One of my earliest memories as a little kid has continued to inform my understanding of the world, as these things tend to do. It isn’t necessarily a specific memory, either, I should make clear, it’s more an amalgam of what it was to be me in the context of road trips, as a kid. Whenever my family would go on a trip that lasted longer than an hour, it became commonplace to just read signs out loud, first as a kid to show that I could read well, then as I got older to simply pass the time, then when I got old enough that I was picky about only reading aloud the funny ones. Though I’m sure, with my OCD, I read them ALL under my breath, because that’s how my OCD sometimes presents itself.
It’s the first of these examples – simply identifying things for the sake of it – that I think is so informative to anyone’s young mind. It’s similar to telling your first joke, provided either of those things result in the reward of someone important to you praising you for your skill in either recognizing a thing as that thing, or making something ordinary funny. I think there are people who conflate these two things, as it is isn’t hard to do, and they come in both audience and performer varieties. So it comes from a very deep place when people laugh only because they recognize something, and equally when a comedian simply says something that they once observed and confuse that observation itself with a joke.The audience has an excuse, here. The comedian doesn’t.
There’s been some talk recently about a comedian who made a joke on a comedy special about someone’s looks, and many people have made the point that what he said (specifically shaming the person on how they look) is his comedy, but what was beyond reproach was him calling her out, by name, on a nationally-broadcast comedy special. I, obviously, agree – it wasn’t right to call her out, because if he considers this a joke himself, he has to admit that it would work just as well without her name.
I’ve also read plenty of criticism of this attack that makes sure to present the caveat that freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and that you can’t dictate humor, and that there are no rules to comedy. As a long-time subscriber to Mel Brooks’ theory of “writing for yourself first,” I’ll agree on principle, but I do think it’s okay to judge someone’s comedy, if they’re resorting to something like this in lieu of what I would consider a joke. Subjective? Sure. But regardless of the success level of this comedian compared to myself, I’ve been writing comedy longer than a lot of comics have been on stage, and I know first-hand that I’ve been studying and writing comedy a lot longer than some people that I find to be brilliant.
Point being, there is shitty comedy, at least subjectively, and if you haven’t put any thought into what you do, and you’re making people laugh without any thought put into it, it might be time to step back and question why people are laughing at your jokes at all. I know some people won’t do that. To some people, laughs are laughs. It’s not even a capitalist motivation, either, so I don’t want this to seem like a judgment against success. It’s a perfectly understandable motivation – they’re laughing because of the thing I thought of and said. It’s a win-win contract between audience and performer.
But there are other comedians, like Dave Chapelle, for instance, who have pulled back from their own brand of comedy (in his case, specifically satire) when they realized the laughs they were getting were for the wrong reasons (in his case, possible racism, or even just laughing at recognizing a stereotype). If you don’t care, and your audience doesn’t care, and you can live with the kind of contract that means you don’t have to think about what you’re saying on stage, fine. Speech is and should be free, as no one is denying.
I’m not even arguing for something I do believe in, here, which is comedy having a reason to be there, or a point to it – I can concede that it’s okay just to laugh for the sake of it. It just seems obvious to me that if you’re getting laughs for being thoughtless, and if you don’t notice that, that you’ve missed the point of comedy, and your comedy will be passed like so many road signs, while the best stuff – even the less famous stuff – will be looked at again, even for a moment, because it had a reason to be there.