Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

Comedy Central’s ‘Tosh.0’: Five years later, it hurts so good

(Ian White/ ) - Daniel Tosh

(Ian White/ ) - Daniel Tosh

I have vague memories of giving Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0” a tepid review when it premiered, coming up on five years ago (“On Comedy Central, a net zero” was the headline, buried on page C7), and I wouldn’t remember those 491 words at all except for two reasons:

1. The offense taken by Tosh and his current or former staff (and his fans) about that review, which to this day reaches me through a second- or thirdhand source when I least expect it. (You mean they actually read their reviews? They remember the bad ones? This is always a revelation to any critic.)

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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2. My pangs of regret about that review, seeing as how “Tosh.0,” which returns for its sixth season Tuesday night, eventually became one of my “off-duty” shows that I watch every week simply for the sick, cruelly cool pleasure of it. Therefore, it’s not entirely fair that the only words I’ve published about the show were prematurely dismissive.

So, as I’ve done with “Community” and “Game of Thrones” and other shows I got half-wrong (or all wrong) the first time I reviewed them, this is a long-delayed Valentine to my secret dirty love, Daniel Tosh. If loving him is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

On camera, Tosh, who is now 38, appears to be everything his detractors say he is: jerk, troll, obnoxious man-brat, complete jackass. He wants only to say what one should not say, but unlike other comedians who specialize in that sort of thing purely for shock value, he instead has come to personify our worst impulses as anonymous online commenters.

In his television and comic persona (and perhaps in life), he accesses what could, in a humorless clinical sense, be described as rationalized examples of racism and sexism: He affirms long-standing and socially unacceptable stereotypes (women are bad drivers, for example) and then weakens those beliefs by making himself the smart-mouth who declares it so. It’s up to you to recognize, privately or by hashtag, if his riffs and rants ring true or if they ring abhorrently false. How well you process Tosh’s shtick depends on your age, to some degree, as well as the size of the stick up your rear.

Teenagers and college kids and regressive adults love “Tosh.0” — they get Tosh, they interact with Tosh online (he has more than 9 million Twitter followers) — because he meets them right where they are, intellectually and emotionally: The show’s preferred demographic audience is at that stage when they are learning, firsthand, that not everyone in the world thinks, looks or acts alike. The world’s diversity and demands sit like hot sauce on their young taste buds: What’s okay? What’s not okay? What can you say online? (You mad, bro?) I’m talking about that time of life when someone raises his hand in a Sociology 100 class (usually a dude, not always) and asks why, if there’s a Black Student Union, there can’t also be a White Student Union?

“Tosh.0” thrives on that kind of blundering exploration of race, class, gender, life. It is really a TV show about a man who never quite got past his post-graduation jadedness — or who has made a splendid act of pretending to be the guy who enters the world and immediately sets about disliking it.

Similarly, “Tosh.0’s” audience is caught in that tantalizing space where higher learning and a guiding set of ethics are either going to take root or not. “Tosh.0” thrives in a world where a little racism or misogyny or homophobia makes perfect logical sense — if you’re sort of an a-hole. “Tosh.0” invites everyone to be sort of an a-hole. Most shrewdly, it’s also an excellent place to make fun of a-holes.

After a video of a man cutting down a tree that then falls disastrously onto his house, Tosh remarks: “Next time go to Home Depot and pick up a couple of good, strong Mexicans like a normal person.”

After a video of a man using pliers to pull out what appears to be his neighbor’s last remaining upper tooth, Tosh says: “If you don’t go to a Jewish dentist, you might be a redneck.” (After the tooth is successfully yanked from the gum and the patient swigs Jack Daniel’s from a bottle, Tosh adds: “In fairness, the gingivitis did most of the work.” And one more: “This is the most painful thing he could imagine besides seeing a black person become president.”)

But let’s not overthink it, either. “Tosh.0” is still primarily a TV show about the Internet, literally and thematically.

It is filled with videos that capture moments of terrible decisions and painful outcomes: Skaters and urban acrobats and base jumpers mauling themselves in amateur stunts; a man attempting to slice a watermelon with a machete who instead cleanly slices his hand open. Broken bones sticking out of flesh; dogs defecating on car seats. Successful “Tosh.0” videos are the stuff of Russian dashboard cams capturing car accidents and convenience-store security cams capturing all of the idiocy that can possibly occur in a convenience store. It’s people accidentally setting themselves on fire. It’s impromptu surgery on an infected, ingrown toenail. It’s a whole lot of vomiting — most of it seen via phone video in portrait mode, vertically, instead of the more television friendly landscape (horizontal) mode.

And most of it has already been seen by millions, who were first linked to it from sites such as Reddit, Gawker, BuzzFeed, anywhere.

When it debuted in 2009, “Tosh.0” was billed as a digest of shockingly funny, gross or embarrassing videos that had recently gone viral, which provided Tosh, in his role as the ur-commenter, ample opportunity to mock the everyday people in them.

The show went on the air at just the point when your television and your computer and your phone all started to merge across platforms. My initial mistake was to view “Tosh.0” alongside its perceived competitors: G4 launched and later canceled a show called “Web Soup” (a spin-off of E!’s “The Soup” starring Joel McHale), in which Chris Hardwick snarked wise about viral videos. At the time, most of the late-night talk shows were dabbling in the latest Internet sensations; local news stations also discovered they could fill their 11 o’clock news with whatever YouTube was coughing up from the grand theater of human misbehavior making the digital rounds that day.

For all its venom, “Tosh.0” has somewhat ingeniously stuck with one of its original features, called a “web redemption,” in which the (sometimes unwitting) star of viral video who has been mocked globally by millions of viewers is invited to participate in a sketch — a redemption — in which Tosh makes more fun of them but also somehow makes it all better. Recent episodes redeemed a lovesick man who made an awkward birthday mash-note video for a female friend; or “Lohanthony,” a happily hyper-effeminate adolescent boy with a popular YouTube channel. This season’s redemptions will include a young woman who broke both ankles jumping off a roof at a backyard pool party and a troupe of dancing drag queens called the Prancing Elites, whose inclusion in a Christmas parade upset residents of a small Alabama town.

Often the people seen on the “web redemption” are all too happy to be getting more attention, but not always. Submitting themselves to Tosh’s whims would seem unwise — a surefire way to suffer more abuse, to expose an original embarrassment to even more embarrassment.

But along with his image as a sort of professionally licensed bully, Tosh covertly plays the sympathizer here. Unless I’m misreading certain cues, he seems almost protective of these accidentally, fleetingly famous subjects. “Tosh.0” is one of the few places where anyone bothers to seek out such people and find out what happened to them after the Internet chewed them up, spit them out and left them behind.

Tosh’s viciousness as a comedian extends to the culture at large. In a satirical artform dating back at least to David Letterman’s earliest derision of General Electric (which owned NBC back when Letterman was on NBC), Tosh loves to insult most of the rest of Comedy Central’s programming. Biting the hand that feeds you is, of course, no longer a counterintuitive branding strategy (the network gave Tosh another show in 2012, a cartoon about park rangers called “Brickleberry”).

The insults never cease: Tosh mocks blind people, deaf people, little people, gay people, transgender people, you name it. He doesn’t like spin classes or CrossFit enthusiasts, or people who propose marriage in grandiose public displays, or guys who grow “Movember” mustaches for cancer awareness, or those sometimes saccharine videos of returning soldiers surprising their families.

He also, as has been noted by his critics, is one of those comedians who doesn’t deprive his stand-up comedy of a rape joke or two. In a 2012 incident that doesn’t exist on video, a woman in an audience at the Laugh Factory shouted her objections to Tosh’s comment that jokes about rape can sometimes be funny; his response to her, reportedly suggesting it would be funny if she got raped right at that moment, set off a brief flurry of outrage and debate, mostly in the form of blog posts and essays from people who insist that there is no such thing as a funny rape joke and rebuttals from those who would never rule out the humor potential in any subject at all, even rape.

Tosh’s defensive apology (“[T]he point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies,” he tweeted) was enough to evade one of the Internet’s epic, career-altering punishments. Perhaps he recognized most of the outcry as so much more digital noise and nonsense and futile expressions of fury. Maybe a man who made his fame as TV’s concept of the professional troll is therefore immune to detraction.

When I first reviewed “Tosh.0,” I thought that a TV show built around online content and the nature of the Internet was an unnecessary, even cheap example of clearinghouse programming. Later, I started to see Tosh as an essential misanthrope. Television is filled with comedians and hosts who all cultivate an image of rudeness and cutting remarks but who still never manage to be half as mean as the anonymous vultures who gather in the Internet’s shadows.

Tosh’s hilarious use of cruelty feels as black as the online soul, and as fleeting and ephemeral. The unfortunates in those viral videos get hauled off to emergency rooms with broken bones and concussions, and Tosh is unafraid to rub it in and make it worse with his jokes. Can we in all honesty praise this sort of thing? Somehow, eventually, yes.

Tosh.0

(30 minutes) returns Tuesday at 10 p.m.

on Comedy Central.

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