The art of upstanding comedy

High-quality jokes reflect an amount of empathy for those they discuss—the rest just aren’t nice.

By Kamil Ahsan

Confession: When it comes to comedy, I like mine to be nice. And I don’t just mean the treacly, slapstick shtick of Alvin and the Chipmunks or the British buffoonery of Blackadder. I mean nice like Stephen Fry with his clever little wordplay, or even, arguably, like Stephen Colbert, whose putdowns are often tinged with sympathy for the underdog, even when insulting Fox & Friends.

But, you remark, Colbert (and probably Jon Stewart as well) is, in some ways, a classic insult comedian; the veritable Sarah Silverman of politics. There is nothing necessarily nice about Colbert—just a lot to agree with if you’re the progressive, liberal, young demographic he seems to be geared towards. And I agree. But what I mostly mean is not that he’s nice, but rather that he’s just smart, surprisingly perceptive, and inclusive. The kind of nice that doesn’t rely on regular comedy targets, like women or old people. Not comedy’s version of Rush Limbaugh, but instead he is a genuinely brazen sort of comedian whose insults, while plentiful, are unexpected, and appeal to people used to being fodder for mean men. Today, the sort of anti-Republican liberal spiel Colbert trades in may seem stock, but once it was bold, the comedic voice of cloistered liberals everywhere. Once, it spoke to people who didn’t have a lot of comedians in their corner.

When I say nice, I also mean nice like Louis C.K., who, for instance, went on this spectacular tirade in his recent HBO special: “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane and ill-advised, and the whole species’ existence counts on them doing it. How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number-one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number-one cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them. That’s true. You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease.”

If you laughed, think about the fact that you just laughed at what’s likely the first genuinely feminist joke you’ve heard from a mainstream comedian. And that’s why I like Louis C.K.. His comedy—not across the board, but often—has surprised me. This is the same comedian, incidentally, who was accused of being a rape apologist for Twitter-supporting Daniel Tosh, a Comedy Central host who drew a great deal of heat for saying about a female audience member, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”

Needless to say, Tosh is the classic example of the sort of insult comedy I don’t find funny—not just because it’s symptomatic of a douchey, sexist attitude among men that makes light of things very serious to women

(much like the “bitch, make me a sandwich” joke of Internet fame), but because of how cliché it is. Tosh is not the first—and will probably not be the last—comedian to rely on comedic crutches in order to garner popularity. Bigger questions should be asked here: Why is behavior like this condoned? And even if comedians have total and unhindered license, why in the world are audiences rewarding them with fame? Is it possible that because of our TV-watching proclivities, young women everywhere watch comedians like Tosh and are thus socialized to believing that society doesn’t give two hoots about whether they’re raped or not? And is that a culture we want to be culpable for?

I’m pretty clear on where I stand on that. But I’m a little less clear on where I stand with another situation. In a stand-up routine Joan Rivers once did in Wisconsin, she made an almost-terrible Helen Keller joke and was heckled by an audience member who yelled, “That’s not funny! It’s not funny if you have a deaf son!” To which Rivers replied, “Let me tell you what comedy is about, you stupid son of a bitch! I had a deaf mother. Comedy is a way for us to deal with things!”

So comedy can be cathartic, and perhaps we should make light of things that society finds difficult and/or controversial to deal with in a straightforward manner. I would still argue that there are crucial differences between the staple rape joke and the deaf joke: Deafness, unlike rape, is not an act society has an imperative to condemn. Nor is it like rape in the sense that there is a pervasive victim-blaming problem. Nor is there moral outrage implied within the structure of the joke, which a lot of racist and homophobic stand-up (e.g. Tracy Morgan) relies on. And it would be hard to argue that men like Tosh intend their jokes to be a form of comforting catharsis for rape victims to better deal with their past. Either way, the situation does show us that the line we feel comedians shouldn’t cross may not be as clear-cut as we’d like to believe.

Which brings me back to C.K.: Despite his obviously misguided support for Tosh (which he retracted), C.K. indulges in a complete avoidance of the staple rape joke in favor of the funnier, more perceptive example above. That’s refreshing. And nice.

The trend has yet to catch on. On a recent episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Fallon performed a homoerotic lip-syncing sketch with John Krasinski – not offensive, much like all SNL skits of late which feature same-sex intimacy for laughs, but definitely hackneyed. So, nice—but perhaps just not nice enough for me.

Kamil Ahsan is a first-year graduate student in the biological sciences division.