Penn Jillette on how to Professional Comedy With Added Misogyny


Well that’s one good thing: Penn Jillette has gone public – more public than before, at least – about what a sexist asshole he is.

Dave Muscato did a public Facebook post yesterday* about how to deal with sexist jokes. He was spinning off a post of Miri’s (that I had seen) about the uses of playing dumb when you hear a sexist or racist etc joke, because this puts the joker in the position of having to spell out what the joke rests on. Dave’s post was about why he prefers the calling out approach. Who knew that would motivate Penn Jillette to out himself? But he did.

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Penn JilletteWho fucking made you the god of jokes? Who gives a fuck if you think a joke is sexist? Does anyone care? Or care if you pretend not to get it.. I mean, does anyone care you think they’re misogynist? And why do you have to have strategies for social situations? How about just dealing with your friends? You really think you’re protecting someone by “getting in someone’s face” about a fucking joke? Is that noble? And what do you know about comedy? I didn’t think you were a pro, or any sort of expert on that. Why would you be better at articulating how a joke works socially than the person telling the joke? Understanding the exact POV of a joke on a sexual, or racial, or religious subject — is something that a team of pros would have to think about a lot. And then have different opinions on. If you can do this, off the top of your head, in a social situation — you should be making a metric shitton of money doing this professionally. Just an amazing post. Insane.

Penn Jillette Amazing. I guess there are people who really think they understand the way jokes work in culture enough to make these calls. I have sat for hours with professional comedians tearing about on phrase of one joke trying to understand some of the ramifications and you people think you can just do it, cold, off the top of your head. A little learning is a dangerous thing — drink deep or taste not. I have to go in when someone is performing surgery, and tell them what I think off the top of my fucking head. It’s good to speak from complete ignorance. Man, the fucking presumption. Have you all read “Going Too Far” by Tony Hendra? Are you familiar with Michael O’Donahue’s writing on whether his “Hellen Keller Joke” was a joke about her or an epistemological joke. Are you people even aware that Sarah Silverman exists? I worked 5 years of my life on a fucking movie just looking at one small aspect of one taboo joke and didn’t scratch the surface And you’re doing this all off the top of your heads? Do you all really think you’re that fucking smart, to enter someone else’s area of expertise and ignore it?

Penn Jillette Drop your friends because you don’t like their joke? What are the chances you’re dropping a friend because you don’t understand their fucking joke? Has it ever occurred to you that when you think a joke is a rape joke, you might just be fucking wrong. You know, wrong wrong wrong. Like it’s not even a rape joke. Or are there magic words that can’t be said around you, and if anyone says those magic sounds they are evil. Yeah, let’s stop reading Mark Twain, because he didn’t understand humor in society the way you fucking geniuses do.

Penn Jillette So, the argument is “magic words.” Okay, so these are people who believe in magic words. I have no argument for that. Someone says a magic word and they are wrong and you are right. Good, so Mark Twain and George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce, aren’t as enlightened as you. Yeah, Prior was a fucking idiot. Amazing.

Nola Olsen But part of telling a joke is playing to your audience. And part of it (for many) is a way to make social commentary and make things better for the oppressed. That is why so many comedians fail miserably and no one likes them. Telling a joke is easy. Making it universally funny without being at the expense of a single person or singled out minority is hard. Anyone can be a bully.

Penn Jillette Who are you to say you understand who the audience was supposed to be? No one is going for universal. Who would go for universal.?

Penn Jillette Yup, I’ll fuck off. Bye bye.

Dave Muscato I’m about to start a live podcast so I have to go, but Courtney Alexandra Caldwell I don’t allow people to tell others on my wall to shut up—I’ve deleted your comment. There are appropriate ways to disagree and inappropriate ways and that’s the latter

Courtney has a post on Skepchick pointing out that Dave deleted a comment of hers telling Jillette (in gif. form) to shut up. Think about it.

*Now deleted.

Comments

  1. Crimson Clupeidae says

    We need to have a mythbusters theme going.

    Penn Jillette: sexist douchebag – Confirmed!

    As for the last part, well, freeze peach, muthafukkas!!!

    I don’t know Dave, but it seems like here, his intentions were in the right place, but he’s still got a lot to learn. (Don’t we all?) The problem with that is that many people tend to get a bit defensive if you disagree with their approach and it makes it near impossible to get an productive communication.

  2. Anthony K says

    Comedians never mind the judgment of ignorant hoi polloi when that judgment consists of buying tickets and laughing. It’s only when the laughing stops that we become philistines cognitively incapable of understanding art.

    Comedy is the most cowardly of the performance arts for that reason. You direct, a film, play a character, paint a portrait, or cut an album, and you learn to deal with critics and criticism.

    Comedians on the other hand seem to insist that they should be isolated from it. Laugh or shut up are the only choices the audience is allowed.

  3. deepak shetty says

    i’m asking this genuinely – i can sense a lot of arrogant dismissal in the replies but what sexism is being displayed ? Im confident Im missing something but i cant identify it :)
    I can take the point that why some jokes are funny is complicated (even excluding sexist jokes) – there are some truly horrible things that nonetheless make people laugh.(see Darwin awards for example)

  4. Chris J says

    @deepak:

    The sexism is in this overwhelming diatribe against people who say sexist jokes aren’t funny. Without context, perhaps it could indicate other things, but Penn Jillette is pretty well known for his sexism, so it’s pretty easy to conclude this is just another manifestation of that.

  5. trurl says

    So don’t question the Experts of Comedy. But it’s OK to question climate scientists. Got it.

  6. says

    deepak – it’s in the very first thing he says, for instance? “Who fucking made you the god of jokes? Who gives a fuck if you think a joke is sexist? Does anyone care?”

  7. says

    Man, the fucking presumption. Have you all read “Going Too Far” by Tony Hendra? Are you familiar with Michael O’Donahue’s writing on whether his “Hellen Keller Joke” was a joke about her or an epistemological joke. Are you people even aware that Sarah Silverman exists? I worked 5 years of my life on a fucking movie just looking at one small aspect of one taboo joke and didn’t scratch the surface And you’re doing this all off the top of your heads? Do you all really think you’re that fucking smart, to enter someone else’s area of expertise and ignore it?

    I know the analogy isn’t perfect, but all I could think of when I read this was Comedian’s Courtier’s Reply.

  8. Chris J says

    Ugh…

    After reading through the conversation a bit, I’m getting annoyed at Dave Muscato. It’s as if he’s assuming that people don’t have the capacity to recognize the difference between Eddie Izzard hypothetically telling a sexist joke to make fun of sexism and Dane Cook telling a sexist joke that’s just being sexist. I doubt that people who are criticizing sexist jokes are just firing blind at everything they see, hoping to hit a mark. It’s pretty condescending to think the intended audience of a joke isn’t capable of understanding it.

    If it’s a joke, the intent of the joke should be pretty clear. If as a comedian you have an audience that can’t tell whether you’re being actually horrible or just pretending to be horrible, if they can’t tell the difference between you and the speaker at a KKK rally, you are doing your damn job wrong. The context of a joke should be easy to perceive, even if it takes a lot of effort to create.

  9. says

    A couple of months ago, I had a brief encounter with Jillette on Twitter. I had suggested to the B612 Foundation (a non-profit research foundation working on a very good project to discover potentially-hazardous near-Earth asteroids) that they should not include an endorsement from Jillette in their promotional materials – they have many better advocates to chose from.
    _
    Jillette apparently found this personally offensive, and objected to my statement, claiming “I’m on your side”. That will not be true so long as he continues with the sexism and the global warming denialism (among other bad things). I told him so. He did not take that disagreement well either. So I blocked him.

  10. Anthony K says

    Jillette apparently found this personally offensive, and objected to my statement, claiming “I’m on your side”.

    Who fucking made Pen Jillette the God of Being On Sides?

  11. screechymonkey says

    Penn Jillette criticizing someone else for spouting off opinions? Every irony meter in the world just overloaded.

    Anthony K @ 2: When he was somewhat walking back his knee-jerk defense of a fellow comic’s rape joke, Louis C.K. admitted that, while he thinks there’s some truth to the stereotype that “feminists can’t take a joke,” it’s very true that comedians can’t take criticism. Which was a little too “both sides are wrong” for my taste, but it was refreshing to hear a comic admit that they are not the fearless tough social critics they pose as.

    Every comedian seems to think he’s Lenny fucking Bruce and that any criticism of him is equivalent to the cops coming to arrest him.

    Ah well, at least this diatribe provided a new entry in the category of “out-of-context quotes that are unintentionally accurate”:

    “It’s good to speak from complete ignorance” — Penn Jillette

  12. says

    Who made Pen Jillette the God of Being On Sides?

    In context, I deduce he meant that he was “on my side” in the sense that he would like to see B612’s Sentinel project happen – I would like to see it happen too. But that I would object to his sexism and his global warming denialism far more than I would approve of his endorsement of Sentinel apparently did not occur to him.

  13. screechymonkey says

    Chris J

    If as a comedian you have an audience that can’t tell whether you’re being actually horrible or just pretending to be horrible, if they can’t tell the difference between you and the speaker at a KKK rally, you are doing your damn job wrong

    Chris Rock stopped using — and has expressed regret about ever doing — his famous routine about how “there’s black people, and then there’s *******.” Not so much because he felt there was anything inherently wrong with the joke itself when properly understood, or with him using the word generally, but because he began to hear way too many people citing that routine as justification for using the slur.

    So, huh — a comic whose credentials even Jillette would have to acknowledge as superior to his own — reflecting that comedians have a responsibility to think of the impact of their jokes on actual audiences, regardless of how the Conclave of Expert Comedians would view them.

  14. qwints says

    I tend to agree with the idea that there are simplistic and misguided critics that do attempt to cordon off topics from comedy or other artistic endeavors. But that’s a silly point to make in response to someone talking about how to respond to bigotry expressed in joke form. There are people I’ve encountered who still say blatantly racist things or tell jokes you’d expect to hear at a Klan rally. It doesn’t take a team of pros to figure out that they’re bigots.

  15. Matt Penfold says

    Now Muscato is pretending (or maybe not, he could be that stupid I suppose) that he cannot see how Jillette’s first comment is saying STFU.

  16. doublereed says

    Wow, PZ Myers came out of nowhere with smacking Penn Jilette around. That’s pretty hilarious.

    Why is Penn such a jerk? I guess that’s the kind of self-absorbed attitude I should expect from such a rabid Randroid. What crawled into his corn flakes and died this morning?

  17. Matt Penfold says

    “I tend to agree with the idea that there are simplistic and misguided critics that do attempt to cordon off topics from comedy or other artistic endeavors. But that’s a silly point to make in response to someone talking about how to respond to bigotry expressed in joke form. There are people I’ve encountered who still say blatantly racist things or tell jokes you’d expect to hear at a Klan rally. It doesn’t take a team of pros to figure out that they’re bigots.”

    Well of course that was a strawman erected by Jillette. I am not aware of many people who think that some subjects are totally of limits, but quite a few who will say that some subjects needs to be handled with great care, and with a skill that is probably beyond most comedians. It also matters who is telling the joke.

  18. Chris J says

    @screechymonkey:

    Even Louie CK has backed off a little of some of the stuff he used to use in his routines. Not all of it, but a little. Not like anybody who routinely quotes Chris Rock or Louie CK actually cares.

    Even Penn admits that a lot of work goes into constructing a routine. For some reason, though, he isn’t quite connecting the dots on why so much effort is needed. In his mind, it takes effort to understand exactly what a joke is saying and why a potentially sexist joke is not actually sexist. And then he goes on to say that only other people involved at that process can comment on whether a joke comes off as sexist.

    No. Like a writer or a movie director trying to communicate some message or atmosphere, it takes tons of effort to construct something to appear the way you want it to appear, but no effort at all to experience that appearance.

  19. Palle says

    Understanding the exact POV of a joke on a sexual, or racial, or religious subject — is something that a team of pros would have to think about a lot. And then have different opinions on.

    I must echo Chris J@8 somewhat on this point: If he needs a team of pros to understand the exact point or intent of a joke, how does he expect his audience to follow it?

    And also screechymonkey@14: Yeah, if I realise a joke might be too ambiguous for some, I don’t actually feel good about laughing at it, because it can be seen as enthusiastic approval of the interpretation I don’t agree with.

  20. opposablethumbs says

    PZ has posted about this too? Where?

    Agreed that Penn is a massive douche. Maybe if he’d just stick to doing magic tricks – preferably in silence, which I’m sure he could work into a routine – and STFU otherwise. As things stand, though, he’s a source of more nausea than entertainment.

  21. Kevin Kehres says

    I think I’ve identified the problem. Penn considers himself a “comedian”.

    Thing is, I do believe that one of the fundamental requirements for being a “comedian” is that you have to be something called “funny”.

    I never found any of Penn & Teller’s acts to be “funny”. Sometimes interesting, admittedly inventive, and maybe eliciting a little nervous or squeamish laughter at times. But “funny”? Nope.

    He’s a magician who thinks he’s funny. It’s not quite as bad as a magician who thinks he really does saw the lady in half — but close.

  22. qwints says

    @Matt, we’ve had different experiences then. I agree, however, that there are lots of insightful people who talk about punching down, appropriation or other power dynamics when critiquing comics.

  23. culuriel says

    Wait, so is Jillette saying that saying I have to just laugh along with people who think raping me would be funny? Because that would mean all the money I just spent on a taser was wasted.

  24. Matt Penfold says

    “Wait, so is Jillette saying that saying I have to just laugh along with people who think raping me would be funny? Because that would mean all the money I just spent on a taser was wasted.”

    It is worse I think. He seems to be saying that anyone who is the butt of such jokes have nothing worth saying about being so, that their opinion is not worth listening to.

  25. Blanche Quizno says

    Why are so many of the people supposedly on my side such colossal douches??? I tells ya, this makes being a skeptic that much more difficult. It’s not enough that I’ve got the pressure and censure of all the religious people, but I’m also isolated because so many of the people in my supposed community, with the highest visibility, keep saying/doing things that make me cringe!

    What’s a girl supposed to do??

  26. Matt Penfold says

    “What’s a girl supposed to do??”

    I am a white middle-class bloke, so the object of none of the vitriol that gets aimed at non-white, non middle class, not male people, and even I cringe.

    And I am not sure what to do either.

    (I am a Brit, so I expect in the eyes of some that makes be pretty suspect)

  27. Kevin Kehres says

    @27: Blanche.

    You are operating under the misconception that those people are on “your side”.

    Takes a hell of a lot more than mere disbelief in god and Bigfoot for someone to be on “my” side. Starts with, but isn’t limited to, treating half the world’s population of homo sapiens sapiens as members of the same species.

  28. says

    #17: I’m stuck by cancelled flights in the Hartford airport, with nothing to do. So, being the God of Internet Smackdowns, as I have pompously declared myself, of course I had to swoop down in righteous anger. It’s what we gods do.

  29. says

    @Kevin Penn Gillette is certainly a form of comedian. As a magician he’s essentially a prop comic. Like Carrot Top but with a bigger prop budget.

    If Penn Gillette wasn’t being such a pompous ass about it I’d be willing to empathize with him more in this situation. Comedy is hard, Stand Up comedy is even harder. Entertaining a crowd of strangers with just yourself, a microphone and your wits is incredibly challenging to do, let alone perfect. You can rehearse, but you can’t really practice. All of your practice comes live on stage. That’s the only place where the laughs matter. So I can seriously understand when comedians get defensive when told one of their jokes isn’t funny, or is sexist and therefore unfunny by extension.

    In fact I wish we could get past “That’s not funny” and “That’s offensive” in our critiques of comedy because it plays right into Penn’s hands. What’s funny is not only subjective, it’s maddeningly inconsistent. It’s hard to tell Joe Comic a bit isn’t funny when the slackjaws at Jakes Joke Shack ate it up. Plus a masterful comedian, like George Carlin, can make almost any subject funny with work. The same with offensive, it’s subjective. Plus offense is something we “take” , it’s an opinion that we express. Although Penn is taking that subjectivity to ludicrous extremes, he’s not completely wrong to point out that taking offense can be used as a weapon of the status quo to silence dissent.

    I would rather we focus on less on what is funny or what is offensive and instead focus on what is harmful, or hurtful. Jokes about rape are hurtful to rape survivors. Jokes about less privileged minorites must be careful to avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes. I know it sounds hopeless when you see a douchebag like Penn spouting off, but engaging the artists empathy is the best way to get him /her to change their art.

  30. chigau (違う) says

    If a Comedian™ makes a joke and nobody laughs, is it still a joke?
    If nobody laughs, is he still a Comedian™?

  31. says

    What pompous overblown impulsive reactivity!

    We all individually have a say in what is funny and what is not. Every one of us is a “God of Jokes” and a comedian should realize that. I’m pretty sure that comedians don’t totally ignore the surrounding culture and adapt to it in order to hone their craft. That culture has a structure made up of our individual dispositions, experiences and beliefs that are the source of jokes. It’s a pretty clear attempt to use his authority to bully a disliked opinion down.

    We should consider why things are funny and what the effect of humor is on the subject of the joke’s objects. Why we have jokes about other people that draw on stereotypes and unflattering associations is a totally valid subject of concern. How to deal with jokes that make like more difficult for other people is a totally valid subject of concern. I definitely smell some paranoia about criticism of humor in Penn’s chosen approach here.

    There is not a whole lot of research into humor, but I have looked at it because Tourette’s comes with some altered appreciation of humor, in addition Tourette’s is the subject of much social humor, thinking about these things is self-defense. It seems to me that when you scratch beneath the surface of a joke you find tension. Lots of comedians (professional and non) joke about things that they are troubled with on some level, family, age, politics, religion, sex, race, more. The joke relieves the tension and makes the person laughing at it feel better about the thing.

    But not every means of reducing tension is valid and a professional comedian should be able to maturely discuss that fact. If someone is tense because of sex, gender, or race issues spreading around a stereotype to hide, or distract the source of tension is a bad idea. It’s puts an emotional bandage on a social wound that will still be leaking after the joke or show except now the persons telling and laughing at the joke can go pretending that reality is something else easier for a while. It won’t be funny to a person personally harmed by the social wound that is being replaced by an exaggeration or falsehood for the amusement of others.

    And maybe we don’t want these sources of tension to be funny anyway. The worse we feel about social problems, the more attention gets directed to them, and the sooner something gets done about them. The temporary emotional salve of humor can effectively let us put things off for a while, but can be habit forming on a group level.

  32. Blanche Quizno says

    @29, I agree with you, Kevin. I was simply remarking on the fact that, on the religion spectrum, we nonbelievers are categorized together. Very few of those categorized into religious categories have as much of a problem with their categories’ most prominent members as I have with our category’s most prominent members.

  33. Blanche Quizno says

    @34 Brony, you’re right:

    It seems to me that when you scratch beneath the surface of a joke you find tension. Lots of comedians (professional and non) joke about things that they are troubled with on some level, family, age, politics, religion, sex, race, more. The joke relieves the tension and makes the person laughing at it feel better about the thing.

    My kids were actually watching a comedy special called “Laugh at my Pain” where the comedian talked about the truly horrible things that had happened to him growing up!

  34. ButchKitties says

    screechymonkey @14

    So, huh — a comic whose credentials even Jillette would have to acknowledge as superior to his own — reflecting that comedians have a responsibility to think of the impact of their jokes on actual audiences, regardless of how the Conclave of Expert Comedians would view them.

    I think an extension of this is that as one’s success increases, if you don’t want to be part of the problem, your freedom with certain types of material is going to necessarily, proportionately decrease. You might be able to get away with pretending to be the racist guy, or using slurs in an ironic way when you’re a niche comic with an audience of 50 people who primarily like avant-garde comedy and who are all in on the fact that you’re really making fun of people who use those words. Chris Rock’s routine might work when his audience is primarily black. But the more people in your audience, the more likely it is that the audience will include someone who doesn’t get the nuance but instead feels validated.

  35. says

    She didn’t just use some made-up GIF of Penn saying something; she used a GIF of Penn made from a video of Penn actually telling people to “shut the fuck up!”

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Penn_%26_Teller:_Bullshit!

    If that’s too uncivil for Muscato he needs to address the person saying it. But he didn’t, he went after the one pointing out that person’s hypocrisy. You know, like how the real racists are those who point out racism.

  36. Anthony K says

    We all individually have a say in what is funny and what is not.

    Nope, only professional comedians with a PhD in Funnyology earned at the University of the Real World are qualified to judge comedy negatively. (Everyone, is of course qualified and welcome to judge comedy positively, with laughs and viewership.)

    Now, if you want something everyone is qualified to evaluate, consider the existence of climate change.

  37. Chris J says

    The most hilarious bit about all this is that part of Penn’s rant implied that only comedians who have put in long hours crafting a joke are allowed to comment on whether it is offensive or not. Given his appeal to authority, however, wouldn’t the proper authority be someone informed about racism and sexism rather than comedy? Like… I don’t know… the people affected?

  38. doublereed says

    @30 PZ

    Understood, my Lord. Do you demand Internet Smackdown penance? I live only to serve.

  39. John Horstman says

    Understanding the exact POV of a joke on a sexual, or racial, or religious subject — is something that a team of pros would have to think about a lot. And then have different opinions on. If you can do this, off the top of your head, in a social situation — you should be making a metric shitton of money doing this professionally.

    Huh? Does he think intent is magical? I thought he liked to debunk claims of actual magic. The POV/motivation of the person telling the joke is COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT with respect to whether the joke is sexist – all that matters is whether the joke conforms to patterns of marginalization on the basis of sex. He’s looking for the wrong expertise here – it’s not knowledge of jokes that matters in this case, it’s knowledge of how social systems like sexism function.

  40. says

    What a whiner. All he can complain about is others being critical of his jokes instead of actual problems that people face because of the culture perpetuated by those jokes. Yeesh.

  41. says

    Dave: Here’s how I like to make people pay a social price for telling sexist jokes.
    Penn: Dave, stop telling people how to make me pay a social price when I tell my precious sexist jokes.

  42. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    THEN

    Dave: Oh, you’re right Mr. Jillette, sorry to have angered you, please give us more money.
    /Dave immediately commences throwing everybody under the bus

  43. deepak shetty says

    @Chris J
    Since I havent followed Jillette at all so I dont have the well known sexist context. And yes reading it in that light is different.

    @Ophelia
    But he could have as well said Who give a fuck if you think a joke is racist or Who gives a fuck if you think a joke is offensive? (if the context was different)
    it doesnt necessarily read as sexist – Pompous , arrogant yes.

  44. says

    deepak – yes – and if he’d said “Who gives a fuck if you think a joke is racist?” then that would have been racist. What’s your point?

  45. Ed says

    I agree with the majority here about Penn. But there are performers and writers I like who have used offensive material (and I mean material that I personally would find unbearably offensive in most contexts) in comedy and it didn’t bother me. I practically worship Sarah Silverman for example. So I’m not sure where to draw the line except that he is definitely on the wrong side of it based on what I’ve heard from him.

    There are admittedly people who are kind of tone deaf to humor unless it is extremely straightforward, but that fact can’t reasonably be used as a blanket shielding of any comedian considered offensive or just unfunny. It does shock me that anyone thought that All in the Family was right wing propaganda, but on the other hand we’re not all Lear or O`Conner. A lot of times the comedian really is either bigoted and/or untalented.

  46. Pen says

    Woah, Penn Gillette! The audience is not sophisticated enough to understand jokes? You need a degree in comedy before you go to a show? Hmm… You are confused.

    FWIW, I think the playing dumb strategy is a good one. And how can Gillette criticize that, eh? Please, Mr. Comic, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to get your joke. Could you share your expertise with me?

  47. mattyarbrough says

    My takeaway from all this is Dave Muscato will ignore aggressive repeated “shut the fuck up” comments if a man says it, but come down hard on a woman for saying it in a much milder fashion even once. Good to know, I’ll be reconsidering where my charity dollars go.

    I didn’t learn anything new about Penn because he’s been quite obviously a misogynist anti-science asshole for decades now.

  48. screechymonkey says

    Ed @48,

    Like you, I probably have a higher threshold for “offensive” humor than most people here. I tend to cut comedians a lot of slack. But not an infinite amount of slack.

    And I’m willing to argue the appropriateness of any particular joke on a case-by-case basis. (And sometimes the issue isn’t that any specific joke is “wrong,” but with the cumulative effect, or what it says about our culture that we find certain jokes funny.)

    I have no sympathy for someone like Jillette who wants to shut down all such discussion entirely.

  49. says

    I’m baffled. Neither Miri’s nor Dave’s Facebook posts were about comedians at all. They were about how to respond to someone telling you a bigoted joke. As in, someone standing right there in front of you, talking to you.

    Did Penn just have a furious rant about people who object to bigoted jokes told by comedians bottled up somewhere, and decided to unleash it on a totally inappropriate target because he hadn’t yet found a better occasion? WTF?

    Let me be clear– that doesn’t mean that his tirade would be any better if it was directed toward someone complaining about a comedian. But it would’ve been a hell of a lot more on topic. As it stands, it’s not even relevantly spitting mad. It’s just spitting mad.

  50. Ed says

    screechymonkey, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I don’t cut comedians an infinite amount of slack either and the guy they’re writing about is a jerk with far less talent than he thinks.

    If asked to explain situations where I find offensive material funny (and I admit no one asked me to) I’d say that it can be funny if the humor is not in the bigotry itself. Or not in agreeing with it.

    Sometimes the humor is in some kind of satire where the performer takes on a persona based on attitudes he or she wishes to mock. The writer of a novel or screenplay would make up an ignorant, racist (or sexist, greedy, anti-intellectual, religious fanatic )character to be the butt of this type of joke. Someone doing a one-person show only has their voice and mannerisms to tell the story.

    Other times, there’s an obvious and to me funny disconnect between the bad content and the apparent niceness of the person presenting it. Sarah Silverman is great at this with her sweet, innocent persona contrasting with the shocking content of her actual speech.

    There is also a reaction against “positive message” didacticism in entertainment where a comedian, sitcom writer, etc.will mock the expectation of a “moral” by pretending to take a horrible position that they hope people realize is not intended seriously. This can involve the type of offensiveness we’re discussing or just inversions of commonplace good advice. Never try anything new. Don’t let go of a grudge. Eat lots of junk food.

    Basically if, for whatever reason, we are laughing at the morally objectionable content, not with it(and thus at it’s usual victims), so to speak I might find it funny.

    Still, if a friend was about to do a show with this type of material, I’d probably caution them against it just to not run the risk of feeding into things they don’t want to inadvertently promote.

  51. screechymonkey says

    Ed @54, well said.

    It does irk me that so many comedians equivocate on the importance and role of comedians. When they’re praising each other or waxing rhapsodic about the virtues of comedy, ah, then comedians are our most important social critics who hold up a mirror to society and keep us honest. It’s all stuff like “Lenny Bruce helped change the country! George Carlin was one of our leading intellectuals! Jon Stewart is the most effective political commentator we have!”

    But when someone tries to hold a mirror up to comedy, suddenly the mere attempt to do so is wrongheaded. They’re just jokesters, you see, not meant to be taken seriously. Lighten up!

    Jon Stewart — who I generally like — is one of the worst offenders. He’s happy to lap up all the praise, and willing to go on Crossfire and yell at them for “ruining the country,” but when someone puts the spotlight on him and calls him out for something he said, then it’s all “I’m just a comedian! My lead-in show is puppets!”

  52. karmacat says

    Wow. Penn Jillette is displaying some serious narcissistic injury and revealing how fragile his self-esteem is

  53. Al Dente says

    Several years ago I had a run-in with Penn Jillette on a blog. We did agree on one thing. Each of us thinks the other is an asshole. I’ve seen little since then to make me change my mind about Jillette.

  54. Menyambal says

    Gadfrey. I have spent hours mulling over the phrasing of jokes. I have one good one waiting for the exact word that conveys the two meanings that the joke depends on. I added theology to the Leprechaun Nun joke. So, no, Jillette is not some special untouchable specialist in comedy.

    In the show _Bullshit_, by the way, he sets himself up as capable of learning all about a subject in order to reveal its inner workings and real meaning, in a week, every week, on totally different topics, well enough to mock the pros and educate the proles. So nobody else can learn? Is he is the only possible fucking god of comedy, and every ignorant one else can fuck off? Nobody but him can figure out how to parse a joke?

    Bullshit.

  55. susans says

    I went to a Jerry Seinfeld show some years ago. Sexist jokes, none. Racist jokes, none. Rape jokes, none. He insulted… no one. It was hilarious.

  56. Jackie the wacky says

    What? People get to decide now if jokes are bigoted based on the content of that joke and they get to think less of people for being bigots?!?!

    But…but…that’s not fair to bigots who think their bigoted jokes are funny and want you to think or pretend to think they are too.

    What. A. Pompous. Asshole.

    I’d rather eat a bug than eat bacon and doughnuts with a jerk like this, but he’ll fit right in at TAM.

    He does card tricks.

    He’s very good at card tricks.

    Clearly, that makes him the authority on what other people get to consider funny and on how unimportant it is to point out that bigoted jokes are bigoted.

    Btw, he named his daughter Moxie CrimeFighter.

    Think he tells Moxie to shut up and appreciate the “humor” of sexist jokes? You think he’ll tell her that she can’t take exception to jokes about how inferior she is based on her gender?

  57. jefers says

    @54 Ed

    The classic British examples of unintentionally reinforcing the things you hope to mock would be Alf Garnett and The Pub Landlord, which both ended up with a large fan base amongst the very people they set out to parody.

    Both characters have been critically lauded and were developed by experienced comedy writers, so they’d pass the Jillette patented ‘team of pros’ test. The same is true of Curry and Chips (not the critical success bit), though I’d be amazed if anyone could come up with a cogent defence of that.

  58. Silentbob says

    @ 61 jefers

    I did not know that, about Alf Garnett, but you are correct.

    (For those that don’t know Garnett was the very bigoted protagonist of a UK sitcom which inspired the US All in the Family. But Garnett was much more extreme than Archie Bunker. A brief taste.)

  59. funknjunk says

    Aside from his rant being obvious reactionary dreck on the surface .. his implied point is equally silly. Soooo, those of use who think he’s a sexist douche are philistines who haven’t read all the sources he mentioned and we do not have a common frame of reference, thus we just don’t “get” it. Implying that those who DO “get” it, uhm, HAVE read all those works? No. THEY get it because they’re also sexist douchebags. THAT’S their common frame of reference. That’s their “we’re on the same page” alignment. Not a great understanding of funny. They’re assholes. As an entertainer, he has a choice of which wolf to feed, so to speak. And he’s feeding the assholes; they’ve become a large part of his audience apparently. Congratulations.

  60. deepak shetty says

    @Ophelia
    I agree that if I read this knowing Jillette is sexist then it reads differently.
    “Who gives a fuck if you think a joke is racist?” then that would have been racist. What’s your point?
    Sorry Im not intentionally being thick , but I dont see how this follows. (further examples would be – Who gives a fuck if you think something is islamophbic? Who gives a fuck if you think something is blasphemous?) or even suppose instead of Dave Muscato , suppose Penn Jillette wrote a post of what he thinks isnt sexist and what he thinks is and how to handle it (along the lines of ron pauls responses) and someone responded with who gives a fuck what you think I would not assume that response to be sexist by itself.
    To also clarify , a couple of years ago I would have “bitch” isnt sexist – a position I no longer have- but it took awhile before I understood why. I am trusting that you are right and I am wrong but that probably doesnt come across in the responses – if the only thing Im missing is context – that Jillette is known to be sexist then thats fine.

  61. A. Noyd says

    deepak shetty (#65)

    Who gives a fuck if you think something is islamophbic?

    This should be a concern. Muslims do face discrimination, and it’s wrong to just dismiss them when they say something is discriminatory. It’s not just wrong, it’s further discrimination. It’s saying that Muslim cannot determine when they are facing discrimination and that non-Muslims always know better. Accusations of Islamophobia are something we should seriously entertain—to strive to understand, rather than dismiss offhand.

    Who gives a fuck if you think something is blasphemous?

    This one is different. Blasphemy is not real. It’s not inherently discriminatory to say or do things that other people consider blasphemous. (I mean, if you’re smearing pig fat on a Muslim person’s car or something, that’s different. The problem isn’t that pig fat is actually spiritually unclean, though. It’s that you’re harassing someone for their religion.) Sexism, racism and ethnic bigotry are all real. Offenses against the gods, not so much. Not to mention, religions are usually privileged and accusations of blasphemy can be a form of bullying those with less power (atheists, minority religious, etc.).

    suppose Penn Jillette wrote a post of what he thinks isnt sexist and what he thinks is and how to handle it…and someone responded with who gives a fuck what you think I would not assume that response to be sexist by itself.

    Maybe because Penn Jillette isn’t the target of sexism. Instead, he benefits greatly from the status quo. And he’s known to have a quite unenlightened perspective on women and sexism. Even if that wasn’t known, though, any woman has a right to tell a man expounding on sexism—especially a wealthy white man expounding on sexism—to piss off. It’s not his place to decide what is and isn’t sexism. It’s definitely not his place to talk over her and tell her what’s what.

    Who is saying “who gives a fuck what you think” to whom matters a great deal. If a Muslim teenage girl says that to an ayatollah or a grand mufti, it’s not at all the same thing as if some non-Muslim celebrity was saying it to a Muslim teenage girl in, say, the US or UK. It can be either a statement of defiance or an act of oppression, but it isn’t usually hard to figure out which is which. When “who gives a fuck what you think” comes from someone with power and privilege, it’s an attempt to silence the oppressed and preserve that power and privilege.

  62. says

    deepak – I would say that further examples would not be “Who gives a fuck if you think something is islamophbic? Who gives a fuck if you think something is blasphemous?” because “Islamophobic” and “blasphemous” aren’t comparable to “sexist” – in my view, that is; of course there are people who think “sexist” is just as much bullshit as “blasphemous”.

    But yes, the meaning does depend on context, and yes I probably was (as so often) assuming everyone would remember the background about Jillette.

  63. says

    We posted simultaneously, A.

    I disagree with you about “Islamophobia” because the word muddles the issue. I agree that we should be concerned about discrimination against Muslims but I think that’s what we should call it.

  64. says

    Deepak, if the Penn Gillettes of the world seriously didn’t care about sexism, they wouldn’t bother yelling at people who are concerned about that they don’t care about it. Although Gillette is professing indifference, his response indicates that he has a vested interest in maintaining sexist norms.

    Is it really that hard to understand that it is intrinsically sexist to respond to someone offering a genuine complaint about sexism with “Who gives a fuck what you think about sexism?” The entire point of the response is to end discussion of sexism. Do you dispute that shutting down discussions of sexism is sexist? If so, can you envision a way out of sexism that doesn’t involve talking about it?

  65. A. Noyd says

    Ophelia (#68)

    I agree that we should be concerned about discrimination against Muslims but I think that’s what we should call it.

    No arguments that it’s a poor term. It puts too much focus on the religion itself, which doesn’t deserve the same protections people do.

  66. Stacy says

    What strikes me is that Jillette assumes that the sort of jokes Miri and Dave are discussing are what he calls epistemological jokes. Yes, Penn, many of us enjoy dark humor and understand that the POV of a given joke, like that of a novel with an unreliable narrator, isn’t necessarily apparent at first glance.

    But why the hell would he go charging in to somebody else’s discussion angrily lecturing them about this? Does he think that bigoted jokes don’t exist, or are rare and exotic, like prion diseases? Or is he assuming–I’d put money on this one–that feminists and lefties generally just can’t understand sophistimacated humor because we’re all just itching to take offense at every little ironic bit of social commentary offered by our courageous intellectual betters, Brilliant White Dudes?

  67. says

    Comedians are typically in the business of making as many people laugh as possible. There are lots of ways of doing that. The simplest, laziest way is to tell jokes about groups with less power, jokes that play on stereotypes held by the majority of people in your audience. “Men blahdy blahdy blag while women bloodey bloodey bloo!” “So this blond walks into a bar…” “You ever get into a cab and the driver is all like [bad middle eastern accent]?” These jokes are offensive because they are meant to create humor through offense. They are meant to play on existing divisions and existing power dynamics in culture. They reinforce prejudice. They require no thought beyond “yes, this is a humorous situation which corresponds to stereotypes I have absorbed.”

    The comedians that keep getting cited here–your George Carlins and Sarah Silvermans–were not doing that kind of hacky, lazy, bigoted humor you’d get from a Daniel Tosh or a Jeff Dunham (at least, not always; Carlin especially wasn’t perfect). They work on a different level, trying to break down those existing cultural power dynamics, to make people laugh by exposing the absurdity that we accept or ignore on a day-to-day basis. That’s a harder, smarter kind of humor, one whose goal is to make your audience think, to look at things taken for granted and say “wow, that is silly/stupid/absurd.” It’s not just punching up vs. punching down, though that’s a part of it. It’s respecting your audience and not playing to the lowest common denominator.

    It doesn’t always work, and it requires a pretty high degree of nuance and context. Screechymonkey @14 described Chris Rock’s realization of that, Fred Clark has an article on Sarah Silverman that makes similar points. Jamie Kilstein, who is far funnier than Jillette while also not shitting all over minorities, talked on a recent Citizen Radio podcast about taking that easy way out, even as a liberal, social justice-minded comedian (I think it was the June 2nd episode), and people taking it in a way he didn’t intend.

    The point, though, is one that directly refutes what Penn is saying. There’s no academic formula that can produce an empirically funny joke. The joke is useless without an audience to interpret it. The humor occurs in the mind of the audience, not that of the comedian; the comedian is just there to prompt it. Which is why crafting jokes is hard: you have to convince the audience that it’s funny. You can do this by making them feel self-indulgently good, by reinforcing majority beliefs, or you can do this by poking fun at them and at yourself and at society. The problem with the latter is that it’s harder, it requires a more savvy audience, and even when it works, people can take away the opposite message. You can read up on all the theory and still flop, and you can go out and tell the hackiest shit ever hacked and get some guffaws. Penn’s complaint, from top to bottom, is pure bullshit.

    Thankfully, that’s one subject on which he is an expert.

  68. deepak shetty says

    @A noyd, Ophelia
    thanks – i dont think i have any real disagreement over what you have said –

    @SallyStrange
    it is intrinsically sexist to respond to someone offering a genuine complaint about sexism
    I guess it is is the intrinsic part that doesnt yet register for me – with context , sure. Atleast when I initially read it – it was more of arrogant asshole trying to show how superior he is – to a man.

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