As my sister will readily tell you, I am not a funny person. I have a sense of humour and I love to laugh, but I have never been particularly good at making people laugh myself. Funnily enough, I think this is the reason I love stand-up comedy so much. I love to watch and experience art forms that I could never imagine doing myself. It becomes truly magical. The first comedian I was ever familiar with was probably Jerry Seinfeld, in true ’90s kid form, and then like so many others I fell in love with the work of Louis CK. From there I began to expand and after a while I noticed that the comedy I liked best had a tendency to get a bit political, some more subtly than others. There is something special about the way that comedians deal with political topics. I found myself saying “huh, I never thought about it that way” far more than I usually did. When watching comedy, I allowed myself to rethink things that have been long engrained in my head and to address topics that I am often afraid to in my political social circles. That’s the beauty of stand-up — it opens up space for audience members to rethink their values and consider topics that might otherwise be intimidating or inaccessible to them.
This is where I’d like to begin—inaccessibility. Living in the age of information we’re theoretically supposed to be able to open up our computers and learn anything we want. The world is literally at our fingertips. But while I suppose it is true that we have access to unlimited information, it is far more difficult to turn that information into knowledge. There are many reasons for this, but the most relevant here is that information is produced by experts who hold power over any conversation about their particular field. As anthropologist Isabelle Stengers states:
“Experts are the ones whose practice is not threatened by the issue under discussion since what they know is accepted as relevant” (Stengers 2005, 13).
This means that in a conversation, an expert is the person whose knowledge will be accepted as true and objectively more valuable than the knowledge brought forward by the person who is not an expert in the field. Don’t worry, I’m not about to argue in favour of “alternative facts”. I do believe that experts are important and deserve to be listened to. Climate scientists do have the right to state that climate change is real. An individual who has never worked in public education does not deserve to hold the position of education secretary in the White House. But when a person labels themselves as an expert, they’re in a way saying “I know more than you and if you disagree with me you’re wrong”. This often means that real, in depth conversations are often only held between experts on the topic. They control the conversation, which isn’t a problem in itself, but the way they talk about their topic can often be confusing and dogmatic, especially to people who are new to the topic. One of my greatest frustrations with anthropology, for example, is that although it is such an interesting field that I want everyone to engage with, so much of the knowledge — theory, ethnographic articles — are almost impossible to understand if you haven’t spent four years of an undergraduate degree reading them (even then understanding is not guaranteed). This isn’t just a problem in academia, however. This tendency towards elitism and superiority is common surrounding many, even most, social and political issues. I’m guilty of it myself. It’s very easy to feel superior to someone who holds a different opinion than you do. The results, however, can be disastrous.
I am not alone in the belief that Trump was elected in part because so many people in the US felt left behind by their government and country. In an article for the Washington Post, Chris Cilliza states:
“Trump’s campaign was pitched entirely at the idea that egg-headed wonks and liberal elitists—including the entire literary and entertainment culture centered on the two coasts—were not only deeply out of touch with the concerns of Average Americans but also dismissive of them”.
The sad part about this statement is that these “Average Americans” are not entirely wrong. The fact that class struggle exists in rural America too is often ignored by urban dwellers. It’s clear, at least to me, that Trump won’t do anything to improve life for the lower classes, even the white ones, but that was central to his campaign. He told a large, frustrated group of people that they did not need to change with the rest of the country, did not have to listen to those who made facts out of things that were completely contrary to “Average America’s” beliefs. This, of course, is very different from the last presidency.
“Obama saw the job—especially in the first few years—as a sort of Professor in Chief. He would be the expert, explaining the hows and whys to a less well-informed public. Trump is the antithesis of that idea. He views himself as channeling the will of the people, a group that has been ignored or laughed at by coastal elites over the past decade” (Cilliza, 2017).
And it’s true; we have been laughing at them. To many on the left, conservatism (especially rural conservatism) has become synonymous with stupidity and we form intense prejudices that define entire parts of the country as lesser. No wonder these people don’t want to be a part of our conversations, don’t want to listen. I would not want to be a part of any conversation in which I was immediately considered stupid and talked down to (although as a woman this does happen often). I am totally in agreement with the idea that it is not the duty of the oppressed to educate their oppressors. People need to take the initiative to educate themselves. But it is naive to say that educating yourself is easy. If an uninformed person does try to begin to educate themselves on a social topic, what they’re confronted with is often inaccessible and isolating.
I’m going to use Dylan Marron as an example. This is an uncomfortable thing for me to do because I seriously love and respect what he does. But even as an avid fan, I have to admit that his intense use of sarcasm gives a clear tone of superiority. I only noticed this when I watched a video of his with which I didn’t totally agree. He was talking about the uselessness of awards shows like the Oscars and I was thinking to myself “well, but what about the potential awards shows have for making political issues known to millions of people at once?” I’m not necessarily right and he wasn’t necessarily right, but the point is that his video, the way he argued his point, made me feel a little stupid. It made me feel like any point I might have on the topic would not be welcome in that conversation. But let’s take a look at a video of his that I do totally agree with:
Right from the start, as I’m sure you noted, he states that “the people who say it doesn’t exist are full of shit”. Now, I happen to think that he is totally right. But what if I were a person who didn’t know much about police brutality and had maybe in the past even argued that it didn’t exist because I had never seen it? If I were the daughter of a police officer trying to understand what people were talking about, would this be helpful? I don’t think I would be particularly receptive to a person who right from the start told me I was full of shit. To be fair to Dylan, he is very aware of this problem. In fact, he can actually help me explain what I’m talking about here.
But the character of “the expert” in our social drama has a counterpart — almost a complete opposite, though not quite. This character is called “the idiot”. I don’t mean “idiot” in its popular sense, as in a stupid or foolish person. Instead, I’m using the term based on French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept.
Deleuze’s idiot “is the one who always slows the others down, who resists the consensual way in which the situation is presented and in which emergencies mobilize thought and action… The idiot demands that we slow down, that we don’t consider ourselves authorized to believe we posses the meaning of what we know” (Stengers 2005, 2).
Put more simply, the Idiot refuses to blindly follow the status quo. They refuse to accept things as objectively good or bad, true or false, just because that’s how society has agreed to label them. They encourage us to look at things in a different way than we usually do. But don’t confuse this character with the “Devil’s Advocate”. The Devil’s Advocate argues the opposite of the common or current narrative, often just for argument’s sake. But that’s not what the Idiot is doing. They are not necessarily arguing the opposite of the current narrative. They are asking that we think about this narrative differently—that we don’t assume that the way we see something is the only way it can be seen.
“The idea is precisely to slow down the construction of this common world, to create a space for hesitation regarding what it means to say ‘good'” (Stengers 2005, 2).
… or bad, for that matter.
The Idiot is almost opposite to the expert because they do not put themselves above others. They are equal or even inferior since they are often the object or ridicule and laughter. And this is where I’m finally going to get back to comedy. In most of the good stand-up I’ve seen, the comic starts their set by placing themselves in a position of inferiority to the audience. This self degradation happens over and over again, and it is not an accident. Just look at this statement made by Ricki Gervais in HBO’s Talking Funny:
“I think with comedy, it’s not a rule of thumb, but I think you have to be the underdog. There’s no place for being above the audience.”
By using self deprecating humour at the start of the show, they show the audience that they do not consider themselves superior. They show that they’re just a normal, screwed up person with issues like everyone else. The audience can relate to the mess the comedian is talking about. In this way, although the comedian is clearly in a position of power—standing alone on a stage in front of thousands of people who have paid to hear them talk—they level the playing field. They’re saying “don’t be intimidated by me; I’m just some idiot”.
Amy Schumer is not my favourite—after watching a lot of stand-up as research for this piece I realized that the allegations about her stealing a lot of her jokes is true. That being said, this is a great example of self degradation. She literally calls herself trash based on the outfit she’s wearing and describes the humiliating experience of the “walk of shame” that much of her largely female audience can relate to.
Here Louis labels himself as completely average—a very normal middle aged man who is often out of breath and with no hope of ever being in great shape. Despite his immense fame and genius-status talent, he’s just a guy no better than anyone in that audience. But self degradation doesn’t always have to be about physical appearance, and often the best isn’t.
What he says here, “I have a lot of beliefs and I live by none of them” is something we can all connect with. It’s also something we might not like to admit to ourselves. We like to see ourselves as people who stick to our values, but the reality is that we are easily corrupted. You’re a vegetarian until Thanksgiving comes around. You only buy organic food except for when you get drunk and end up at McDonalds… Whatever our own personal example, these are moments that we are ashamed of. So when Louis connects with us on this level, beyond just physical appearance, we really do realize that he is a flawed human just like us. The audience is comfortable recognizing this shameful similarity because he doesn’t accuse them of being this way, he just talks about his own flaws and allows them to quietly relate. The example that follows is a little different.
Dave isn’t saying that he is a bad person or is a bad comedian, even. He simply talks about a moment, a very embarrassing and career damaging moment, where he really messed up. But he’s doing the same thing as Louis and Amy did in the last three examples—he brings himself to the level of his audience. In the anecdote he tells, Dave messes up in a very relatable way. Many people, especially those in his audience, have had the experience of just simply being too high at the wrong time. The audience may never have had the experience of being high on stage in front of thousands, but they know the feeling he’s talking about.
I’ve heard comedians call self deprecation one of the lowest forms of comedy. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is true that if a comic’s entire set were made up of them putting themselves down, it could get quite tedious. But what’s important to note is that all the examples I’ve given are from within the first 10 minutes of the comic’s set. This tactic is about making the audience relax, letting them know they are not some expert.
“In his role as negative exemplar we laugh at him. He represents conduct to be ridiculed or rejected and our laughter reflects our superiority, our relief that his weaknesses are greater than our own… Yet to the extent that we may identify with his expression or behavior, [we] secretly recognize it as reflecting natural tendencies in human activity if not socially approved ones” (Mintz, 74).
Sure, I guess technically we are laughing at the comedian, but really we are laughing with them. We admit to ourselves, if not to anyone else, that we relate to the comic’s flaws. The self deprecation says to the audience, “I am not better than you, and really you’re not better than I am. This is a conversation between equals”. And in a conversation between equals, with much less of a power dynamic than a lecture holds, the audience has the opportunity to let their guard down from around their beliefs and socially constructed norms.
But the Idiot goes further than just being an equal to the people around them. The Idiot introduces their peers to different ways of seeing the world. They slow down the conversation. For example:
Here, Louis literally says that sometimes “it’s not clear what the right thing is to do”. The common and accepted norm is that good citizens throw their trash away in a garbage can. Of course, Louis isn’t actually saying that we should all just start littering all over our cities. He’s not playing Devil’s Advocate; he’s not going 100% against the norm. What he’s doing is questioning this norm, opening up space to show us that it’s more complicated than it seems. In this bit he addresses the massive problem of pollution in the oceans and makes the audience face the fact that even if they’re doing what they’re “supposed” to, they’re all contributing, we’re all contributing, to an issue that is much bigger than dropping a candy wrapper on the street. Here’s another example with a slightly different approach:
Here he’s talking about a topic that gets a lot of people very upset—same sex marriage and the people who are opposed to it. What’s brilliant about this bit is that he never accuses anyone in the audience directly of being a bad person because they oppose gay marriage. He isn’t technically talking about anybody in the audience—he’s talking about babies. When he says “they can’t accept that because they’re being babies” he implies that people who can’t accept gay marriage are babies and are being selfish without actually pointing fingers at anyone. The entire point is clearly made yet veiled by the ridiculous idea that gay marriage is why babies cry on airplanes. The following bit is the one that got me thinking about this topic in the first place, probably because it’s the most obvious.
This is the closest he gets to really lecturing the audience, but he doesn’t do it as himself, Louis. He does it from the point of view of God. The image he paints is of God coming back and yelling at the human race as if we are a bunch of naughty children. Inside this ridiculous story he manages to question the insanity of the things we consider essential like cars, bacon, jobs and even the idea of the economy itself. But Louis isn’t saying that we shouldn’t have these things—he clearly doesn’t want to live without them—but he slows us down and makes us reconsider what we feel absolutely entitled to.
This use of the ridiculous is used a lot in stand-up to soften things that are truly horrible.
When Dave talks here about a black woman being beat up by police, he does come out and say that it’s fucked up. But then he compares her fight to an infamous boxing match, making people laugh. When he says “she’s takin’ a lot of shots” the audience pictures this woman getting punched over and over and are forced to face that this is a reality in our society, but without being soberly and seriously confronted by it. Dave makes them face a horrible truth, but still allows them to laugh. Some of his bits are more up front.
Here, he reminds us of the injustice towards black people in America’s justice system. He points out that when this happens to a white man an entire Netflix show gets made about the issue while the same thing is happening to black people every day. He doesn’t make anyone feel bad about loving Making a Murderer; he even says that he watched the show himself. He just points out, humorously, the injustice. The joke is short, but the point gets made.
This bit by Ali Wong is not subtle. She says the words “white male privilege”; she brings up colonization. But she does this without mentioning her own oppression. The way she delivers the joke is impossible not to laugh at, and I loved seeing the clips of white men laughing when she’s done. By making them laugh with her and participate in this exchange with her, she forces them to recognize their privilege. I find Ali Wong really interesting. The first time I watched her set I felt quite uncomfortable because of her whole bit about feminism:
I couldn’t help but laugh, but my reaction to this was: “Ellen wouldn’t be a show without feminism, Ali!” and “women didn’t just do nothing before feminism, Ali”. But what I realized after watching her set a couple of times is that most of the best points that she makes are feminist ones.
I think she’s actually taking a dig at Louis here. It certainly seems like she’s referencing his bit about how boring parenthood is in “Live at the Beacon Theatre”. And then there’s this one:
Okay, clearly she’s not serious about the mushrooms thing. But in the rest of the bit she makes a really good point. Fathers are often praised for changing diapers or going to parent/teacher conferences when it is taken for granted that the mothers will do the same things. Although it is shrinking, parenthood is one of the biggest double standards that exists in our society.
I don’t think Ali means what she says about hating feminism. As horrible as it is, it’s true that many men just stop listening once a woman has declared herself a feminist. They prepare to be lectured and their defence goes up. It seems to me that when she jokes about hating feminism, she is taking herself out of the position of the Expert (although she absolutely has the right to speak as an expert on being a woman). But although it’s sad that she has to do this, it allows those in the audience who might be afraid of the word “feminism” to relax and listen to what she’s actually saying. They end up engaging with some important feminist issues.
All this being said, there is a wrong way to engage with social issues in stand-up. When Ali talks about the double standards of parenthood she doesn’t attack her husband or men who support their pregnant wives in general. When Dave brings up the horror of police brutality he doesn’t go on a rant labeling all cops as pigs. When Louis makes us reconsider our waste system he doesn’t say anyone who makes waste is a bad person. They don’t point fingers, they open up space for wider thought, playing the Idiot. The following bit by Amy Schumer is approached very differently:
Although I agree with the essence of what Amy is saying here, this bit makes me cringe. Right off the bat she is painting gun owners (despite the fact that she says she’s friends with some of them) as stupid. She squeezes them all together in one box and makes fun of not only their ideas, but irrelevant things like the way they speak and what they look like. She even goes as far as to make fun of the type of home some of them might live in as if poverty were a character flaw. If you’re pro gun, this bit is not going to make you rethink your position because she has already dismissed you as stupid. Why would you listen to her? Amy does the opposite of creating space for broader thought. She narrows the topic into something not only simplistic, but isolating. When you watch a clip like this one of Amy and compare it to this next one, the difference is clear.
In this example Louis never once makes fun of people who assume the sexuality of their children or raise them to have a certain sexual orientation. Instead, by showing how ridiculous it would be to raise kids gay, he clearly shows how ridiculous it is to raise them straight.
Now, even if you’re the greatest comedian, you’re not necessarily an activist. Many comedians say horrible and offensive things that do a much better job of reinforcing stereotypes and entrenching social norms than they do of challenging them. Even the comics I have used as examples have often been accused of going too far. For example, my clips of Dave Chapelle come from a special which has been criticized for minimizing the struggles of the trans community. But when it’s done right, humour has immense potential to spark social change. Laughter is powerful because it feels so good. It’s a physical reaction and I’ve found that, in my experience at least, physical reactions are much easier to remember. In HBO’s Talking Funny, Jerry Seinfeld says in reference to a joke by Chris Rock:
“Really good bits go deep into your head and keep coming back. I think about that bit, honestly, once a month. Because it was the first time, and I apologize for how naîve this sounds, that I realized ‘oh, black people live in a different world than white people!’ I didn’t really know that until I heard that bit” (HBO).
And not only are you more likely to remember, but you’re more likely to listen in the first place.
“Humour is actually less likely to foster the kind of ‘counter argumentation’ or ‘argument scrutiny’ that serious discourse usually receives” (Young).
Stand up is not going to save the world. We still need serious discussion, productive anger, and direct action. But in order to take action, you need to recognize a problem and you need to ask a question. As Stengers states,
“Often, speculations about what could possibly be announce themselves with the ‘what if?’ What if that which seems to go without saying was not as self evident as it seems?” (Stengers 2000, 46).
New ways of thinking come from taking a step back, slowing down, and looking differently at the way things already are. Through their self imposed equality with the audience and the power they hold through their ability to create laughter, stand-up comics are in the perfect position to slow everyone down, carve out some space, and help us ask “what if?”.
Interested in this topic? Check out these two videos by one of my main sources of inspiration, Youtube’s Nerdwriter: