standup

Making Comedy Safe for the World

Don’t let the system fool you/All it wants to do is rule you[.]”

Bruce Cockburn

Many American colleges are insular freak shows resembling the Duggar family – except the incest is intellectual. And their Duggar-like offspring, political lobotomees untroubled by self-doubt, want to save the world. Justice is their business, and business is good.

And so we have San Diego State University’s Anthony Berteaux, catechizing the uninstructed Jerry Seinfeld for complaining that college students are too politically correct:

We need to talk about the role that provocative comedy holds today in a progressive world.

It isn’t so much that college students are too politically correct (whatever your definition of that concept is), it’s that comedy in our progressive society today can no longer afford to be crass, or provocative for the sake of being offensive. Sexist humor and racist humor can no longer exist in comedy because these concepts are based on archaic ideals that have perpetrated injustice against minorities in the past….

So, yes, Mr. Seinfeld, we college students are politically correct. We will call out sexism and racism if we hear it. But if you’re going to come to my college and perform in front of me, be prepared to write up a set that doesn’t just offend me, but has something to say.

borg queenOh, would that Political Correctness could Borg the world, submitting everyone to a frictionless, unified consciousness while actualizing our individuated diversities.  As Arthur Allen Leff observes, “[w]hat we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.”  Until that deliverance, we must ensure the progress thus far made. Doing so requires domesticating comedy, proscribing jokes that “can no longer exist” because they reprise the hateful past. Moreover, comedy can’t simply amuse; like propaganda, it must improve us (Read Nick Gillespie’s excellent take-down of such “[d]idactic [a]rt.”)

Why? PC is a harsh deity wielding frightful power (I know, designating PC as female is arguably sexist; however, She is mighty, so designating Her as male might also win rebuke. Plus I deployed the Borg metaphor – a queen rules the Borg). Comedy threatens that power. It exposes absurdity and hypocrisy. Laughter undermines authority.  Accordingly, comedy must exist on PC’s terms.

However, fear not: Comedy may still offend. The trick, according to Berteaux (citing comedian Todd Glass), is to offend “within the right context” by “‘offending the right people.'” Pick politically correct targets (like empowered white males and rapist footballers), and all’s well.  But PC is moody. Her demands vacillate.  As Seinfeld laments, “[T]hey keep moving the lines in, for no reason.”  At least no reason discernible to mere mortals.

How is the well-intentioned comedian to offend politically correctly? Consult the target list below. I promise metaphorical self-immolation for any errors.

1. White, straight, protestant males from the power structure. They’re Satan’s bland army (and not satanic in a good way, but rather in the Mormon, bloodless capitalist way).

2. Republicans. Except for the Kardashian formerly known as Bruce.

3. Zoophiles. Balling Fido and Flipper repels mostly everyone, and some deep brain evolutionary imperative means it probably always will.

4. Serial killers. Even the blackest, gayest serial killer commands little sympathy.  Safe ground, no doubt.

5. ISIS/Boko Haram/Al-Qaeda. One caveat: They’re Muslims, so some fussbudgets might protest that condemning any Muslim, no matter how horrifying his or her crimes, could prompt an inbred, sister-trysting, Mississippi meth cook to shoot an Indian cab driver. So, if your joke could cause stupid people misunderstanding or prompt them to act against progress, maybe don’t tell it.

6. Pedophiles. They’re America’s untouchable class. Except for Michael Jackson. Thriller gives him a pass. Plus, he was never convicted. Then again, neither was O.J.

MrHerbert7. Rapists. Including Bill Cosby, even though he hasn’t even been charged (a critical mass of allegations suffices), and despite The Cosby Show (which apparently lacks Thriller’s transcendent power). Bertreaux’s amazement at Amy Schumer’s brilliant rape joke (“Schumer and her writers managed to make a topic [sic] that most could never conceive of even making humorous…”) betrays shocking ignorance of Family Guy. Ever heard of Mr. Herbert? (“Hiiii, Kyle!”) And how about the Darth Vader costume fraud in the inducement by which Lewis bags Betty Childs in Revenge of the Nerds? (Okay, not technically rape in many jurisdictions, but still super creepy.) Or Pinto’s Animal House romp: Should he or shouldn’t he rape the jailbait passed out in his bed? Or pie rape?

But are rape jokes really PC? Some feminists likely condemn all rape humor. Good luck persuading them.  They probably oppose domestic violence jokes, too.

Finally, as Mr. Berteaux declares, racist humor is out. Just to be safe, that means no more Cleopatra Schwartz, or Chef, or “Oh, Stewardess, I speak Jive.”, or “You doctor yet?”

Welcome to the attenuated world of personal improvement comedy. Venture beyond its boundaries at your peril. Given the unpredictably personal nature of offense, and PC’s penchant for mob justice judgments, comedians are hosed. To borrow some Rumsfeldian epistemology, they don’t know what they don’t know. Someone might always take offense. And whether PC takes them seriously is up to Her. It’s like determining when a weirdo cult one is usually free to deride reaches sufficient critical mass that suddenly doing is bigoted.

I don’t blame Berteaux for his naiveté. American culture corrupts character bilaterally. The left peddles identity politics, locating ultimate meaning only in the self. So does the right, though more obliquely, with Jesus-fortified free market consumerism producing increasingly specialized appeasements. Serving one’s fellow men means the customer is always right. And when the customer is always right, even when the customer is wrong, the customer thinks he or she is, well, always right. Blinding narcissism (a friend’s felicitous phrase) results, demanding the world continuously meet its demands, however shifting or unreasonable.

Nurse RatchedStill, few things are scarier than the people who actually believe the talking points. Berteaux seems destined for human resources, to be a fun-killing team player. He invites Seinfeld to “[o]ffend the fuck out of college students. Provoke the fuck out of me. We’ll thank you for it later.” Spoken like an aspiring corporate shill.

And perhaps he’s ahead of the curve. Someday soon, Google, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Goldman Sachs, and the NSA will merge into America’s principal employer (a little like Trench, the Chinese mega-corporation in Kelly Roman and Michael DeWeese’s masterful The Art of War). Ruling it will be a perfectly diverse, Nurse Ratched HR division obliging all employees daily drugging to subdue originality and promote efficiency. And people will submit because jobs are scarce. Comedy will become a bloodless horror show, liberally laugh-tracked and only unintentionally funny. Think Robert Duvall in THX 1138, masturbating perfunctorily to government-approved porn.  Or happy hour, enforced by law.

thx1138

James Harberson

I used to be a criminal defense lawyer. Now I write comedy and horror screenplays.