A Different Comedy Nightmare

This is the first time I’m following Jeremy McLellan. Since we met on Liberty Tour 2016 I’ve only opened for him. I heard that we’re two of maybe a handful of libertarian comedians in the country (which means the known universe)—but even with our liberty-loving powers combined we were unable to achieve the goal of the 2016 tour: to get the Commission on Presidential Debates to open the door to third-party candidates like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. Sure, it may have been unfortunate for “Democracy,” but on the plus side millions of viewers were saved from meeting Gary Johnson for the first time and having him proceed to weird them out.

At a summit this year for Young Americans for Liberty in Los Angeles my performance was the morning snack, Jeremy’s was dinner, and Ron Paul’s was, of course, dessert. As I write this from YAL’s Pittsburgh summit (where I’m set to perform during dinner—the good doctor’s still dessert), I’m starting to think that fate’s liberty-marketing team is running out of ideas, considering Jeremy and I will be traveling to Liberty, Missouri—seriously—to take part in a discussion called “Laughing for Liberty: The Role of Comedy in Politics” at William Jewell College. I’m opening again, and if Jeremy’s staying at the same hotel as I am—the one that boasts an indoor water park—I’m going down the waterslide first.

I’ve been doing comedy for more than 15 years—whether it’s been sketch, improv, or stand-up—and I still get nervous. I worry I’ll forget punch lines, or entire bits, or have to deal with hecklers who are better-looking than I am. But as I perform for more liberty-leaning audiences a new fear has crept in, a nightmare that I pray never materializes:

It’s a packed house—made up mostly of male undergrads in ill-fitting suits—but surprisingly not as many of them are wearing bow ties as you’d expect. I’m on stage, working my material. Everyone’s applauding… But no one’s laughing. For the entirety of my set.

While Jeremy uses the story of Saint Genesius of Rome to illustrate the comedian’s fear of “being murdered for insulting the room,” my new fear lies at the opposite end of that spectrum: the safe, very non-martyred comedian who spends his stage time preaching to the choir—whichever choir that may be. My choir includes a college kid who asked me to sign the U.S. Constitution and a high schooler who had me autograph a copy of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson—both signatures happened on the same day.

I’ve seen so many comics on the left try to make up for a lack of jokes with what Kurt Metzger of Race Wars calls out perfectly, “being on the right side of history.” But the left is not alone. I’m telling you when you’re up on that stage, finally in a room full of people who think the way you do—especially when your view of the world puts you in the minority, like us weirdo libertarians—you can feel righteous, almost messianic. “Yes, we are on the right side of history—it’s a revisionist history. But that just makes us extra right. No punch lines needed!”

This tendency—whether it be genuine or fake—is at odds with the “inherently subversive” nature of comedy that Jeremy describes in his piece. That’s why when an online magazine like Paste poses the question, “What is comedy’s role under Trump?” I have to respond, “Well, what the fuck was comedy’s role under Obama?”

Is Paste implying that comedians should no longer be cheerleaders for the executive branch and its party—but just for the next four years? Or is Paste saying that we should get back to that whole speaking-truth-to-power thing from now on—no matter who’s in power?

In the aftermath of President Trump’s victory, my channel We the Internet TV picked the low-hanging fruit on the hypocrisy tree, which is always ripe. This time the harvest came at the expense of Democrats, liberals, progressives, I’m-With-Hers, Nasty Women, et. al.

Today it’s the left. Tomorrow it’s the right. Really, every day it’s both. Now, libertarians, you can eschew the party line(s) and flex your supposed righteousness by holding up a mirror to the State and its actors and supporters, but you also need to remember to turn that mirror around and examine yourself. For me that’s what my podcast, Unsafe Space, is about. My co-host Toby Muresianu and I are trying to foster civil discourse by inviting people to log off of Facebook for a while and confront one another’s ideas in real life. Getting away from my cult for a few hours a month has done me some good—especially when it comes to videos I produce for WTI.

Just like with my stand-up, I am extra wary about preaching to the choir or coming off as an activist. As Jeremy puts it so eloquently, “To answer their calling, comedians must assert their independence and resist becoming either soothing court jesters to the powerful or propagandists for activist causes. As artists, the temptations of Leviathan are hard to resist, as are those of its opponents.”

When you make a video called “Burglars for Gun Control” you’ve pretty much given up the internal struggle I’ve been describing and crossed over into activism—one would think. If you’re looking for divisive subject matter, you can’t do much better than guns. At least up until the point when I produced “Burglars,” all I had seen on the sketch comedy front was anti-gun propaganda masquerading (sometimes painfully) as comedy.

I’m sure you’ve seen these live action cartoons before, where automatic and semi-automatic are interchangeable and “gun nuts,” in addition to being paranoid, reckless, and heartless, have really small penises. (For women gun owners their “dicks” are like tiny phantom limbs, brought upon psychosomatically by internalized misogyny/toxic masculinity/male fragility.)

So I was like, “Hey, I don’t know, maybe a gun can be a good thing every now and then?” What would that sketch look like?

I was living and working in Los Angeles at the time and casting the video proved difficult. Originally I reached out to an actress I had known for years: great performer, wonderful person, she was perfect for the role. I sent her the script, but she couldn’t tell whether the sketch was pro-gun or anti-gun.

I thought that was awesome. See? Every now and then comedy can transcend party lines and ideology. Take that, activism!

But she made it clear to me that she was concerned about the “POV of the sketch.”

I told her how an actual event I’d seen in the news had inspired me to write the sketch: a real widow, a real baby, two very real, knife-wielding burglars. I explained how I thought my take on the subject would add some nuance to the discussion—or lack thereof.

But before passing on the role she made it very clear to me that what was important—in addition to the sketch itself—was my stance on guns. To me it seems crazy to think that “Before I can laugh with you, I have to agree with you.” Or more to the point, “Before I can laugh with you, I have to make sure you agree with me.”

Nightmare. Where’s the funny in that?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jeremy McLellan explains why we’ll always have comedy, and why it will always make people uncomfortable. In politics, comedy tends to expose the cracks in the system, the people, practices, and situations that even autocrats can’t control. The social rules that we set for ourselves are never complete; our control of the world is never perfect. Comedians are ambassadors from a world of chaos. That is… they are ambassadors from reality.

Response Essays

  • Lou Perez describes a different problem that comedians can face: the audience who agrees with them too much. When comedy gets political, which sometimes it will, there’s a great danger of coasting on shared assumptions and beliefs, and not actually being funny. That danger is just as real when libertarians take the stage as when anyone else does. Comedy might be a mirror held up to the powerful, but that mirror needs to be turned on the audience sometimes too.

  • Michael Munger discusses his experiences running for governor of North Carolina, including an incident with a hot mic that he describes as his finest moment. Candidates, he suggests, are not supposed answer questions or talk policy; they are there to bicker. Too-frank talk about policy or the difficult choices needed to govern will have a result for them that’s similar to what bad comedians suffer on stage. Misdirection, cunning, and courage are sometimes needed to get people to see what’s all around them.

  • Nick Gillespie dismisses the idea that comedy - or any art form, really - exists with the higher purpose of doing anything socially subversive and therefore redeeming. This, he says, is a romantic myth. In reality, comedy is shot through with in-group virtue signaling. This is much like all art, and most of the rest of what we do besides. Comedy usually just shows that you’re the right sort of person, and that you fit in with the right sort of group. Once we let go of our idealism on that score, we can perhaps get down to the work of changing how people think, using both comedy and other forms of expression. But let’s not have any illusions about it.