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.
this incredible graph from a Koch outfit is secretly amazing pic.twitter.com/Yw4FFlI1cS
— Christian McCrea (@christianmccrea) March 2, 2019
How do you quantify “artistic standards” like that?