Sarah Silverman is no stranger to being caught in the grasp of stupidity. Just last year, she claimed that she had fallen victim to the increasingly mythical gender wage gap. A claim that she later retracted after she had been caught lying about it. Despite that, she launched a campaign to fight against that very ghost.
A single lapse can, of course, be forgiven. But more recently she was quoted in an interview with Vanity Fair as having said, “comedy needs to change with the times.” Adding that comics such as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and others should be doing more to make PC college students happy. After all, they’re always on the right side of history.
I know I’m going to be accused of mansplaining for this. Or, at the very least, comedysplaining. I’ll be clear: I’m no comedian. Most of the jokes I tell fall flat, but I don’t need to be a masterful joke-teller in order to understand how comedy works.
Comedy doesn’t follow a set of rules. Especially such arbitrary rules as Political Correctness. To do so would destroy the entire meaning and effectiveness of comedy. Comedy itself is a gift– an escape from the doldrums of mundane existence. A chance to laugh, feel a little guilty about laughing, and then laugh again because you realize you’re being silly. Could you imagine a world in which comic geniuses like George Carlin would have been confined to the rules of political correctness? What about Denis Leary, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, or Lenny Bruce? Hell, even Silverman’s own career would have suffered if she had set herself to follow the rules of PC.
Many of these comics have now passed, and to hear one that stood among them in the ranks of comedians repeat that comedy should… change with the times no doubt would make them turn over in their graves.
The purpose of comedy is to make people laugh. But what is laughter? The obvious definition would be the spontaneous sounds a person makes in response to amusement, but I don’t think that’s quite correct. Laughter, to me, has always been a reaction to surprise. Think about it for a moment– we all love to laugh, but we don’t always react with laughter to things that are funny. Rather, we laugh in response to something unexpected. In an argument, an opponent will say something absurd and completely out of left-field. We laugh in derision. Louis CK stands on a stage and claims while talking about children that, “boys fuck things up… girls are fucked up.”
We don’t laugh because it’s offensive–we laugh because we didn’t expect him to say it quite like that. We laugh not because he’s genuinely confused as to what suck a bag of dicks means exactly, we laugh because we didn’t expect him to compare a bag of dicks to raw chicken sloughing around in a plastic bag.
If comedy follows rules– it ceases to be comedy. It becomes predictable. Comedy is not meant to follow rules. It is designed at its very heart to bend the rules. To become an avenue of satire and criticism that can entertain and make people laugh, but also to make them question the status quo. Thankfully, political correctness is not yet the status quo– people still love to be offended by comedy, and likely always will. But there is an increasingly strong lobby to bring political correctness to all facets of life from comedy to geek subcultures all the way up the academic food chain to science and maths. Look at the recent witch hunts enacted against scientists Matt Taylor, who landed a probe on a comet, and the reaction to Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt after a section of a speech he made was taken out of context and spun as “Sexist.”
Comedy has always been a vehicle for social change. It’s always been a tool used to lubricate the gears of change, in some cases more so than any social activist. Case in point: Few people know the name of Mario Savio. But everyone’s heard of George Carlin. Despite the effect Savio had on free speech, Carlin, arguably had a great deal more influence and a much larger audience.
So, I’m sorry Ms. Silverman. But you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mirroring the words spoken on the 19th season premiere of South Park, joking about things that are offensive are important, as it provides an opportunity to have a discussion. Political Correctness is a silly thing– safe spaces are meant to keep people safe– not protect them from words and ideas they may find offensive. That you said lame instead of shitty and felt guilty about it, or were called out over it is precisely the type of language policing that comedy should be fighting against. Not supporting it.
So do some comedy. Be funny. Offend sensibilities. Make people question their own beliefs with the gift that is laughter. But do it on your own terms. Don’t play by arbitrary rules.
But perhaps more importantly, Sarah. Don’t go around using phrases like, the right side of history seriously. Do you know who inevitably ends up on the right side of history? The victors. Just because they win does not make them right. Otherwise you’ll have to concede that European Colonialism was also enacted on the right side of history.
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