One of the characteristic cultural products of our times are impassioned thinkpieces about pedantic comedians who sound about as funny as a Bard College adjunct professor of Deconstruction Studies lecturing on the politics of laughter. For example, from Vulture:
By Matt Zoller Seitz
July 12, 2018 1:26 pm
Last weekend, as Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix phenomenon Nanette continued to rack up impassioned reviews and think pieces, Bill Maher aired a new HBO special, Live From Oklahoma. If you watch them back-to-back, they seem to be in conversation, or debate. They have core subjects in common, including the cultural and political status of the cisgender straight man in the era of Donald Trump and #MeToo. But just as importantly, they represent comedy’s past and its future. Maher is the past. Gadsby is the future.
If you look at what both performers have served up as examples of their personal best, it’s hard not to be embarrassed for Maher, as well as anyone else in comedy who feels more kinship with him than with somebody like Gadsby. The Tasmanian comic’s Nanette, which shifts from a typical, joke-driven stand-up special into an explanation of why she’s quitting comedy, delves into her personal biography as a lesbian woman struggling to express her authentic self, and as a student of visual art history who scrutinized Western art painted mainly by straight white men that she unquestioningly accepted as masters because of their “reputation.” It’s a sensational special that veers from breezy slightness to unsettling depths before settling on a benevolent but challenging tone, in the vein of a teacher who entertains in order to teach but also teaches because she’s an entertainer. Gadsby discusses everything from Tasmania’s history of criminalizing homosexuality to her own coming out, her ingrained tendency to be self-deprecating (“It’s not humility, it’s humiliation”), and her suppression of her personality to please both the dominant, straight male–driven culture, and lesbians whose political identities are based around being demonstrative and emotionally transparent (“Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?”).
Nanette is also a deconstruction of stand-up specials, as well as several generations’ worth of straight male–crafted opinions on what “good comedy” is and what “great art” is. Gadsby poses a question which, if answered affirmatively, would validate her stated wish to quit doing stand-up: What if “funny” is the enemy of “honest,” or at least at cross-purposes with it? …
One way Gadsby does that is by making comedy itself one of her main topics. Among other things, she argues that “jokes” are less useful for describing the totality of the human condition than “stories.” Jokes, she says, are incomplete thoughts expressed in two stages, the setup and punch line (or “a question” and “a surprise answer”). This structure ensures that jokes as a method of communication are always on some level “incomplete,” which means that by definition they can’t really challenge or change anything, and are therefore more conservative than progressive — reinforcing what we already believe rather than entertaining new information or unfamiliar philosophies.
Stories, on the other hand, have additional stages, or beats, plus layers, ellipses, and more.
What an insight! She’s discovered that “Take my wife — please!” and the 800 pages of Anna Karenina have different strengths and weaknesses in terms of the profundity of their insights into heterosexual marriage. In fact, some might go so far as to say that, all in all, Leo Tolstoy is greater than Henny Youngman. But that sounds pre-postmodern, so forget I ever said that.
She wonders if participating in stand-up comedy as it’s usually defined (by men) is just enshrining negative emotions and reactionary thoughts. Here, again, she’s not so much rejecting an element in the basic toolkit — all stories employ tension to keep us excited or interested — as highlighting how it’s used to propagate ideas that don’t do people like her any favors. “Taking a joke,” from her perspective, is a nonphysical equivalent of taking a punch. The object of the joke is proving that she can withstand pain by laughing. This in turn reassures the joke-teller that it’s okay to say something that’s wounding, that punches down, that reminds particular groups of what society has decided is “their place.” This is how ideology reproduces itself.
To illustrate this idea, Gadsby tells a joke that both she and the audience agree is amusing: “What sort of comedian can’t even make the lesbians laugh? Every comedian ever.” When the room dies down, Gadsby describes that joke as “bulletproof” because it’s constructed in such a way that its target audience — lesbians — are all but required to laugh at it, in order to prove they aren’t humorless. Of course, that’s the entire point of telling that sort of joke: to get everyone to laugh together at the fact that lesbians are sourpusses who can’t take a joke. “We’ve got to laugh because if we don’t laugh, it proves the point,” she says.
Joan Rivers would insist that gay men in her audience sit in the front row because they always thought everything she said was hilarious, while lesbians should be banished to the back row of her audiences because they never laughed.
We did laugh, though; Gadsby encouraged us and gave us permission. But thanks to her follow-up, which takes the joke apart like a sculptor dissembling an armature, we also understand the hidden intent of its construction. Which means next time, the laughter sticks in the throat.
In other words, humor should only be viewed in terms of “Who? Whom?”