by the church in France, which presumably saw a little too much of their own members in the eponymous character. So Molière appealed to the “Sun King,” Louis XIV. To seal his patron’s approval, he used the trick of bringing “a king’s officer” on stage in the final act to resolve the tension in the play and anoint his thesis. See? The king is as appalled by hypocrisy as is the playwright. It is acceptable to dramatize such a theme and ridicule such a character. The easily offended clerics be damned.
But who is the powerful patron today who can run interference for our more clever comic minds when the best of them are deserting the field?
Conservatives and Christians have an opportunity to make common cause with genuine liberals in fighting the power of the PC prudes, as those right of center are more often than not the victims of such peevishness. (One wonders whether the writer of the “open letter” to Seinfeld would worry over the hurt feelings of Baptists or Orthodox Jews—or hardworking entrepreneurs like the owners of Chick-fil-A.) But as we saw with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the question of what constitutes true freedom of speech is not so cut and dried. There are those who believe the caricaturists were just powerful bullies who provoked the attack from a “powerless” minority, and hence are unworthy symbols of free expression. Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau offered similar sentiments, eliciting pushback from both Left and Right. And Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League, had this to say at the time: “Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, ‘Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.’ Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive.”
Here are some uncomfortable questions:
What would be the real motives for conservatives and Christians to link arms with the Jerry Seinfelds and Chris Rocks and Bill Mahers of our culture? To see lefties discomfort their own? Have we simply declared defeat in the battle to preserve our own sacred cows such that now we want all sacred cows turning on a spit? Would we prefer nothing sacred to the sacred Self? Is that a matter of principle? Or of spite?
Are there no lines to be drawn, even on college campuses, those hothouses of provocative and even outlandish ideas? Even when they, like Hesiod and Homer, tell lies about the gods? Or is merely to ask the question acquiescence to the censor? (“I believe in the First Amendment as much as the next person, but . . .”)
Is it possible to reestablish a shared moral consensus, one that at the same time admits a subject element in all moral reasoning, if there is no foundational tradition to act as context? In other words, must we reassert a Judeo-Christian privilege before anything like mere civility becomes possible again, even in a trenchant pop culture?
Where is our Aristophanes (that paleo-paleo-conservative) who will fight for a place on the stage until both sophistry and tyranny are objects of ridicule, undone by guffaws?
Or is it time merely to withdraw, watch the show from the sidelines, and await the return of a King to set things to rights?
I wish I had an answer. Or even a punchline.
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