Trigger Warning – If you are triggered by anything in this article, including this trigger warning, then you are a humorless cretin.
There is a saying in humor that if you have to explain a joke that means it wasn’t funny in the first place.
Then what does it mean if someone else demands to explain your joke for you before you even tell it?
That cannot bode well for comedy.
Case in point, the warning now attached, by certain outlets, to “Blazing Saddles.”
Even those of us who can barely walk and chew gum at the same time know that the use of “that word” in that setting not only is not racist, it is in fact more anti-racist than Ibram Kendi could ever hope to be. If one cannot see the humor in – and the sharply barbed point of – the Black sheriff asking a group of Klansmen, whose robes bore smiley faces, “Where the white women at?” then one must live in a very grim world indeed.
While not as well organized (apologies to President Biden) as Antifa, there is afoot in the land a growing humor policing movement that can only be called AntiHa.
Professional comedians are openly concerned about performing on college campuses out of fear they may say something that offends our oh-so-precious leaders of the future. Even before Jerry Seinfeld could get to the first “did you ever notice?” joke one can only assume that a disturbingly large number of students thought to themselves “Seinfeld, huh? That’s Jewish right? I wonder how much he has profited off of the enslavement of the Palestinians?”
The jokes of long-dead comedy legend Bill Hicks – an anti-establishment figure if there was ever one – was fairly recently put through a kind of posthumous re-education camp in the pages of The Guardian in which current “comedians” evaluate his work in light of today’s “standards.” The verdict? Intolerant toxic white guy mansplaining masculinity that would not (be allowed to?) work anymore.
Would Lenny Bruce not tell his “five stages of death” joke today out of fear of offending a theoretical audience member who may have just been diagnosed with cancer? Since he went to jail numerous times – mostly over free speech matters – yes, he would tell it, but he would be excoriated on Twitter afterward for triggering some nebulous upset.
As to George Carlin’s “seven dirty words you can’t say on television,” it would be out of place now for two reasons – first, most of those words are okay for broadcast now and, second, it would currently only make sense if it were changed to “seven ideas you can’t say on television.”
As the woke movement seeks to replace pretty much everything in American life with its own version of – well, who knows, whatever – where are the progressive comedians now? To be blunt, there aren’t any and those comedians who do profess to be personally progressive are at their funniest when not being tolerant at all. 30 Rock’s Tina Fey yelling MEGAN! out her window during a St. Patrick’s Day parade just to see how many heads will turn and Alec Baldwin imitating the theoretical voices of Tracey Morgan’s parents are truly funny moments no matter their origin. Sarah Silverman’s stand-up act is very, very not caring and compassionate but really quite funny (though now even she seems to be having qualms about bumping into the correctness guardrails she helped erect.)
But a straight-up “activist” comedian who translated his, her, or “their” politics to the stage successfully? It’s just not a thing. It’s unclear whether that has to do with the fact it is extremely hard to make fun of something that somehow simultaneously manages to be both an inherent joke and incredibly self-serious or with the fact that the crowd who accepts all these shibboleths has proven itself to have exactly zero sense of humor. The situation brings to mind Emma Goldman’s possibly apocryphal but eminently suitable quip after she left Leninist Russia – “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution” – as, one hopes, a sign that maybe wokeness is inherently self-limiting.
But as we all know, the comedy dearth is not confined to the stage. The twitchiness of self-censorship is far too prevalent in even the most casual conversation or observation.
Joke out loud that you think George Soros has enough money to buy an island, hire a thousand minions, and create a global freeze ray with which to hold the world hostage like a Bond villain and you are labeled an anti-Semite. Tell a friend that the only side effect of getting the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was an overwhelming urge to go out and buy cases and cases of Johnson and Johnson products and you will be met with “I can’t believe you waited so long to get vaccinated – what’s wrong with you – are you one of those people?!?” Share that you find it both amusing and bewildering that government agencies – no matter the state, no matter the party in power – consistently show a clodhopperly inability to operate and maintain tech systems effectively and you will be immediately accused of spreading anti-government Fox Newsmonkey hyperbole.
What would it mean if AntiHa ever gets truly organized (again, apologies to President Biden)? Crowds of mimes (the original lowercase antiha) protesting at the local Chuckle Hut, demanding, at the tops of their fingertips, that only socially conscious comedy be performed? (Hint, if that ever does come to pass you can quietly and calmly inform them that not only is “man trapped in a box” sexist, it is also a degrading metaphor for French colonial slavery and, therefore, racist.)
Hopefully, it will not come to that. But, to paraphrase, when they came for Dane Cook, you did nothing because he’s not funny. When they came for Carlos Mencia, you did nothing because he steals jokes. When they came for Louis C.K., you did nothing because, well, ick. When they came for Bill Hicks, you did nothing because, like most people, you have no idea who Bill Hicks was.
Now they might be coming for you.
Thomas Buckley is the former Mayor of Lake Elsinore and a former newspaper reporter. He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more of his work at https://thomas699.substack.com.
IMAGE: Comedy and Tragedy Masks, 2nd Century A.D., Rome. Public Domain.