Comedy is complicated. Freud and Kant famously conceived of humor as a release of tension — for Freud that tension was sexual or aggressive, and for Kant laughter was “an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” But while laughter is universal, comedy is not; what’s funny to one person might not be funny to another person. Given the way that our social and cultural landscape has rapidly changed in the past decade — both in terms of politics and language — it stands to reason that something that was funny and relevant in 2007 might not be hilarious in 2017. But rules around language can evoke the issues of censorship, muddying any critiques of the art form.
A few weeks ago, the release of Dave Chappelle’s two new Netflix stand-up specials brought this continuous argument to light again. Breaking his decade-long hiatus in the midst of the Trump Presidency, fans were eager to hear Chappelle’s smart social commentary — and while some got their laughs, the comedian and actor also came under fire for bits that many felt were transphobic, misogynistic, and homophobic.
The Outline was among many news outlets to analyze Chappelle's new material, including a portion of the first special where he pitted the struggles of trans women and black people against each other: “In his world, trans women and gay men are akin to smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle: technological inventions he just can’t keep up with.”
To make some sense out of it all, we thought it’d be best to chat with some professional funny people. The FADER spoke with 6 comedians — D.C. comedian Sampson McCormick, Insecure’s Langston Kerman, Garden Grove, CA’s Robin Tran, Brown Girls’s Sonia Denis, New York stand-up Alex English, and N.Y.C.-via-San Francisco’s Jes Tom — who told us what they think about political correctness and the role of comedy in 2017.
SAMPSON MCKORMICK: I like people who can talk about dark things, even though I’ve always had a really lighthearted sense of humor. I’m gay and I grew up teased and bullied. I also grew up poor. In the ‘80s when Reagan was president I saw “The War On Drugs” — and I emphasize the quotations. I saw what happened to the black community. That’s how we survived, poking fun at these situations. Me and my gay friends used to sneak out and go to clubs. We would tease each other about our homophobic parents or pastors. Those are things that generally people are now really uptight about. Nowadays that’s shamed, and folks need trigger warnings — people don’t make fun out of hardships anymore. But that’s how I’ve always felt: you get over it.
To me, nothing is off limits — I’ve been suicidal, I’ve had to take HIV tests, I’ve had friends who are HIV Positive, I’ve had to come out to my family — all kinds of things that were painful, but I was able to make fun out of it. If you can make it funny, talk about it. It’s your truth.
Comedy is a place for boundaries to be pushed. In the ‘20s and ‘30s black comics like Moms Mabley were playing the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, talking about segregation, which is something you weren’t allowed to talk about as a black person — you were supposed to be nice, polite, and going about your way. [Talking about taboo subjects] opens a certain door for larger conversations.
As a black gay comic, I’ve been at showcases where I’ve heard comics talk about their neighbors being gay and giving them AIDS through the wall, and I was cringing. At the same time I’m like, That’s you. And best believe I’m going to come up on that stage behind you and I’m going to roast you. I think that’s fair, I want to know where people are coming from as people.
That being said, I don’t like to make fun of people in my audience. I don’t fat shame. I don’t make rape jokes. But everything else is on the table as long as it’s funny. There are ways you can make things funny without being an asshole. I’m not politically correct, I believe in saying what I want to say, but there’s a way to do that without being offensive. Will everybody in the audience be happy? No. So this new trigger warning, political correctness thing is taking the power out of things. It’s enabling bigots to hide.
LANGSTON KERMAN: There are plenty of comedians who are never going to say anything that challenges your comforts with language, subject matter, or appropriateness. I think where I take issue is the want to assert political correctness in places where political correctness was never the intention. Richard Pryor, to me, is the template of the perfect comedian. He's who everybody points to and is like, That's the best that ever did it. But I also think about the fact that Richard Pryor wasn't a good guy. Nobody looks at him and goes like, Man this was a real hero, this is somebody that we should all be sort of trying to emulate as an individual, a human. At the end of it, part of what made him such a brilliant comedian was that he was this flawed individual who continued to be flawed.
Nobody's going on the microphone and saying, Worship me, I should be your hero. I think the job of the comic is to go up and say, Look, this is honest and raw and real. It may not feel good, but you're sort of creating a falsehood when you pretend it sort of doesn't exist.
I think there's probably a much larger want for political correctness from comedians because of the lack of political correctness that's coming from our actual politicians. You have people openly expressing and acting on homophobia, signing off on bills that keep people from being able to do the things they deserve to do as people. When you hear a representative in this country or representative in their community say something inappropriate, you're like, What the hell? You're supposed to be an ally, you're supposed to be on our side.
But I think the issue remains that in our world, as a standup, comedy is comedy. Society and politics and all these other things are separate. It doesn't necessarily mean they don't have conversations with each other, but the value of making my joke funny is far more important than the value of making my joke comfortable. There's no joke I've ever written where I was like, Man that's a funny punchline, but I won't say it on account of it maybe hurting someone's feelings. That's me writing a worse joke, and that's not what I want to do.
ROBIN TRAN: When I’m writing jokes, no topic is off-limits. I think trying to erase any topic is really bad. If I were ever to say, Don't tell trans jokes, that would be a real disservice to transgender people. Just because I don't like someone telling a bad trans joke doesn’t mean I don't want any trans jokes to ever be told. I'm careful with how I say things because I want the joke to be clear and the point to be precise and concise. I don't want to say something blatantly false. Like, there is Google now. I don't like it when people spout un-researched theories that you could easily have Googled for five minutes. There is value and reward in preparing jokes, and actually having a punchline.
There's this anti-trying mentality that a lot of older comics talk about on podcasts that newer comics hear. I'll hear comics talk about The Great So-and-So: Man, he never even carried a notebook around! Why would you brag about that? I used to not write my jokes out and be like, Oh, I'm just gonna go on stage and talk it out. As my girlfriend says, there's a lot of smoke but no fire when you do that. I’d like to see more comedians talking proudly [about working on jokes]. Comedy is like music, or paintings, or sculptures. People critique art all the time, so why can't we do that with stand-up comedy?
There's also a lack of intersectionality in comedy. I think if you're going to do comedy you should at least try to be inclusive. Stand-up comedy is very ego-driven. If you say, I don't think this is funny, people take it so personally. I'm not saying you're a bad person, I'm saying, This joke didn't work. So you can just fix the joke. You don't have to wonder, Oh my God, what does it mean about me, am I a bad or a good person, am I funny or not funny? — it becomes too muddied by that. I've done Roast Battle a few times, which is the most offensive show you can do, basically. I've heard some of the greatest transgender jokes ever at the Roast Battle, against me. I wish people would see that you can pull it off, you just have to be careful with what you say. For example, my friend Connor said that I was a “social justice warrior” who “Stood up for a lot of things, like peeing.” How funny is that joke, right? I want trans people to be topics that you can make fun of, but to do it in a way where you're not actually hurting them. Instead, you're accepting their identity and poking fun at a person. That's all I really want in my comedy.
“So many artists before me, comedians even, have gone out of their way to try to make things better for the people that come after them.” — Sonia Denis
SONIA DENIS: Nina Simone once said, An artist’s duty […] is to reflect the times. We don't have to necessarily care about social justice issues, or lend our voices to those issues, but so many artists before me, comedians even, have gone out of their way to try to make things better for the people that come after them.
I know when I first started doing stand-up, I used to watch Cameron Esposito, a comedian who started in Chicago. When she would host, if a person said something homophobic, she would come up, while making sure to be funny and not lose her cool, and correct it and make fun of them to let them know that was stupid. That made me feel comfortable because I would be in rooms with men saying sexist things and I'd be like, Well, I guess I'm powerless — I'm a woman in comedy. I can't say anything. But then I would watch her use her power to fix the situation like, This is not what we're gonna do. We're not gonna sit and talk about women like that with me around.
Back when I hosted an open mic in Chicago, I saw a lot of comics, especially newer comics, make the mistake of thinking, If I do a joke, as long as a I get a response or a reaction, then that's comedy. They’ll make a crowd gasp, and think, Okay, I've done my job. A lot of people will write up an observation they have about something related to race, rape, or whatever, but not have an actual joke there. I've had men say stuff to me about my body in a joking manner, then when I get upset they'll say, Well, it's a joke. Well, you didn't write a set-up and a punchline. I think some people aren't interested in being a conscientious person or considerate, and they'd rather just do the jokes they wanna do. That's fine, that's fair, but I think the same people will try to say, Well, I have the First Amendment on my side. The First Amendment protects you from being persecuted by the government, but people have the right to feel how they feel about your content.
In the '70s, you could just go to a comedy club, tell your jokes, and go home. But now, everyone has access to the content you're doing on stage. You can write jokes for yourself, and just sit in your room and tell them to your friends — you'll just never get any feedback, backlash, nothing will ever happen. You'll tell jokes to people who agree with you, they'll laugh, the end. But when you go on stage and deliver to people, strangers — and we do comedy because we want external validation from strangers, that’s the point — you gotta know that some of those people won't agree with you, and sometimes they will. The words you use are important.
ALEX ENGLISH: Anything can be a joke, but the trick is, Is it funny? Funny is subjective, it means different things for different people. What I find the most funny is either something that makes me go, I think about that all the time, I just didn’t have the capacity to put it in those words, or if it’s a take on something I would’ve never considered. I’ve become way more biographical in my material, because that’s something you can’t take away from another comedian.
I’m of the mind where if you’re watching comedy, and you’re going into it thinking, Gee, I hope he or she says only the most glowing things about whatever it is I identify with or support, you’re going about watching comedy in the wrong way. You’re not going into it with an open mind. I would tell someone focused on political correctness to lower their expectations if they want to experience truthful, insightful, honest, good comedy. I am able to empathize as a black gay man, I get the sensitivity around it.
We all go through all sorts of things, but as a comic, that’s their job. Comedy is supposed to take the sting out of bad life experiences. Anything that’s uncomfortable. That’s where we get into what’s interesting about this subject. It doesn’t have to just be LGBTQ issues, but any issues that make us uncomfortable, and a comic’s job is to bring that issue to the carpet, and say, Look what’s funny about this, not, Look what’s socially good for this group. It’s, Look what’s funny and interesting about this group, and I’m going to make fun of it. So I think the cost of political correctness is we miss out on the opportunity to explore certain parts of a topic or an issue that we wouldn’t even have thought about.
“Comedy tends to be posited as ‘just a joke,’ but I don’t believe that there’s such a thing.” — Jes Tom
JES TOM: I made a huge pivot after the election in my comedy — prior to this, I didn’t really identify as a “political comic.” My stance was always, Here I am, I’m queer, I’m trans, I’m a person of color, and anything that comes from my point of view is inherently political. I would just talk about my goofy life, and that was already political. But now that we’re in Trump’s America, which I talk about a lot in my set, I feel much more of a responsibility to have more of an overt and open and direct political opinion. I think it’s particularly important that I make comedy that is important to other marginalized people like me. I think right now people feel dark, sad, scared, and uncomfortable, and I want to make comedy that makes those people laugh.
I try to speak specifically from my perspective and my point of view. And I like to make sure that I know what the fuck I’m talking about. I talk about my everyday life, my dating and sex life — what it’s like to be a non-binary trans Asian American person in 2017. Representation isn’t a numbers game, and a lot of the time it gets presented this way. [For instance,] what does it mean to have an all-trans lineup at a show, but most of them have racist material? Is that actually progressive? Is it progressive to have a show of mostly Asian comics who are homophobic? Is that actually progressive?
As a queer stand-up comic with radical points of view, I kind of get split in half when it comes to political correctness. The activist part of me wants to tell you, I don’t believe in political correctness, I don’t believe that’s a real thing. That, When people want to critique “political correctness,” they’re trying to shut down marginalized people. But the stand-up comic part of me wants to say, Actually, there is such a thing as political correctness, especially regarding terms or words someone can or can’t say. And that can be stifling.
Comedy is an incredibly powerful tool for activism, because it’s ultimately communication. It’s communicating to an audience in a very accessible way, so that they can understand you and have a reaction. When you watch comedy, you aren’t just watching a comic sharing their ideas, but you’re also watching thousands of people in an audience, laughing and clapping along with them. It’s about the comic and every single person who watches it. Comedy tends to get posited as "just a joke," but I don’t believe that there’s such thing. It’s always a point of view, and whether or not the person who says it actually means it, there are plenty of people out there who hear it, and agree with it. And because comedy is so innocuous, and unlike like formal politics, it’s much more influential — it’s going to worm into people’s hearts and minds.