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America Doesn't Deserve Comedy

Yesterday afternoon I watched a video clip of a Trump spokesman citing Japanese internment during World War II as precedent for a proposed national registry of Muslims. Then I had a harrowing text conversation with my wife about whether we'd register in solidarity if such a horrifying development were to occur, weighing our responsibility to our six-month-old baby boy against our duty to resist fascism. Then I went to the comedy club for open mic night.

The last time I was at Laughs it was the Wednesday before the election. A loud Trump supporter sat in the front row of the sparse midweek crowd heckling nearly every comic, even after he was ordered to stop numerous times. He eventually wandered out of the showroom and into the bar. He was a large middle-aged white man eager to talk to anyone who would acknowledge him. He seemed to revel in the attention he was getting for being a loudmouth drunk, but also seemed confused that no one wanted to talk to him. Inexplicably, he had a small pile of sawdust on his shoulder. He specifically asked the bartender for a pumpkin beer, just in case he wasn’t giving me enough things to scorn.

This man buttonholed me at the bar to explain that, although the state of Washington had paid for his $100,000 life-saving heart surgery as a young man, he had to vote Trump because the Mexicans were taking all his construction jobs.

“That’s funny,” my friend Tony quipped. “All the dudes I know in construction are killin’ it right now.”

Other than the heckler, the only other vocal Trump supporter I know is a guy with severe cognitive impairments. I used to see him around at the open mic years ago. He moved to another state but recently started showing up on my Facebook feed to drop alt-right memes of the crude, barely-literate variety. Knowing his serious intellectual limitations, I felt more empathy for the guy than anger.

Armed with these anecdotal demographics—the only Trump supporters I’ve personally interacted with are a drunken heckler and a cognitively impaired former open miker—I thought to myself, Hillary’s got this. Even some of my Southern evangelical family, people who considered George W. Bush “a godly man,” said they couldn’t vote for Trump.

And then November 8 happened.

Now I’m wondering if America even deserves comedy anymore. I’m also wondering if we comics are worthy of the job.

Consider that one of the great psycho-cultural themes of right wing America is the plague of  “political correctness,” which every Republican candidate in the debates agreed was the Number One Problem Facing America. Observe, if you will, how this sense of besieged privilege permeates everything in our culture, including comedy. All the snickering dudebro comics rolling their eyes and cracking wise in the green room about “preferred pronouns” and “safe spaces” are its unwitting dupes. In their own petty way they helped fuel the movement that won Trump the Electoral College vote.

This division erupted above ground across the country last week, but it split the comedy world years ago, egged on by many of the same people who now consider themselves “woke.”

Most of these comics probably consider themselves liberal—or at least would never publicly support Trump—but they just couldn’t let go of the way feminists and people of color challenged their notion of absolute free speech, their unquestioned prerogative to turn others’ trauma into cheap laffs.

This loud refusal to acknowledge oppression: Where does it end? We’re now starting to glimpse that toxic jerkscape. The view spreads out before us for miles and miles.

I’ve reached the point where I can’t distance myself much further from the pathological elements of comedy, from the mindset that’s somehow both above it all and beneath us, standing for nothing but its own right to say anything no matter the impact. There’s not much left around here for me to divest from; I avoid shows produced by comics who are hostile to women and people of color. I’ve boycotted venues with racist management. I steer clear of the Anti-PC Brigade and the fence-straddlers who enable them, and the Cool Girls who cosign them.

Thus I found myself at Laughs last night, one of my few remaining refuges. I sat in the audience waiting for my spot, and watched comics attempt to adapt the events of the past week to the hacky rubric of amateur standup comedy. Racism, sexism, immigrants, genocide, the Klan; all sloppy signifiers endlessly recombined into new jokes that say the same old things. It all seemed so glib and woefully unsuited to the moment. None of it, including my own jokes, came close to admitting the horrifying reality we now face. For the first time since I started standup, I wondered what the hell we were doing.

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