Atheist “comedians” joining the ranks of conservative “comedians” — not so funny any more

There is a new Contrapoints video, and it’s about comedy, as you can tell from the title, “The Darkness”. I think there were some insightful ideas in there, in particular the argument that edgy humor comes from exploring ones own place of darkness with familiarity and detail, and that one way that “edgy” comics fail is that they try to describe someone else’s darkness, while being completely unfamiliar with the terrain. She uses as an example Ricky Gervais, who made a Netflix comedy special where the opening was about mocking trans people. He identifies as a chimp rather than an attack helicopter, and there — I’ve just revealed the sole scrap of originality and creativity in the whole routine.

It’s a good point, and a different way of looking at the whole “punching up” vs. “punching down” distinction. In part the problem is comedians who babble on promoting their audiences’ prejudices rather than using humor to expose a truth.

Anyway, she also briefly expresses scorn at the privileged, white, atheist male comedian who can’t even see the place of pain they are invested in scoring points against. Ricky Gervais is a great example — there’s a loud and proud atheist who has become a terrible scab marring the movement. I thought of another example, too: a prominent cringe-beast whose flaws were obvious from the very beginning. I speak of Bill Maher, the unwatchable one, the Friday night affliction on HBO. And just by coincidence, I ran across an entertaining criticism of Maher.

Bill Maher, like Kevin Smith movies, was a vice that I could excuse in my teens and 20s but now seems extremely dated, disconcertingly bro-ish, and just all-around embarrassing. As Maher himself would surely explain, in a gratingly patronizing tone, the whole point of Politically Incorrect was to push the envelope. Though much of the time the show was actually pretty tame, unless you consider Carrot Top and Tom Arnold making jokes about home-schooled kids to be the height of edgy television. But there were other moments from Politically Incorrect that remain genuinely provocative, and not in a good way — like when Maher explained to a black woman that the n-word was acceptable for white people to use because you hear it so much in rap songs. Now there’s an argument you could imagine Rush Limbaugh making today.

When you watch that clip, it seems clear that Maher was always a jerk, rather than evolving into a jerk later on. Now I’m wondering, was he ever funny? As a stand-up comic, Maher is generally respected as a legacy act. But on Real Time, he can be painfully, excruciatingly unfunny. Maher might want to believe that people object to his jokes because they’re social justice warriors who can’t take a shot of unvarnished truth. But the actual substance of his humor doesn’t support that belief.

There are still some great atheist comedians out there — George Carlin was mostly hilarious, Eddie Izzard is still worth listening to. But I think we’re beginning to see the genre eroding into the Dennis Miller swamp.


How do you quantify “artistic standards” like that?


  1. says

    I notice that “art” achieved peak devotion to standards at about the time of the American Civil War, and it’s all been downhill since. What’s the number attached to that? How about the units?

  2. crocswsocks says

    As far as comedians who identify with the A-word, you could do worse than Daniel Sloss.

  3. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    That graphic is one of the most unintentionally funny things I’ve seen in a long time. It indicates that the author and the Tweeter are utterly clueless about everything from art to graphs to being human…

  4. hemidactylus says

    Borrowing Singer from Pinker there could be an argument based on the expanding circle of concern that as the general sensitivity for previously marginalized groups increases, societal standards for acceptable comedy improve. Some in Pinker’s IDW circle might see this as hypersensitivity that conflicts as “political correctness” somehow with free speech (every thought is sacred no matter how repulsive). But the improving standards may be there. Perhaps Pinker could find a graph where comedic quality has been on the rise (sarcasm alert). This rising escalator may relate to whatever social changes have resulted for better or worse in the alleged state of affairs on campuses today as portrayed for the mollycoddling thesis, where comedians such as Maher or Chris Rock won’t perform for college students anymore because PC culture. Pinker may ironically be on the wrong side of this argument. Maybe those performers are dinosaurs from a bygone era?

    As an aside, there might be a nascent conflict between Pinker’s progress thesis where kids are doing better than portrayed* versus Haidt/Lukianoff’s mollycoddling thesis where they are especially afflicted with stress and malaise. I could be wrong but I am sensing this incongruity.

    *- Pinker goes on the overdiagnosis route which I think may apply as the DSM becomes a source of conditions seeking their afflicted

    I occasionally catch a rerun of In Living Color which was edgy in its time, but cringeworthy now as transpeople and mentally disabled are fodder for jokes. Not scientific on my part, nor a comparative troupe show, but black-ish may be an indicator of rising social standards and quality.

  5. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    In my opinion, two of the funniest and most socially conscious comedians of recent years were Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele. They could be absolutely merciless in skewering hypocrisy, but somehow they were never mean about it.
    In my opinion they understood that comedy is what happens when we look at ourselves and comprehend the simultaneous absurdity and courage of our existence as humans.

  6. cartomancer says

    It would appear that there was no art before 1800 either. Which makes me wonder what exactly people like Praxiteles and Michaelangelo and Velasquez and Rembrandt were doing with their lives.

    Though perhaps the graph is simply talking about artistic “standards”, as in the banners carried by military regiments to distinguish them on the field of battle. In which case the graph makes a lot of sense, given that military units don’t tend to use such things anymore!

    As to the “atheist comedian” thing, it strikes me as a British person that “atheist comedy” is a genre only really applicable to America, and other developing countries where religion is a major social force. Because almost all the comedians here are atheists, and it’s not a remarkable thing to be or talk about. PZ mentions Eddie Izzard – to us he’s a surrealist comedian, or a gender nonconforming comedian, or a left-wing comedian – I don’t think anyone here would say that he’s a specifically “atheist” comedian. Likewise Dara O’Brien, Ed Byrne, Frankie Boyle, Zoe Lyons, Sandi Toksvig, Susan Calman, Michael Macintyre or anyone else in the British comedy circuit. In fact, David Mitchell of Mitchell and Webb fame causes a minor stir in the British comedy community for being an agnostic. That’s about as religious as our comics get.

  7. says

    #6: I agree, I think it’s the difference between atheist comedians and comedians who happen to be atheists.

    #7: I knew it was from PragerU. It’s a guy making a stupid argument that the only great art aspires to photorealism. I don’t think he understands art.

  8. ck, the Irate Lump says

    mirrorfield wrote:

    @1: Not sure, but you may want to check out the original source of the image:

    Or better yet, watch Shaun’s video where he mocks the PragerU nonsense. That particular chart is actually well made by PragerU standards: it has both its axis labelled and even has real units along one of them. Of course, they’re just “visual aids” when challenged on them, but why are they presented in graph form? Because they know it gives them unearned weight.

    The real answer for why the graph just suddenly flatlines is that Dennis Prager is a 70 year old man, and everything was better in his view when he was a kid, so that must’ve been when everything started going wrong.

  9. says

    PZ@8 as I’ve said more than once a lot of right wing folks would love socialist realist art if you removed the Communist trappings. Heroic American soldiers driving a tank in front of cheering housewives would be right up their alley.

  10. says

    It is super stupid regardless but the art world, on the whole, didn’t stop trying to be photoreal in the 60’s. It is wrong on both accounts. The first major movements to break with (photo)realism occurred at least 60 years prior AND in the 70’s (ish) such artists as Ralph Goings, John Baeder, Chuck Close, and Tom Blackwell reacted against abstract expressionism and minimalism with superrealism that consciously tried to replicate the camera perfectly.

    For no reason my favorite Goings’ work:

  11. Curt Sampson says

    In fact, David Mitchell of Mitchell and Webb fame causes a minor stir in the British comedy community for being an agnostic. That’s about as religious as our comics get.

    To be fair, that’s about as religious as a fair proportion of C of E members get.

    I loved your, “America, and other developing countries” quip.

  12. iiandyiiii says

    I’ll confess to enjoying Bill Maher’s show, even as I recognize that he’s an idiot and a troll on many issues, and I agree with most of the criticism against him. But I like the way his show is structured, I think he’s a good joke teller, and I often find the discussions with his guests (though not his interviews — those usually suck) interesting. And he’s an egomaniac jerk and profoundly ignorant on many subjects.

  13. petesh says

    Carlin is a former atheist comedian. Sadly, he is now nailed to his perch. [/pedant] We shall not see his like again, but we can still have hopes of a successor.

  14. chrislawson says


    I feel the same watching Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock. Both of them are so good at skewering racism in their comedy that it makes it very disappointing when they don’t seem to be aware of their own sexism or homophobia. Admittedly they score pretty low on those scales compared to many other comedians who seem to get away with it, but it’s still very noticeable.

    Chris Rock recorded the definitive comedy routine about why white people shouldn’t use the n-word, but in another special he has a routine about how gay people shouldn’t be unhappy when “gay” is used as a slur…because it’s directed at being useless and not at being gay! The cognitive dissonance there could power a small city. And in one of Chappelle’s recent specials he makes an argument (at length!) that while Louis CK’s behaviour was terrible and unacceptable…the women who left comedy because of it should have been tougher. In his own words, “that’s a brittle dream”, which he then goes on to minimise even further by comparing to his own struggle against racism that made him quit his TV show. You see, the millions of dollars he put aside made his sacrifice much more noble than those brittle women who didn’t even have established comedy careers. (I’m not making this up!)

    (I’m not saying anyone should avoid Rock or Chappelle — they have some astoundingly good material. Chappelle’s mockumentary report on the blind KKK member who discovers he’s black is sheer manic genius.)

  15. lemurcatta says

    I find it endlessly fascinating that so many people just straight up hate Maher and his show. It’s not just PZ, it’s also a lot of my own friends. I think that these same people would honestly be nodding their heads endlessly in agreement if anyone else but Maher was saying the same thing he was. The Trump is racist and his admin is terrible in every way possible. Cops are generally racist and kill far too many colored people. Democratic socialism is a good thing. We shouldn’t be afraid of it. Everyone deserves health care. His show has over the years pushed me more left than I was as a teenager. He

  16. harryblack says

    I find it so tedious to hear from people that we need to tolerate (ie- Not criticise) people “experimenting” with offensive art that targets the marginalised.
    Oh nooo! If professional comedians dont feel safe to make jokes about people who use wheelchairs then no one will be able to laugh any more! It takes a special type of entitlement to think that your joke is worth an innocent persons dignity.
    There are parallels in other artistic fields too and it comes down to people not wanting to hear criticism of their work, even when their work itself is a criticism of society.
    So you get to criticise everything but no one gets to criticise you. Because artistic safe space.
    Got it.

  17. hemidactylus says

    @16- chrislawson

    Yeah Chappelle did some interesting stuff on that show. Playing off Wayne Brady’s media friendly image with an over the top skit where Brady took over Dave’s show was probably the best. In retrospect some of the featured hiphop artist segments were pretty cutting edge at the time. I had pretty much written off hiphop up til then. Here’s Mos Def (probably not PC):

    I can’t get too preachy about acceptable comedy since I still watch South Park and for some reason Always Sunny. I wonder for instance if the characters Jimmy and Timmy on South Park are mockingly punching down at the disabled or actually being inclusive considering the source. Being an aspiring stand up comedian Jimmy once told a joke that insulted Germans, who retaliated by producing the AI Funnybot which almost destroyed humanity because that would be the ultimate punchline.

  18. microraptor says

    lemarcatta @18: Zero of the things on your list of good things about Bill Maher are things that only he has pointed out. Several of them are things that he only started saying after it was already popular to do so. And even if it were the case, it still wouldn’t balance out his tendencies toward misogyny or racism. Or his promotion of anti-vaxxing and alternative meds.

  19. lemurcatta says

    Yea-I have certainly cringed a few times- especially once when he said something like ‘children get so many vaccines in such a short period of time.’ He has also made other mistakes (the house N-word incident- he apologized but still). However, I find that I enjoy his work far more than I cringe at it. I’ve been listening to him for probably 7 or so years now (I actually don’t miss his show, generally watch or listen to each one) and he has been pretty consistent on a lot of things I mentioned in the last quote.

    One other observation I thought: a lot of my own real-life acquaintences who are critical of Maher haven’t seen probably any more than a few minutes of clips in the last decade from his show. Honestly, he is fairly stalwart in his progressivism.

  20. vucodlak says

    @ lemurcatta, #18

    Bill Maher was very important to my leftist evolution as a teenager. I used to admire him greatly, even as I winced at his constant engagement in various –isms, -phobias, and misogyny. I watched his current show from the very beginning, and watched religiously for more than a decade, but a few seasons ago I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I still agree with him on many things, but his steadfast refusal to really consider that he might be wrong or have some learning to do about anything is neither interesting nor appealing.

    Besides, his thin-skinned whining about “political correctness” has become unbearably grating. The problem isn’t that political correctness has run amok, the problem is that you said something douche-baggery, and so people called you a douchebag. His obsession with this particular white whale has become more and more consuming, to the point that he’s damn near become a card-carrying member of the civility* police.

    My problem isn’t so much that Maher’s gotten worse (though I think he has, in some ways), as it is that I’ve grown up and he hasn’t. And this is coming from someone who can be reduced to a quivering, cackling mass of teary-eyed protoplasm by a well-timed fart joke.

    *Civility, in this case, referring only to those things that don’t discomfit well-off white dudes.

  21. unclefrogy says

    that graph is interesting even though there not enough units nor is there any indication as to from what point of view there was a decline nor what constitute a decline.
    If you invert it it might align with the broadening of the cultural make up of the U.S. indicating a parallel of the widening taste in the population.
    the other thing that stands out to me is that big arrow that sets off the “flatlining” of the curve implying it is the result of personal expression.
    So it was better when all art was supported and done with the approval of the patrons of the art. It was better when it was done at the behest of the King or the Church or the Duke of Milan or some such? Coming from those who I would guess are firm supporters of “the market place” it is hardly noticed nor mentioned at all that these arts seem to exist and that the artist seem to be able to make a living off of their art ? very curious .
    uncle frogy

  22. hemidactylus says

    Just got around to watching Natalie’s video. Yeah she’s not PC but does point out some issues with comedy. Check out where she exposes Carlin’s ableism (start at 19:05). Discomforting. But South Park played on a confusion for Jimmy and Timmy where they started hanging out with the Crips gang. Not sure how to evaluate that…

    Natalie talked about the tension of where comedy lies. Pushing the envelope versus being a moralist, or snowflake versus shitposter.

    The transcomedy she highlights where a transwoman comic Gigi talks about going to a sperm bank to rub one out (euphemistically) and misses the cup is over the top and pretty damn funny.

  23. willj says

    Last time I was in New York, I walked by a Dennis Miller poster. Someone had sharpie’d a dick and balls next to his mouth. He just doesn’t get any respect anymore.

  24. says

    If you look at the graph closely, the year when the graph maker insists that artistic standards hit Zero is really hard to argue as anything other than the early-mid 1960s.

    The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is exactly when it became illegal to exclude people of color from eligibility for NEA grants or access to public venues (such as theaters) in the USA.

    Yeah. Coincidence. Sure.

  25. monad says

    The graph makes sense to me. It’s the number of different standards for what counts as art. When people unanimously decided art was about personal expression, it went down to one, where it stays to this day. It’s hard to tell from zero since there were thousands of standards before.

    I’m not convinced the decision was as unanimous as that, but hey, I’m not going to fault them for optimism. ;)

  26. methuseus says

    So I watched the whole PragerU video on art. Thanks to mirrorfield@7 (I think, because what did I watch). He gave the example of tricking his students by using his smock as a stand-in for a Jackson Pollack piece. Now, I don’t personally like Pollack’s work all that much. It’s interesting in an intellectual way, but it’s just not “art” to me. I won’t try to get anyone to say that it’s not art, however. That said, I knew the smock wasn’t a Pollack because it had none of Pollack’s defining characteristics. That’s the difference with me vs the asshole who made that video about how modern art has no merit: I have looked at multiple pieces by multiple modern artists and decided I didn’t personally like them, but that they could still be considered art. I may not think of them as art, but that’s why I will visit an art museum that displays more works by Monet, Degas, Cassat, and older artists and fewer by those of similar art schools as Pollack and Warhol. Don’t get me wrong, both of them have made very interesting pieces; they’re just not my cup of tea.

  27. lochaber says

    Methuseus @33

    Thanks, I think your comment just helped me realize what one of my issues with abstract art is.

    I haven’t had very many classes on art appreciation, and a lot of the subject is over my head. I bristle at the idea that art has to be photorealistic, or even well defined. But at the same time, I’ve frequently side-eyed the simple-seeming exhibits that were valued at millions of dollars. I think part of it, is that I felt the price should reflect the effort put into it, and some pieces don’t seem to have much effort involved in their creation or execution.

    I think, ultimately, my problem is with the commodification of art, and celebrity culture. I feel like there are a lot of art pieces, especially modern and abstract, that are valued more because of their creator, then because of their intrinsic aesthetic or relevance. I can’t help but think it’s related to how autographs of celebrities, or items of clothing worn by them, can sell for exorbitant prices, despite their being no “effort” put into their worth by the celebrity in question.

    I think art is important, and has value to society. I’m not the sort of person that always appreciates it on a visceral level, but I think there is value in the stuff I don’t personally understand. I imagine there are quite a few instances of ignorance in my comment, and would appreciate any insight or corrections other commentors have.

  28. methuseus says

    @John Morales:
    I had seen that fractal analysis before, and prefer computer-drawn fractals myself. Interesting that it was debunked.
    @lochaber #35:
    I agree with what you’re saying. The PragerU art video mentions a huge stone that’s valued at $10 million. That’s one thing I agree with, that I don’t get that installation. But I don’t agree that it has no value as art. It just doesn’t speak to me. I still agree that it’s something I side-eye.
    Yes, art is important and valuable to society, even weird stuff we don’t all like. As far as your ignorance, yes, you show that you haven’t really taken an art history or appreciation course. You can take one somewhere like Kahn academy or a MOOC if you would like, but I don’t think it’s required in order to have an opinion, which I think you’ve articulated well. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, but nothing to be ashamed of either.

  29. KG says

    The BBC have just launched a new channel specifically aimed at Scotland. Some numpty (or worse) thought it would be wonderfully “edgy” to have a late-night discussion programme including “comedian” (and apparently, atheist) Mark Meecham, aka “Count Dankula”, who was recently convicted and fined for distributing a video showing a dog making repeated “Nazi salutes” in response to Meecham saying “Sieg Heil” and “Gas the Jews”. Meecham’s defence was, of course, that it was a joke. Meecham is a member of UKIP, and closely associated with the far-right poster boy Stephen Yaxley-Lennon aka “Tommy Robinson”. In response to an outraged article in (of all places) the Mail on Sunday, who must have decided that their hatred for the BBC outweighs their affection for the far right,
    the BBC has now decided not to broadcast Meecham’s contributions. By recording and publicising them, then deciding not to show them (although of course this was, given the original stupidity of recording them, the right decision), the BBC has given Meecham the perfect opportunity to play the victim. The show will apparently go ahead, featuring a “Glasgow dominatrix”, and a podcaster, James English, who appears to be a semi-literate twerp who specialises in giving a platform to (supposedly ex-) criminals and terrorists, and is himself going to host Meecham.

  30. bcwebb says

    For the Kochs and the Fox news audience the curve matches the usual “the music/art/theater when I was a teenager was great and the stuff these kids are making/listening to now is crap.”

    …the vanished perfect past when they were young and healthy.

    Now get off my lawn.

  31. rietpluim says

    @PZ #8 The opposite exists too. Last week someone on Twitter declared that photorealism isn’t real art because it is only copying what you see. I don’t think that person understands art either.

  32. consciousness razor says

    lochaber, #35:

    But at the same time, I’ve frequently side-eyed the simple-seeming exhibits that were valued at millions of dollars. I think part of it, is that I felt the price should reflect the effort put into it, and some pieces don’t seem to have much effort involved in their creation or execution.

    I’m uncertain what you think you mean by an amount of “effort.” Is it basically the amount of time they had to spend on that particular work? First of all, that seems to be in conflict with your own complaint about commodification: you’re already treating it like a commodity, and you think you know (better than some others do) how one determines its monetary value. Your answer is more or less that they should be paid by the hour. I’m not sure how else you might try to determine that, but that seems the obvious choice.

    So, I’ll tell you what I’ve had to explain to people on many occasions (as a musician, not a visual artist): I don’t charge by the hour. It’s surprising to some people. There are jobs like that. I don’t clock in and clock out, there is no overtime pay, there are no weekends or vacation days or sick days, nobody is out there making sure I’m not being overworked or exploited, etc. If I work efficiently and quickly, it’s generally worth more to the client, for reasons you can understand — they want as much time as they can get to practice and rehearse it. Or they were really just hoping I could pull it off on such short notice….

    The point is, I’d have good reason to charge more for spending less time and “effort,” although I don’t make an issue of it. (If necessary, I’ll simply decline a project that’s unfeasible, but I try to avoid doing that.) Plus, if I can do higher quality work than others, that is also valuable. It’s not a larger quantity of work — it may indeed be fewer hours and headaches, less blood, sweat and tears, etc. — but it is better work. That is the more relevant issue to the people who want this thing from me, since it is not their concern (but mine) whether I had to exhaust myself while laboring so very much over the final product. They simply want it to be good, and that’s simply what I try to deliver, however hard or easy it may be. It’s just the result that matters, and I don’t bother them with all the gory details about how the proverbial sausage gets made.

    There’s also the fact that much of my effort was not spent on this or that individual project. I’ve spent literal decades, since childhood in fact, learning how to do what I do. It requires a wide variety of skills, a lot of formal education and a lot of independent study, learning from books, from history, from other musicians, from my own life experiences, with a lot of hard lessons from countless mistakes along the way. The thing is, nobody was handing out weekly paychecks for doing any of those years of work. It’s not easy, and “costly” hardly does it justice. But you can think of it as a large investment on my part, or just think of it as pure stupidity like I do sometimes. Nearly everyone on the planet has not done that work, yet it’s something they want. The demand is pretty high, while the supply is pretty low. Since very few consumers want to think about how their music is made, with just about as many not paying for it these days, people like me have the choice of making a living at it or not doing it at all.

    But now the question is whether you really think you’re able to assess the lifetime of effort that may have gone into it, whenever you stare at a painting. Is that so? Hopefully, you at least see some reasons to start doubting that.

    I’m not about to defend absurdly priced paintings or celebrity culture or what have you, but those problems go very deep and extend way past the art world (or music world). For instance, why are there are so few professional athletes, who are paid millions of dollars – why not more sportsball for the sportsfans with more sportsplayers? Or take the relatively tiny number of “star” actors appearing in all the big movies. Or the very top-tier chess grandmasters can make a career out of it (and win big prizes), but other grandmasters (also great players) will need to do something else to make a living. A few celebrity talking heads on TV talk shows (even good ones, like Bill Nye, let’s say) instead of the much larger and more diverse pool of people who are able and willing to do it. The same shit happens all over the place.

  33. stroppy says

    I guess this is where I type comments.

    The “artistic standards” graph is a good example of chart junk (check out Edward Tufte).

    Making people laugh is not the same as being funny [queue laugh track].

    The art scene is a mixed bag. Lots of good stuff but also lots of shenanigans. There is good abstract art, but IMO, when it happens it tends to be an effective distillation of the same formal principles you see underlying the kind of narrative art people tend to be more comfortable with. [pause for breath]

    Nope. That’s all I’ve got.

  34. stroppy says

    Oh. I wasn’t done after all.

    Think of abstract art as visual music.

    There you go.

  35. lochaber says

    Tabby Lavalamp @38 Thanks for the link

    consciousness razor @41
    apologies if I hit a nerve or insulted you, not my intent, for what it’s worth. I went image googling terms like “bad art” and “overpriced art”, and… I didn’t really find anything I objected to? I still think there is a lot out there that is vastly overpriced, and is only sold for such sums due to the artist being widely recognized.
    “effort” was a bad criteria. I don’t know what is, I think I mostly object to pieces being sold for millions, or even tens of millions of dollars. I’ll freely admit I’m out of my depth, and should likely shut up about the subject.

    Going on a tangent, but this is one of the reasons I support a universal basic income, I think it would be great for culture, and allow more people who are interested in doing so to pursue the various arts.

  36. ColonelZen says

    Why does it stop at zero? The discontinuity in the derivative renders it mathematically questionable as a plot of a natural phenomenon.

  37. stroppy says

    If he wanted to chart declining standards, maybe he should have graphed the steep slope of Republicans from Lincoln to Trump. The sad thing is, there could be no indication of how far down a minimum boundary might lie.

    Meh. Typical modern conservatism; overgeneralization concocted from a raw anecdote or two slathered with motivated reasoning and served up with a side of bitter snots and white whine. Artless fare to be sure.