24 December 2007

oh comedians, you silly things

also, from a while ago: "See, we're lucky here in America. We live in a free society. Think of it as a ladder. No matter what rung you're on, you have the exact same opportunity to get to the top. Sure, you might say that some folks have less distance to climb than others, or that many of the lower rungs are slippery because they're covered with garbage and your high school didn't have an AP Ladder Climbing Class and the rung right above you is out of order and your landlord keeps saying he's going to fix it but he never does and all the while the guy who hangs out on the corner of your rung is constantly trying to get you high, and you're wondering if maybe you could get a little help up this ladder? Well, Mister, all the help you need is at your fingertips, if your fingertips are touching your ankles. I'm talking about bootstraps."

to be selfish about it, the up-side to the writers' strike is that i'm not missing any colbert report while we don't have cable. (the downside is, of course, the creation of new and ever-stupider "reality" shows and that horrid lie detector gameshow.) (just kidding. mostly.)

in a related vein, that quote and a recent post at pandagon (whence the sarah silverman video) has me wondering again whether comedy is a "legitimate" way to put anger (!) to action or whether sitting around shooting the shit with other privileged people about things that are a shame is only a way to feel that you're "doing something", i guess by speaking up and stuff, but isn't really doing anything. of course there's also the possibility that comedians don't really seek to be "doing something", or maybe even don't especially care about the issues they harp on in a given performance, that the only point is to find funny things to say. but i don't really buy that, at least not for the ones i've watched lately -- colbert and jon stewart, silverman, margaret cho, wanda sykes, tina fey, david cross, eddie izzard, dave chappelle certainly; it would be a pretty far-fetched argument. i think a lot of comedy, sometimes great comedy, is born of anger or frustration or incredulity -- it's a way to connect with kindred souls out there over the absurdity of things. some absurdist stuff, like maybe monty python or kids in the hall sketches, seem not to have a particular "target" they're taking the piss out of; on the other hand i'd argue that even some of the sillier bits in "holy grail" do take shots at various conventions and myths. not sure, have to think about this part more.

i don't think i'm just saying that "the comedy i like makes a political/social statement". even really terrible attempts at comedy are not typically apolitical (i'm thinking right now of "the half-hour newshour", which is funny in its unfunniness -- entertaining, in a sort of painful way, precisely because you can see how the jokes are trying to be funny but they just don't get there, e.g. do they really think liberals defend pedophilia*?, or whatever -- but i don't think that was the kind of humor they were trying for). and that can also be true even if they don't bill themselves as political per se -- jimmy kimmel**, larry the cable guy ::shudder:: -- you can make violent jokes about trannies and that's political, you can ridicule the working class and that's political. humor can also fail even if i share its political bent, of course: "lil bush" pretty much sucks, for example.

and then there's carlos mencia, for example, and i don't get why he's so fucking unfunny. i've been told it's a multiply-ironic thing, and i guess i see how it could be a sort of play-the-jester-to-mock-the-court sort of thing, in the vein of "bamboozled" or other takedowns of black minstrelsy and white expectations of black entertainment, but if it's that then maybe it's just poorly done. feels too much like an actual do-the-colored-fool-dance in honor of racist conventions, even though i get the vibe that he's pretty angry himself, and i guess it weirds me out when his (largely white) audience doesn't seem to know the difference either. kinda like when chris rock's "i like black people but i hate niggers" bit was embraced by conservative white people far and wide as some sort of admission of what they knew all along (that there's good black people and bad black people, and good black people are "articulate" or "clean" or any number of other backhanded compliments), and further as permission to go around using a racial slur and invoking chris rock's name when challenged.

there's also sascha baron cohen, who is sort of a whole nother can of worms; i think where both he and sarah silverman anger people is in firing the "satire" gun indiscriminately and in the process sometimes burying/reinforcing ugly conventional tropes instead of unearthing/subverting them -- silverman really turned me off with the my-homeless-friend episode of her show, baron cohen with the pointless antisemite-vamping in between candids in "borat" (ostensibly to further the movie's "plot" and borat's characterization as an anti-semite, but i think most people were more interested in his interactions with others and his solo interludes were mostly uncomfortable or flat or annoying). all of this is to say that in general political or angry or aggressive humor can be really effective and dead-on funny, but comedians like sascha baron cohen or sarah silverman are like bulls in a china shop and occasionally overplay their "making fun of racists" schtick to the point that it's not distinguishable from uncritically making fun of race -- they sort of stop being snipers and start shooting at flies with a bazooka, or something. my metaphors are mixing.

all of this is why i think comedians are both brave and reckless. it's often said that humor can't be cautious of stepping on toes, humor is transgressive, humor is about taboo. but mocking that's funny is made at the expense of the Man; mocking at the expense of those worse off than you is usually not only wrong but unfunny. maybe it's very difficult to know where the line is when you're onstage, which would be scary because i think most of us day-to-day know where the line is and don't want to be in a position to cross it against our own values, say something terrible and hurt a lot of people. but how is it a "line" that you cross, when the two territories to me seem to be kind of opposed and not actually adjacent? i'm really just not sure. surely it's not the intentions that are adjacent, but maybe the jokes that come out of them -- the phenotype, if you want. my first impulse is to think that your intentions about a joke should be enough to contextualize the joke, but of course i know that frequently intentions aren't that apparent and that anyway intentions aren't really what matters when people are hurt or oppression is reinforced.

so this has turned out to be a really rambly list of paragraphs that may or may not have a point to it. i guess between various conversations and thoughts of the last day or two i've had a couple of ideas bubble up about all this. maybe if i come back to them later i'll be able to make a little more linear sense out of them. ok, out.

*the funny thing is that i doubt most pedophiles are liberals, either. if i had to wager, i'd put money on most closet fuckups being republicans, for the same reason that a lot of fuckups join the priesthood -- instead of seeking treatment, run away, hide, deny. actually what's sad is i think the priesthood is also a soul-eating sort of refuge for closeted gay men, in that it's an "excuse" for not getting married and producing grandchildren. social conservatives tend to erase the difference between non-straight sexual orientation and sexual disease/abuse, which i think is why they lump together out-and-proud lgb people (who are much more likely than those in the closet to have progressive politics) with sick individuals who harm themselves or others (who i've just posited are more likely to hide from themselves by being conservativer-than-thou). whee, long rambly footnotes!

**HOW is this guy dating sarah silverman? he's so much more of a douchebag than she is, even comparing his better moments with her worse ones. eugh.

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