I’ve got a joke.
A scarecrow, a bra-burning feminist who hates all men and a person who is offended by everything and thinks all jokes should please everyone who hears them walk into a bar.
“I’m sorry,” says the bartender. “We don’t serve straw men here.”
This is how I feel about this Trevor Noah debate and the backlash.
In brief: 31 year-old South African comic Trevor Noah has been dubbed the new host of “The Daily Show.” Following this announcement, Twitter started digging through his 8,000-odd tweets with a fine-toothed comb. And they didn’t like what they found. “Manchester United is like a white girl. Heavy upfront but lacking in the back”? “Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy! -fat chicks everywhere”? “Messi doesn’t go down easy, just like jewish chicks”? Really?
“Often, people who can do, don’t because they’re afraid of what people that can’t do will say about them doing,” Trevor Noah once tweeted.
Possibly he would say that this is what is happening now.
I think there’s merit on both sides here. But there is one problem with the tactic many of his defenders are taking.
Comedy Central issued a statement that read, in part: “Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included.”
At Time, Jim Norton wrote, “Trevor, while tweeting things with the intention of being funny, had gone … yes, you guessed it – over the line! (Click here for dramatic organ music.) In his rush to be funny, he had broken what has become the new golden rule in American public life, which is to never say anything (or, God forbid, joke about anything) that may be deemed even remotely offensive or upsetting by any segment of the population for any reason.”
Yes, that was the problem. It was that he was not allowed to joke about anything. That was why people were upset, because he was too provocative, with his fat-girl jokes, that provocative area of joke-making that has never been mined before and is full of taboos. How dare he force us to question our assumptions with his bold, daring comedy that entirely reinforced all our beauty standards? Usually people joke about anything but women as sex objects. They are just plain off limits, because it is such an edgy, un-mined subject, and we are afraid of speaking truth to power, and he is boldly going where no one has gone before.
No. Sorry. For decades and decades and decades we have had jokes that looked and sounded exactly like this. It’s not that we’re offended. It’s that we’re bored.
Yes, you should be allowed to joke about everything.
But equally your listeners should be allowed to say, “So, why aren’t you joking about everything? Why are you just making a variant of the same joke that was made hundreds of years ago before we realized women were people?”
Patton Oswalt (who inexplicably follows me on Twitter, retweets me once every six years and is, I think, where all my followers come from, so, uh, hope I’m not biting any feeding-hands here) tried to draw an analogy between the criticism of Noah’s tweets and making edits to an old joke about seeing butter fly. In the course of 53 tweets he effectively eviscerated the notion of people who insist that “Jokes should always entertain. EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO HEARS THEM.”
“Why did the man* throw* butter* out of the window*? A: He wanted to see* butter fly*!” he tweeted, then followed it with 52 tweets of apology, commenting, “‘Man’ in my previous Tweet should not be construed as privileged, misogynist or anti-trans.” and “(19/53) The triggering potential for ‘out the window’ is not to be underestimated,” “Nor should the act of THROWING AWAY food, which can be read as a violent, corporate-centric status maneuver,” “(21/53) Privilege” and concluding “A simple series of clarifying post-joke Tweets like the ones I just sent out will insure EVERYONE a gentle, comforting chuckle … Welcome to comedy in 2015, @Trevornoah!”
It sounds compelling, when you frame it like that. But I think it’s a bad analogy because it suggests everyone who criticized the jokes was a horrid joke-hater ignoring context and trying to find offense where there really, palpably, was none. These hypothetical killjoys are one of the biggest problems in comedy right now, if they exist, since they spend all their time creating a hostile environment for comedy, chewing through perfectly good jokes and insisting that their edges be sanded off until they are unrecognizable as jokes, and generally oppressing all those who dare tell jokes to power.
Is that what’s happening here?
I think a better analogy would be if throwing butter out the window had been the premise of jokes for decades, that most of these jokes were hacky at best, and if butter had to sit in the audience at shows and laugh about being thrown out the window (or be accused of being a humorless killjoy), and finally several individual sticks of butter complained, “Come on, can’t we have one joke where I don’t get thrown out of a window? It gets old, and I feel like there are better topics to explore.” and everyone said “SHUT UP BUTTER STOP SILENCING ME WITH YOUR JOKE-POLICING THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.”
This isn’t quite the greatest analogy ever either, but I feel like it’s closer.
But time and again people play the edgy/satire/boundary-pushing card.
Those jokes weren’t insulting, they were “edgy.”
They weren’t unfunny, you just didn’t get it.
They weren’t hacky, you’re a Humorless Warrior For Social Justice.
“Oh! Satire!” we’re expected to say. “Sure, that’s why you were writing mean graffiti on that kid’s house. Got it. That’s why you pelted that old woman with hams. I’m behind the times, I guess. You’re basically the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift.”
Sometimes the reason people didn’t get your joke was because it had no actual joke-like markings, other than the vague feeling that you’d read it in some book of Bad Punchlines From 1980. Not because it was too edgy.
We need satire. We need even bad satire, satire that fails. But just telling a hacky joke about fat chicks is not boundary-pushing, and not laughing at it isn’t Horrible Silencing.
You can joke about whatever you want. You should. But equally people get to say, “Please. I’ve heard that before. You’re a funny guy. Do better.”
1) Constant outrage is bad and terrible and exhausting, but that does not mean that individual bursts of indignation may not be warranted. “Society will not function if people are constantly running around shouting ‘FIRE!'” is a true statement, but that does not translate to “You should not be shouting ‘FIRE!’ right now.” If there’s a fire, you should definitely be shouting that.
2) Comedy is hard. God, it’s hard.
3) The statements “Comedy Is Always A Deeply Serious Matter And It Is Capable Of Establishing Social Norms And Overthrowing Regimes And Exposing Hypocrisy And It Must Be Scrutinized Always At That Level” and “Comedy Should Not Be Taken Too Seriously” are equally false.
4) People grow and change and their comedy grows and changes with them. I did a lot of stand-up that if I had to sit through now I would writhe and twitch and squirm and wince at my ineptitude and lack of compassion. People grow. Comics grow. You need a space for that to happen. Chris Rock has a valid concern about phones at comedy clubs catching inchoate routines that are offensive on the way to being inoffensive, bits that try to push boundaries and fail. That workshop space can be online or off, but it needs to exist. “Funny” is not some quality that exists objectively and inheres in jokes on their own — you can only find it with an audience.
5) If we were all judged by the worst jokes we’d ever made or laughed at, very few of us would ‘scape hanging.
6) But you can’t just scream “satire!”/”edgy!” in defense of every bit that isn’t funny and that bothers people. Sometimes the reason people didn’t laugh was not that you tried something too edgy and satirical and it failed. Sometimes it just wasn’t funny because it was hacky or it made fun of an easy target and your audience thought, “If I wanted to hear a fat joke, I’d go sit at my old middle school lunch table.”
7) Not all jokes have to please all people.
8) There’s a difference between asking “Make All Jokes Please All People, Please” and saying “At least try to be inventive with your joke-making, so that if you fail, you are failing in the service of trying something original.”
9) In general, on Twitter, we need to be kinder and better at giving second chances to people because the odds are so, so high that you’re going to screw up. Everyone does. The current standard, that nobody gets to mess up, ever, because some people haven’t yet and think they won’t, is unsustainable.
10) Trevor Noah deserves another chance, and with the Well-Oiled Machine (TM) of “The Daily Show” behind him I’m confident that he’s going to be okay.