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The Death of Comedy
Many professional comedians think younger audiences take themselves too seriously. But that serious nature has a serious origin
IT JUST ALL seems so absurd to me. I have been seeing in the news recently so many professional comedians bemoaning the state of comedy today. Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Aniston, and Whitney Cummings have all given interviews noting how hard it is to write comedy anymore because it is too easy to offend someone and get "cancelled." They weep and wail that you cannot make fun of people anymore "without them taking it so seriously"—or different variations thereof. They particularly resent the tendency of younger viewers to promote groupthink over social media. Does today's younger generation not realize that people should be able to make fun of themselves?
A 2021 Washington Post article noted how in Dave Chappelle's Netflix special The Closer, Chappelle "joked that DaBaby was dropped from music festivals for making misinformed comments about HIV . . . [but when] the rapper was once involved in a shooting at Walmart. 'Nothing bad happened to his career. Do you see where I’m going with this? In our country, you can shoot and kill a nigga but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.'" Here Chappelle makes the observation that while this generation is extremely sensitive to potential causes of violence like homophobia, they have become numb to the actual violence itself.
A 2023 HuffPost article gives Aniston's take: “It’s a little tricky because you have to be very careful, which makes it really hard for comedians, because the beauty of comedy is that we make fun of ourselves, make fun of life. [In the past] you could make a joke about a bigot and laugh. That was hysterical. And it was about educating people on how ridiculous people were. And now we’re not allowed to do that." Aniston is obfuscating history here, though, suggesting that Western comedy tended to ridicule bigots more than minorities. In fact, many early comedy writers were bigoted themselves, and deployed ethnic stereotypes because experience taught them that they were almost guaranteed to get a laugh out of somebody. And in vaudeville, a few people laughing is like gold because laughing is contagious. They also knew that even if their work did lampoon some innocent nonbigoted minorities, it was fine because those minorities did not have large amounts of disposable income anyway. Comedy writing has always been a business, and families led by men who identified as straight and white have dominated American purchasing for most of its history.
Whitney Cummings, too, has a bone to pick with the general atmosphere. As she opined in a 2023 Yahoo! interview, "Remember the last couple of years, it turned into like comedians had to be on a moral high ground all of the sudden? It’s like we went from, you know, idolizing Richard Pryor, who, onstage went into like hitting his wife and doing crack, and now we're like, this comedian didn't post a black square at the right time and should be canceled. It's like, wait a second. Hold on, hold on. So I think comedians right now, we're having so much pressure put on us to be perfect, and I think we just kinda want to remind everyone, like, we're kinda scumbags. Don't put us on pedestals. We're just here for entertainment."
And it is true, people should be able to make fun of themselves. But what is so funny and strange about the collective cognitive dissonance exhibited by these professional comedians is that they do not seem to realize that none of them had to grow up afraid that one of their classmates who they good-naturedly teased was going to shoot them at school the next day. This generation has seen the worst rampage of school shootings in human history. There have been 380 school shootings since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. More than 352,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine. And since then, more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours, according to a year-long Washington Post analysis. Firearms became the leading cause of death for American children and teenagers in 2020, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The shooters in Columbine, Colorado, were bullied, and used video games and Internet culture to plot a revenge fantasy. The first-person shooter effect has pockmarked the early 21st Century school shooting epidemic right up to the young person who shot three children at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee last March 2023. But right after Columbine in 1999, schools across the nation began bullying training and sensitivity programs. And a lot of this training emphasized that most bullies think they are actually being funny while they are traumatizing people. And you know what? It worked. This generation has been raised with the message that if they offend the wrong person, that person might come back and harm them when they are at their most vulnerable. But no one who went to high school before 1999 ever had to deal with that.
So, yeah. Comedy, as my generation has always known it, is dead. Saturday Night Live will never be funny again. Stop waiting. It will be something, but it will never be "funny." Comedy will still be comedy, but it will be . . . different
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And this is the nut at the center of America's Culture Wars. This is the real freedom that today's right-wing self-styled patriots believe is being taken away from them when they use the wildly racist and inappropriately appropriated term "woke." Far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Bois originated on Internet message-board groups that mostly specialized in ridiculing different minority groups. But it was not to show enmity toward these groups (necessarily) that drew these boys together. It was the feeling of a lost right to make fun of people for their differences without the joke-teller being socially ostracized. Cassie Miller, a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center, reported in a 2021Vanity Fair interview that “When the Proud Boys first started, a lot of what we saw was online organizing, dominated by transgressive humor, coordinated trolling campaigns, and trying to shift the terms of political debate.” The same article claims that "The Proud Boys’ reliance on humor is arguably what led to them being seen as rowdy boys who needed to let off steam, even as their online attacks grew increasingly violent and direct."
According to a 2020 article from the Southern Poverty Law Center, "The boogaloo meme itself emerged concurrently in antigovernment and white power online spaces in the early 2010s. In both of these communities, 'boogaloo' was frequently associated with racist violence and, in many cases, was an explicit call for race war. Today the term is regularly deployed by white nationalists and neo-Nazis who want to see society descend into chaos so that they can come to power and build a new fascist state. Members of the overwhelmingly white online subculture have shown up to protests heavily armed and clad in Hawaiian shirts – a reference to the “big luau,” an adaptation of the word “boogaloo.” Their name comes from the 1984 movie Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, a sequel to the break-dancing hit Breakin'. Explained The Intercept in 2020, “Boogaloo boys style the forthcoming war as a repeat of the American civil war,”. “The Hawaiian shirts that dot the crowds are a reference to ‘the big luau’, another name for the ‘boogaloo’, which celebrates pig (police) roasts.”
So . . . get it? They're funny. And they want you to think they're funny, too. But the 1960s Countercultural Revolution also worked, and by the early 1980s, saying racist jokes only got white men cold stares and no sex, when it had previously gotten their grandfathers social cache. Now, these grandbabies wanted to go to a place where they could go and share this vaunted comedic tradition with other people who were not going to "take it so seriously." None of the people in these groups call themselves racist. According to the same abovementioned 2021 Vanity Fair article, "Despite the far-right extremist roots of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio has consistently positioned the group as more benign, dedicated to so-called traditional family values and freedom of speech. 'I denounce white supremacy, and I denounce fascism and communism.' Tarrio has leaned into identity politics to articulate the group’s inclusivity—a tactic the right has condemned when it comes from the left. 'I’m pretty brown,' he said. 'I am Cuban. There’s nothing white supremacist about me.'"
Do you get that? None of today's major white-supremacy groups actually label themselves as white supremacist. Separatists, yes. Cultural preservationists, sure. But only the fringe of the fringe still claim that white people's superiority should translate to state repression of minorities. That is also because the Countercultural Revolution worked. Today most of these groups claim that just because they make fun of people does not mean they think they are better than them. They often claim that they make fun of everybody, including themselves. These people want the right to talk about people who are different from them without getting attacked by the "PC police," as they call them.
American comedy has always been sort of right wing in that it has always been about talking bad about people. Vaudeville often trafficked in mocking nonwhite cultures, and the very essence of minstrelsy and blackface was the ridiculing of ethnic stereotypes. But today's young generation of comics no longer find a lot of that shit funny. And can you blame them?
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I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from UCLA, a Master of Arts in History from Cal State University--Los Angeles, and a Doctor of Philosophy in African Diaspora History from Indiana University. I spent nine years as a public school teacher first in East New York, Brooklyn, and then in South and East Los Angeles.
My dissertation topic was on slave resistance, as well as the construction of race. Although I am considered a resistance scholar, I am primarily interested in creating community dedicated to effecting global change through the promotion of justice and freedom for all living things. So I consider myself a "freedom scholar."
I am originally from Queens, New York, but I currently reside in Jacksonville, Florida, where I am the Assistant Professor of History at Edward Waters College, Florida's first HBCU.
Profile Pic: Kate Hallock
All other photos by: Ronnda Cargile Jamison
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