A Response To Two Responses And Also Whatever Nick Is Doing

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have written the lead essay this month on comedy as political resistance. Hundreds of pieces have been written about comedy and politics which all say the same thing, so I jumped at the chance to write something different. I attempted to provide a grand theory of comedy as the incongruity between reality and human conceit, and thus why political comedy was inherently subversive. In doing so, I rejected the idea that comedy must be put in service to activist or partisan causes, which themselves contain within themselves the same kind of incongruities.

Three people replied to my essay, or at least they were instructed to. Two of them did, while one ignored my piece, hijacked the issue, and wrote something else. Rather libertarian of him.

Political scientist Mike Munger spends the first half of his essay describing a great joke he told during his own run for governor and the second half explaining what makes jokes funny. I agree with most of it, particularly because the incongruity thesis is at the heart of my grand theory. Unfortunately, he ends up collapsing all comedy into misdirection, which is just one technique that comedians sometimes use to draw attention to incongruity. Lots of comedy doesn’t involve misdirection, in particular performance art, which instead of drawing attention to pre-existent absurdity just goes ahead and demonstrates it.

Fellow comedian Lou Perez helpfully raises a further question I didn’t have room to explore in my piece. Namely, what’s the relationship between comedy and preaching to the choir? The dawning realization that your fans love you because of confirmation bias and not because you’re funny is enough to kill any artist’s confidence. Of course, some form of choir-preaching is necessary, for at least two reasons. First, if you want fans, you don’t just need to be funny. You need to be interesting. You need a brand and people need to identify with you. The second reason is the audience has to be on board for jokes to work. The experience of “safe danger” that causes laughter doesn’t work without some measure of safety. There’s a kind of tenure system built into being allowed to make certain kinds of jokes. If I tell a funny story about someone with Down syndrome to an audience of strangers, I need to find some way to let the audience know that I’m not a vicious person, and for fifteen years I worked with people who have this condition. Otherwise, they clench up.

For example, below Lou’s piece was a comment suggesting a sketch about how libertarians are against government power but all too willing to support corporations abusing theirs. Not a bad idea, but who is mostly likely to love it and share it? Non-libertarians, libertarians who agree with the point, and libertarians who disagree with the point but with whom Lou has established himself. Like it or not, but few libertarians will like it who don’t know Lou and strongly disagree with the point. Which isn’t to say he shouldn’t make it, but there’s always going to be a tension in the relationship between an artist and their fans. Good will with a population is a resource you earn and spend. Too much of a surplus and you’re a hack. Too much of a deficit and no one listens.

Which leaves me with Nick Gillespie. When I was approached to be the lead essay in April’s issue of Cato Unbound, I was told to make it 2,000 words on whatever I wanted. Now I’m left wondering if Nick was given the same open-ended instructions. Having read Nick for years and admired his work, I was excited to have him respond, if only because it would give the chance for a Reason employee to finally pay attention to someone who tours college campuses but isn’t Milo Yiannopoulos.

Unfortunately, Nick declined to respond to my essay. In fact, there’s little evidence he read anything other than the headline and the first paragraph. (Tellingly, there are no quotes or even references to what I said in the piece.) This glaring sloppiness is evident even in his praise, as he cheered my performance at ISLFC17 for taking on Hillary Clinton, whom I never mentioned in my set. Perhaps, like the rest of what he wrote, he was thinking of someone else.

So even though I strongly suspect Nick just cut and pasted something else he had been working on, I’ll do my best to respond to what he said. Like a Girl Talk album, it’s easy to mistake his mashup of references for a coherent piece.

Over at Reason, Nick frames his response by saying “Unbound’s latest debate is dedicated to the proposition that comedy can be a very serious tool in winning hearts and minds to a libertarian perspective.” This is false. The debate is centered around my essay, which doesn’t argue that, and which Nick apparently either didn’t read or didn’t think warranted any kind of respectful engagement. One would imagine someone with a Ph.D. in Literature would understand writing prompts, but auto-pilot is a hard thing to turn off. (In case you were wondering, my essay explicitly warns against using comedy for activist propaganda and rejects translating comedy into unequivocal prose.)

Nick begins by calling bullshit on the idea that comedy is inherently subversive. He then lists a bunch of comedians who didn’t achieve political change. If achieving political change is what I mean by subversive, that’d be a fair response. But it’s not. In fact I explicitly reject that concept multiple times.

Nick mocks the idea that comedians are subversive and uses Jeff Dunham as an example of someone who just preaches to the choir. Jeff Dunham, if you aren’t aware, takes his Ahmed the Terrorist puppet on tours of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. I’m not a fan of Jeff, but that’s not exactly a choir. Perhaps comedy is harder and requires more bravery than Nick thinks. Considering the number of death threats I’ve received for doing shows for Muslims, and the hateful stalkers I’ve been forced to report to the authorities, he may just be out of his depth.

Nick says most art is virtue signaling, which is not only false but a telling example of projection. Art is not the same as propaganda, which is a point I discuss at length in the piece Nick didn’t read. As I said above, all art involves some kind of buy-in to get on the crowd’s side, but people simply don’t laugh at stuff they only agree with. As Lou said, they cheer and clap. They like and share. You can see a similar dynamic occurring at Reason’s online brand, which spent the majority of the last year creating hacky clickbait for alt-right culture warriors. Or as one might be tempted to call it, virtue signaling. In fact, at the top of his non-response was a picture of Amy Schumer. I wonder why?

Nick ends his piece with a glowing call for libertarian artists to subvert the status quo in a variety of ways, which is of course at odds with his previous screed on the inability of art to subvert the status quo. Or perhaps it was a performance piece to demonstrate subverting the status quo at Cato Unbound, where you’re expected to engage with the lead essay?

But at least Mike and Lou responded to my piece. For that I am grateful, and I look forward to engaging the two of them in more discussion in the days ahead.

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.