I needn’t have worried. Burr quickly pivots away from the intentionally aggressive portion of the show — the bit that his audience finds most challenging — and toward more conventional material, like porn shop etiquette and the need for men to bury their emotions at all costs no matter what. The whole thing is a riot, including that first bit of abrasiveness.
But was it necessary? Writing in Vulture, Kathryn VanArendonk suggested no, it wasn’t. The headline of her review sets the tone: “Bill Burr’s New Stand-Up Special Is So Much Better Than Its First 4 Minutes.”
“The thing is that once Burr moves past that part of the special — once he gets through the sexist throat-clearing and the tick-the-box list of rebellious trollish vocab — the rest of the special is different,” VanArendonk suggests. It’s “thoughtful, surprising, introspective.” And indeed it is! Sadly, the same author could not see past the offensiveness of Dave Chappelle’s recent work, reducing the Broadway performance from which his new Netflix special is largely adapted to comedy damaged by its “alignment toward perspectives of power rather than powerlessness.” She’s not alone, of course: Critics have hammered Chappelle’s “Sticks & Stones," rating it 31 percent fresh.
But Chappelle’s Netflix special, launching a couple of weeks ahead of Burr’s, is similarly thoughtful, surprising and introspective. Oddly, most of his critics have failed to notice that throughout “Sticks & Stones,” Chappelle is using comedy to ask difficult questions about the intersections of race and gender, power and privilege.
Sure, it might bother more-progressive viewers that he describes the LGBTQ community as “the alphabet people,” but the bit raises serious points about who is leading the charge for equality in that community (white dudes) and who is being forced to sit in the backseat (everyone else). Granted, you might take offense to the manner in which he shouts the f-word when recounting how Comedy Central said he couldn’t use the derogatory term for gays, but he’s making a serious point about the power of language by noting that the censors had no problem with him using the n-word at the same time. Yes, he’s “punching down” when he makes fun of heroin-addicted white people, but as he notes toward the end, he’s doing so because he relates to poor white people — and uses it as a way to highlight the different ways poor white people and poor black people see themselves.
I don’t mean to pick on VanArendonk, but I think her suggestion that we can have the thoughtfulness without the provocation is common. So allow me to suggest that Burr’s special is not better than its first four minutes, just as Chappelle’s special is not better than his intentional ruffling of feathers by refusing to stop telling jokes about trans people or defending Louis C.K. Rather, Burr’s special is only good because of those first four minutes and Chappelle’s special is only good because he refuses to stop ruffling feathers. Because so much of comedy only works if you’re not quite sure of just how far great comic minds are really going to push things. When Burr asks “You know what’s hilarious about sexual assault?” the release of laughter comes because you’re not quite sure where, exactly, he’s going with this line of questioning — or how offensive it might be.
And if you don’t defend the right to give offense, you’ll lose it. My friend and podcast co-host Jonathan V. Last suggested on our show, the Sub-Beacon, that offensiveness in comedy is a bit like intellectual property rights. If a company does not consistently defend its trademarks — if it goes 20 years without speaking up as people rip off its IP — the courts are unlikely to sustain a challenge by that company to defend its trademark when that company comes across someone it wants to stop from using the trademark in question.
Similarly, if you don’t defend the right to be offensive no matter the situation and no matter the stakes, you create a situation in which the right to offend slips away. Whatever you think of Shane Gillis’s comedy, this is why brilliant comedians like Burr, Jim Jefferies and Norm Macdonald criticized his firing from “Saturday Night Live.” They fear losing that right by failing to defend the principle involved. And once you lose the right to make anyone uncomfortable at any time for any reason, you’ve removed an arrow from the comedic quiver — rendering it a bit more difficult for us to see the world from a different, funnier perspective.