At the Rally to Restore Sanity in 2010, Jon Stewart delivered a funny political speech to a crowd of his fans on the mall in Washington, D.C. He praised reasonableness, compromise and the virtue of working together with our opponents. Insanity however proved resilient. Last month, he told an audience that it was an error to mistake cultural power for real power, adding: “I, being a part of that machine and mechanism, do feel oddly culpable.”
For Mr. Stewart, who more than anyone elevated the political stature of the late-night talk show, to make such a concession is jarring. But it fits the mood right now, one defined not by the army of his television successors but by the Australian stand-up Hannah Gadsby. Her ferocious special “Nanette” tapped into a growing cultural anxiety about the limits of comedy. She skewered the nature of jokes, arguing that because they inevitably lead to incomplete stories, they evade difficult truths.
The media gravitated to her bracingly categorical argument. Slate announced that “Nanette” was evidence that comedy was “broken,” and a Vulture review concluded from her argument that jokes “can’t really challenge or change anything — and are therefore more conservative than progressive.” Such critiques are just as common in the conservative media. Reviewing Sacha Baron Cohen’s new series, “Who Is America?,” a critic for The Federalist lamented, “Comedy is supposed to connect us as humans. Now it’s tearing us apart.”
When did comedy become the worst medicine?
It is a relatively new development. Until recently, comedy had been rapidly expanding, increasingly co-opting areas of our culture previously dominated by sober voices. One of the most memorable responses to the Sept. 11 attacks was David Letterman’s emotional on-air speech processing his grief, which set a precedent for talk-show hosts offering healing words after national tragedies. Corporations and business schools now regularly hire troupes like Second City to teach them how the principles of improv can help their bottom line.
But the role of comedy has particularly moved into the political sphere. Before he left the series in 2015, Mr. Stewart’s “Daily Show” was a trusted news source for many young people, frequently earning him comparisons to Walter Cronkite, and political analysis with funny quips became part of the nightly ritual of comedy. When Sarah Silverman spoke alongside then-Senator Al Franken at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the fact that a onetime comedian and a current one were playing roles at the highest level of presidential politics didn’t even seem notable.
In the past year or so, there has been a backlash to the growing role of comedy, and as with nearly every cultural trend these days, Donald J. Trump has something to do with it. He became famous in part because of comedy institutions; he was a fixture on roasts, late-night talk shows and Howard Stern. But once he ran for president, comedians obsessed about him as much as cable-news hosts did. Despite the endless internet headlines trumpeting how this host eviscerated him or that comic destroyed Mr. Trump, none did. This clarified what comedy could accomplish.
On her new Netflix series, Michelle Wolf, a veteran of “The Daily Show,” brilliantly satirized the self-importance of current comedy, skewering the entire genre of righteous political humor that Mr. Stewart gave birth to, mocking its ineffectuality while breaking down the hack conventions of a bit that always ends with the same Trump insult. “Writing jokes is hard. It’s really hard,” she said. “You know what’s easier? An earnest plea.”
Where Ms. Gadsby suggests that jokes obscure a comedian’s ability to tell the full truth, Ms. Wolf argues that the imperative to go viral with a sincere insult has gotten in the way of being funny.
Then there were the many comedians accused of sexual misconduct. Their private behavior was often at odds with their public profile, and since audiences put more stock in the authenticity of a comic’s constructed stage persona than, say, a fictional character in a play, attitudes toward comedy grew darker.
But the best way to understand this new skepticism about comedy is as a corrective to the wildly romantic and expansive view that has been ascendant for decades but is, historically, an anomaly. A dominant theory of jokes for most of Western civilization, superiority theory, as it’s now called in academia, rests on the idea that laughter has an abusive core, that ridiculing something else makes us feel better about ourselves. This is why Aristotle wondered if certain kinds of jokes (or “jesting” as he called it) should be banned.
But starting perhaps with Norman Cousins’s 1979 memoir, “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by a Patient,” which described how a steady diet of the Marx Brothers and “Candid Camera” helped cure himself of a possibly fatal disease, a new optimism about humor emerged. Studies about the benefits of comedy proliferated. You can find articles claiming laughter lowers your blood pressure, reduces stress and anxiety, burns calories, boosts your immune system and even diminishes your chance of heart disease and dementia.
Comedy has become essential to how we see ourselves. In a 2012 Nielsen study of 2,000 people, 88 percent of millennial men said humor was crucial to their self-definition. We now expect our politicians to be funny on talk shows while critics in the media dedicate resources to scrutinizing comedians for problematic politics. This is in part because the work of comics, once outsiders who plied their trade in dark nightclubs, has taken on the status of prestige art.
Next month, after years of development, the first American museum dedicated to comedy opens in Jamestown, N.Y. Its exhibits adopt a mythologizing tone that can also be seen in the recent CNN documentary series, “The History of Comedy,” in which talking heads explain George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television the same way teachers examine the causes of the War of 1812.
There’s enough reverence for comedy these days that it’s easy to forget that the core of most humor is irreverence. If we think comedy can do everything, won’t we eventually be disappointed?
In “Nanette,” Ms. Gadsby explains that the problem of jokes is rooted in their structure — the escalation of tension (the setup) and the inevitable release (the punch line). And she’s right that much of comedy works like this, but not all. She’s far from the first comedian to shut up a crowd by saying something deadly serious. Part of the reason that tactic has worked so well — whether for Billy the Mime or Tig Notaro — is the expectation of the relief of the joke. This can be a limitation, but it can also be an effective tool to better express oneself.
Stand-up is not memoir or therapy or a political essay, even if it shares elements with all of these forms. And it cannot solve society’s problems, so in that sense, sure, it’s limited. But that doesn’t mean it’s only good for diverting chuckles. What Ms. Gadsby glosses over is that it’s a nimble art form, one whose conventions can be toyed with or subverted or stuck to rigidly.
Like any art, it has its clichés, but it cannot be reduced to a formula. The irony of rigidly defining it now is that there has never been a time in history where the contours of comedy have been more flexible, when there is more disagreement over what exactly it is.
In an Instagram story this month, Michael Che seemed to be criticizing (not to mention caricaturing) Ms. Gadsby when he derided comedy that did more than build to punch lines, joking that it should be called “stand-up tragedy.” Others have argued that “Nanette” is not stand-up at all, but theater.
The line between solo show and stand-up has always been blurry, but now it is nearly meaningless. The stand-up John Mulaney cites the writer and actor Spalding Gray as an influence, and theaters are filled with stand-ups like Colin Quinn, Neal Brennan and Chris Gethard. Comedy has already co-opted much of the cultural space that was once the province of performance artists and chameleonic solo performers, precisely because it has found room for the ambitious long-form storytelling of Mike Birbiglia, the experimentation of Kate Berlant and Maria Bamford and the political salvos of Sacha Baron Cohen, who at his most provocative builds tension without offering much relief.
And while a comedian is not going to single-handedly change the hearts and minds of the American electorate, no other art form has been more effective at changing the public debate. Television show runners didn’t start the conversation about the portrayal of Apu in “The Simpsons” or the history of sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby. Stand-up comics (Hari Kondabolu, Hannibal Buress) did.
And the most discussed work of art this year about the sexist assumptions underpinning our notions of artistic genius did not come from a novel or movie. That was “Nanette,” which in finding articulate expression for a pessimistic critique of stand-up also provides the best case for optimism for the future of the form.
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