What Is “Funny” — A Referendum on Today’s Comedy
What exactly is “funny”?
I sat up last night contemplating the question as I battled spotty phone service in Tulum while trying to refresh all my social media feeds with my right hand, and swat mosquitos with my left. The video was shocking: Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the middle of one of the world’s most iconic award ceremonies. One thing is for certain — reality writes a more salacious script than even the best writers and directors in Hollywood could conjure up…
Post-slap, the conversation at surface-level seems to be about what kind of reaction was warranted for Chris Rock making an off-the-cuff “G.I. Jane” joke about Jada Smith’s bald head (and if you extend the parallel to who Demi Moore is and her history with ex-husband Bruce Willlis and the much younger Ashton Kusher, one might find the joke to be a bit more layered than previously thought). Some say:
“There’s no reason to ever lay hands on someone just because of words they say…”
“Why was he even angry? Everyone is fair game in comedy…”
While others say:
“Don’t talk about my wife — I’d have slapped him too…”
“You can’t control how someone reacts to disrespect…”
I’m a little less interested in that conversation, personally as I watch people play pop-psychologist about a relationship they don’t understand, project their own insecurities and values on a situation, dabble in what-ifisms, and spew hypocrisies across the bow. My question is simple — it’s been about 25 years since I watched my first Chris Rock special and I want to know…
What is funny? What is comedy today?
A lot of my peers have run to this unwritten rule that “comedy has no limits” and “everyone is game”. I understand the root of this notion. As an 80s baby, I know that we grew up in an era rife with bullying and name-calling. We were the kids of Black diaspora parents who beat us relentlessly, disciplining us and shaping us with physicality. We grew up in an era before LGBTQAI+, before school shootings, before seeing a therapist was a thing. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” was our mantra.
The problem is that sociological and behavioral science has advanced leaps and bounds. Research has been done. Results are in: what doesn’t kill you may make you stronger…but more than likely it simply traumatizes you and forces you to develop insecurities, problematic coping mechanisms, disorders, and subconscious triggers. You think you turned out fine…but objectively speaking, unless you did some deep work and/or went to therapy to work out the kinks…you didn’t turn out fine at all.
Why is this important?
Because these notions of comedy (and subsequently what we deem as funny) are really rooted in the way we were socialized. Many of us grew up thinking comedy was making fun of the immutable physical characteristics of individuals around us. We made fun of people and called them “fat”, “sissies”, mocked individuals who were mentally delayed, made fun of people’s speech impediments and more — all under the guise of “comedy”. Fast forward 30 years and these aren’t things you would find funny if they were said to your child, nephew, etc. They lack the creativity of the comedy that seems to have gained popularity over the past 20 years or so — comedy that focuses on the nuances in human behavior — how we’re similar and different, or even the ironies and hypocrisies in what motivates us or what we get riled up for. Comedy is now the go to for getting to the simple ideas and concepts we can all relate to — from the political musings of Trevor Noah on The Daily Show to the poignant thoughts of Hassan Minhaj in his comedy specials, society is evolving to laugh at ourselves for the commonalities in our culture and what we consistently say and do, as opposed to laughing at ourselves for the things that set us apart that we can’t change and have no control over.
This was the nuance that was lost as Dave Chappelle lobbed truth bombs in his last special while also garishly feeding into transphobic tropes with his mocking of the physical characteristics of trans people. This was the nuance lost as Kevin Hart labeled his daughter a “hoe” in his last comedy special. This was the nuance lost as Chris Rock joked about Jada Smith’s alopecia-induced baldness. No one is denying these men are funny, but the low-brow comedy they lazily fall back into sometimes that plays on sexism, disability, or otherness…it’s no longer funny to a generation that’s educated enough to see the lasting damage of the jokes and to see the correlation to off-stage incidents, bullying, and violence using the same rhetoric tied to “humor”.
So what is funny?
I’m not 100% sure, but I know that society has gradually started making a stand that laughing at individuals and marginalized communities because of who they are as opposed to how they act, is less on the funny side and more likely to be deemed as disrespectful. In a world that continues to find people on emotional edge as they navigate a pandemic, isolation, the divisive nature of social media, and whatever else a capitalistic society pressures them to do to maintain their lifestyle, we might find fewer and fewer people laughing.
So whether you believe physicality was warranted, or not — I encourage you to understand that the joke itself was not funny, and the reaction may be a referendum on where many people stand on comedy in 2022: comedy is no longer a safe platform for unfettered dispensing of disrespect at the expense of those deemed weak or marginalized; that fantasy is ending…
Comedians may need to evolve, or get slapped back to reality.