The Very Serious Comedy Issue

Funny Stuff, Winning the War

Well, gosh. In this month’sCato Unboundsomeonetried to have some fun, someone else decided that no one deserves to have fun, and a big fuss broke out. And, as usual, it’s because everyone pretty much agrees, so tiny points of doctrine and imagined slights assume exaggerated importance.

We libertarians really get upset at heretics.  Which is why we spend so little time worrying about infidels: we’re too busy fighting with our friends.

Now, there is something comedic about that, I admit. To outsiders, our inability to do something as simple as having a light-hearted “April Fools Day” exchange without a reversion to a Hobbesian war of all against all is likely hilarious. Readers probably have a “That’s funny…but not really” reaction, because it’s hard to imagine why people insist on fighting.

The problem is that it is hard to put yourself in the other person’s position, and think about their perspective. Which made me think of another “That’s funny…but not really” kind of piece: Mark Twain’s “War Prayer,” which seems to endorse a little disagreement as being good for society. As Twain puts it:

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism… daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms… nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Anybody who disagrees with a general orthodoxy had better be careful. Don’t want to upset anyone, especially when they are all so sure. But then, Twain says, a strange old man, a figure clad in white, went to the altar and interrupted the prayer cum rally. The stranger warned the fervent and the pious that their own prayer was actually blasphemous. By praying for victory over their enemies the people were also asking for the things that vanquishing an enemy requires. According to the strange man, their real prayer was:

O Lord our God, … help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst.

Twain concludes in a way that might very well serve to describe today’s comic who questions political orthodoxy:

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Funny stuff, but sometimes the audience just doesn’t get it.

No, Nick, Not Everything Comedians Do Is Comedy

In my lead essay, I argue that comedy celebrates the incongruity between reality and our attempts to understand or control it. Pointing that out or recreating it makes people laugh. Nick Gillespie’s argument is that much of comedy does no such thing, but rather soothes and makes the audience feel good about what they already believe.

 

This would be a profound response if I had not addressed this in my essay. In fact, much of my piece was spent warning comedians and other artists against the temptation to do just that. I think the problem is that Nick seems to think everything comedians do is comedy. I’m not sure why he thinks this. Comedians engage in virtue signaling, relay stories and facts, and we have moral, religious and political views. But those things aren’t the funny part. Those things may get you applause, but they do not make people laugh. The funny part comes later when we make the joke, when we (hopefully) are saying something unexpected or, as Nick calls it, “recognizing the limits of human knowledge.” Which is why I think, regardless of the comedian’s other activities, comedy is inherently anti-authoritarian. That’s the stuff that makes people laugh.

 

Nick’s big example this time is Prairie Home Companion. I grew up listening to Prairie Home Companion with my family, and we loved it. We also thought it was funny. It spoke to us. Sure there’s lots of stuff in the show that is annoying or unfunny or designed to soothe you, but if you hear people in the audience laughing at something, it’s because they thought it was funny. If you don’t think it’s funny, then perhaps you have a different set of expectations and it doesn’t work on you. Or maybe Nick has refined tastes and only the highest caliber of comedy suits him, which is why he feels led to virtue-signal that to his readers. But the temptation to consider “art that doesn’t work on me” as necessarily “art that is bad” is, ahem, a form of moralizing.

 

Of course if no one laughs, but you keep succeeding because you make the audience feel good, then you aren’t doing comedy, you’re doing the comedic equivalent of kitsch, which I define in my essay as “inoffensive art produced to soothe an audience and render it undisturbed and unsurprised.” Maybe Nick thinks PHC is mostly kitsch, but in order to get laughs, it still has to be funny. It’s the same with comedians who aren’t that funny but are good at promotion or networking. I hear amateur comics respond to that by saying “comedy is just promotion and networking now,” which reminds me of Nick saying it’s all virtue signaling. But my response is the same: Actually, at the end of the day, you still have to be funny. The funny stuff is comedy.

 

(If Nick has a video example of a soothing joke that doesn’t subvert audience expectations or point out any kind of incongruity but still gets a huge laugh from the audience, I’d love to see it. Let’s get specific.) 

Which brings me to St. Genesius. He engaged in moralizing and virtue signaling to gain favor with the emperor. However, I’m sure his sketch was funny, which is why it also made people laugh. Otherwise they would have clapped or cheered. And yes, I have always found it hilarious that the patron saint of comedy is someone who is venerated for the one time he stopped doing comedy. But that’s Catholicism for you.

 

 

TLDR: Comedy is inherently subversive, but not everything comedians do is comedy. Nick is mad at the other stuff comedians do.

Comedy and Moralizing Still Go Together, Sadly

I apologize for projecting a Hillary Clinton joke into Jeremy’s set at the International Students for Liberty Conference earlier this year. Whether that qualifies as “glaring sloppiness” or early-onset Alzheimer’s, I regret the error, and I rush to add that I did in fact read Jeremy’s essay (twice, in fact).

The problem is that I just don’t agree with what I take to be its central propositions, including the following:

Comedy [is] inherently subversive to any incarnation of human conceit.

As an art form, comedy is inherently anti-authoritarian.

Comedy itself is anarchist insofar as it celebrates and bears witness to a world that the state must deny in order to wield power.

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. But Leviathan is not a specific regime, a set of people, or even an ideology. It is the physical embodiment of the human conceit that we can understand the world perfectly, that domination can ever be successful, that rebellions can be put down forever, that an artist can truly fulfill his purpose by performing for an emperor and against his victims.

You get the idea. Jeremy may claim that he doesn’t believe creative expression generally or comedy in particular should be put into the service of a specific ideological or political agenda, so it’s obviously a lucky coincidence that he defines comedy in such a way that it could comfortably spoon with libertarianism on the narrowest of twin beds. For fuck’s sake, he might even have written that, à la Hayek, comedy is “inherently subversive to any incarnation of [the fatal] conceit” and just gone ahead and used the Austrian economist’s term for the hubris that tends to attend to power and control. Beyond his conflation of comedy and a generally libertarian sensibility—to my mind, libertarianism starts in recognizing the limits of human knowledge—I reacted negatively to the sanctimony and self-importance of lines such as this one: “Treason is baked into the job description.”

Yeah, not so much. As I think I amply documented, a lot of comedy is in no way subversive of anything, from audience expectations to “Leviathan.” Comedy doesn’t inherently do anything except try to make someone laugh. In the case of (to my mind awful) shows such as The Prairie Home Companion, it soothes audiences or makes them feel somehow superior (they’re in on the joke). That might qualify it as bad comedy or unfunny, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I ended my initial entry in this debate with “a glowing call for libertarian artists to subvert the status quo in a variety of ways” (Jeremy’s words!) so let me end this bit in a slightly different way. Jeremy used St. Genesius as a controlling metaphor for his essay. Genesius was the 4th-century Roman actor who, while performing in a play making fun of Christianity, found religion and was executed for his new beliefs. One way of reading that is how Jeremy does it: This is “comedy as political resistance.”

Except the metaphor kind of falls apart, doesn’t it? Genesius wasn’t killed for telling jokes; he stopped being funny in mid-performance, like Don Rickles does toward the end of Hello Dummy!

In such circumstances, no one can blame the audience for groaning at moralistic performers, though murder is indeed an overreaction. If comedy is tragedy plus time, tragedy may be when comedy starts taking itself so seriously that it stops even pretending to be entertaining. The challenge before those of us interested in creating a world that is more free, more fun, and more libertarian is to create culture—everything from standup comedy to journalism that stands up—that is engaging, provocative, and irresistible. On that much, I hope Jeremy and I can agree to disagree.

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.

So You’re a Subversive Artist, Are You?

Response Essays
April 18, 2017

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.

Maybe it’s because Don Rickles, the best-known insult comic of postwar America, just died, but I feel a strong desire to, well, piss on—I mean “subvert”—the three previous essays, even as they are penned by people for whom I have nothing but the greatest respect. Jeremy McLellan absolutely killed at this year’s International Students for Liberty Conference, where he mixed jibes at obvious targets such as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with edgier-for-the-room barbs shot directly at the heart of libertarian-movement favorites Rand Paul and Gary Johnson. I’ve seen Lou Perez work a room of 1,500 people at FreedomFest in Vegas like a high-class hooker and his We The Internet videos are pretty damn swell too. Michael Munger is the definition of an intellectually serious libertarian political scientist who ran such a good race for North Carolina governor in 2008 that I was moved to write, “I humbly submit that Duke University political science professor Michael Munger, who ran a strong bid as a Libertarian Party candidate for governor in North Carolina, set his eyes toward an even bigger and remote target in 2012, that stationary Death Star known as the White House.”

And yet, as Rickles himself might have put it, What a bunch of sanctimonious hockey pucks!

Comedy is “inherently subversive” and you might get “killed” for mocking the room? Not literally, like good old St. Genesius, but figuratively, like Gilbert Gottfried did for making jokes about planes crashing into buildings right after 9/11 and about Fukushima, when Japanese people were still fleeing from a nuclear disaster just like in a Godzilla movie.

Puh-lease. Truth be told, there’s nothing inherently subversive about comedy, whether it’s political or the lamest sort of observational humor. In fact, it’s not even clear comedy is inherently funny. Bill Hicks, often lauded as “truth teller” about corporate power, was no more a threat to the Republic than is Carrot Top. How many watermelons and cantaloupes must die to make Gallagher great? Does anyone doubt that Nazi Germany had its own version of the Capitol Steps, the dreary comedy troupe that does hacky song parodies poking fun at John Kerry’s snowboarding fiascoes, John Boehner’s skin tone, and Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits? You can almost hear their hoo-larious version of “We Didn’t Start the (Reichstag) Fire” or “Ballroom Blitzkrieg,” can’t you? If the CIA had just bought Khalid Sheik Mohammed orchestra seats for the Capitol Steps (“We put the MOCK in democracy!”), waterboarding wouldn’t have been necessary at all. The only thing possibly subversive about ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s act (including his god-awful “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” puppet) is that he, like all grown men who appear in public with their hands up a dummy’s pants, may secretly be mainstreaming fisting as normal behavior (what is it Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, used to say? “Anything that’s peaceful”).

Having suffered through a lifetime of Mark Russell concerts (which is to say, one), I no longer believe that comedy is subversive, or even funny (“We recently dropped a 22 thousand-pound bomb on Afghanistan,” goes a recent Russell gag. “That is one big bomb. It’s as if we dropped the entire Trump administration on Afghanistan”). Of course some comedy does stretch the boundaries of good taste and epistemological certitude. Check out the stunningly ambivalent abortion riff at the start of Louis C.K.’s new Netflix special, where he says abortion is either murder or the equivalent of, pardon my French, taking a shit. But 90 percent of comedy, including “serious” comedy, is, to paraphrase an iron law formulated by the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, crap.

Put another way: How many standup comedians (besides Gandhi of course) have changed the world? And don’t grab the Ouija board and conjure the opioid-constipated ghost of Lenny Bruce, who was only funny twice in his lifetime, once when he made a great Vaughn Meader joke the day after JFK was assassinated and, more famously, when he anticipated Elvis Presley’s death by dying on the crapper from an OD. Even rock and roll bands have a better record at spurring social change than do comedians, with the Velvet Underground’s sadomasochistic aesthetic that was condemned in the free and communist worlds alike inspiring Czechoslovakia’s bloodless overthrow of communist tyranny. Yet we wait in vain for, I don’t know, Janeane Garofalo or Dane Cook to birth a terrible beauty in Ireland or anywhere else. Lebanese Danny Thomas would never have started the Arab Spring; that took a Tunisian fruit vendor willing to flambé himself in protest over repressive state rules.

I am neither a professional comedian nor political scientist. The closest I came to any of that was writing for the late-and-lamented-by-some Suck.com, “the first great website.” Under the nom de plume Mr. Mxyzptlk, I wrote scabrous essays about how getting crippled was the best career move Christopher Reeve ever made, Saving Private Ryan was a generational grift perpetuated by aging Baby Boomers, and the Kennedy Clan perfectly illustrated “the Stupid Grandson Theory.” My professional memoir, yet to be written, will surely be titled Antidote to Laughter (my erotic memoir, a work of science fiction, is tentatively titled Jesus Only Came Twice). I have appeared as the straight man, the non-comic relief that is, on shows such as Bill Maher’s Real Time and The Colbert Report. Whatever good points I made were not by being funny (the producers of each show wisely insist that non-comedians don’t do jokes) but by being well-informed and persistent.

But even I recognize that the main function of comedy, especially political comedy, isn’t to stretch people’s minds or get them to confront the limits of their systems of knowledge. We’ve certainly been telling ourselves that often enough, even though it’s wrong. At least since the Romantic period, virtually all artists have claimed to be subversives, to being “oppositional” to the status quo rather than expressive of it. Rather than channeling the vox populi, political comedians stand against it, don’t you know, like Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann, as brave Cassandras who can’t be denied. Shelley famously declared that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and exist solely to speak truth to power. Comedians are always happy to get in on that action, especially if they can retreat when the heat comes down and aver, “Hey, I’m just a comedian!Jon Stewart, that would be you.

The main purpose of much and maybe even most creative expression—whether we’re talking fiction, video, art, music, journalism, comedy, you name it—is to virtue-signal, to show to your audience that you already agree with each other and that you are politically correct (however your group defines it). If you doubt this, watch John Oliver, whose peerless comic timing and authoritative British accent is outmatched only by the complete glibness of his research. Another Daily Show alum, Samantha Bee, is running a similar con on TBS. “We’re off this week,” goes one promo, “but we made you a present: Ted Cruz!” Haw haw haw!

Such in-group virtue signaling is as true for libertarians as it is for liberals and conservatives, alas. Don’t we all love South Park not because it challenges our deepest-held beliefs – but because we agree with most of the show’s anti-authority, anti-Al Gore, anti-nanny-state messaging? It’s nice to see our broad world view being validated from the big stage.

So where does this leave libertarians? Is everything just an excuse for expressing group solidarity rather than persuading new people to adopt a libertarian mindset? No, I don’t think so, and I appreciate that Jeremy McLellan, Lou Perez, and Michael Munger agree with me on this basic point. But we need to get real by jettisoning the idea that any form or genre has any special claim on truth, justice, and the American Way. And we need to recognize that libertarianism—which I’ll define as a principled interest in reducing the size, scope, and spending of the government while increasing the power of the individual to live peacefully however he or she wants—must participate fully in discussions of politics, culture, and ideas if we want to become the new baseline identity in the 21st century.

This isn’t a pipe dream by any stretch. If you can remember the 1970s, you realize that we’re in the midst of what my Reason colleague Matt Welch and I have dubbed the Libertarian Moment—an ongoing, massive increase in lifestyle liberation and technologically driven advances in the ability to live life on our own terms—that gives us more and more control and possibilities in how to structure our world. To do that, we need to be working on at least two levels at once.

First, we need to be willing to confront and enjoy the limits of our point of view in a way that is at once serious and fun (watch this and tell me you didn’t laugh). Second, we need to be constantly analyzing the subterranean tropes and conceits of politics and culture and laying them bare (watch this for a master class in such exegesis); what is far greater about South Park than its plots and characters is that it satirizes whole genres and forms of storytelling that have become invisible to us through repetition. Until you understand how, say, moral panics operate, you can’t understand when we’re in the middle of one. The audience has immense control over popular culture and media, but only when we are engaged and on guard for the ways in which it tries to lull into acceptance, like the robotic viewers in Mystery Science Theater 3000.

In addition, we need to not simply comment on culture, but create it in all sorts of ways and at all levels. Jeremy, Lou, and Michael are plainly doing this, with good results (there’s no shame in losing a political race by 90-plus points!). Apart from the hundreds of thousands of words we produce, Reason cranks out hundreds of videos a year. Some are documentaries, many are interviews with folks like the men and women of Cato, and some are stabs at comedy.

What libertarians writ large need to do is recognize that if we want to subvert the current order—and we do, in all sorts of ways—we need to be simultaneously expressive and persuasive, to explain what we believe, why we believe it, and why it will lead to a world that is more prosperous, more peaceful, more interesting, and more sustainable that what we have now. Sometimes our cultural work will involve humor, sometimes it will involve earnest policy work, sometimes it will involve three-handkerchief journalism, and sometimes it will involve a fully clothed Michael Munger taking a dive into the Atlantic Ocean to protest exclusion from political debates. But it will never be just one thing or another. And just like this essay, 90 percent of it will be crap, though we will almost certainly disagree on which 10 percent really makes the grade.

Unfortunate Haircuts and Causes to Die For

Response Essays
April 10, 2017

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.

Mark Twain famously said, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” I often wonder what Twain might now have said of the pundits who provide political commentary without blushing, or understanding the need to.  No one can predict anything, but each pundit has some explanation for why he or she was right all along. We may never have been in greater need of the subversion that humor can bring.

 

Jeremy McLellan raises a number of important issues in his “Bombing on Stage: Comedy as Political Resistance.” We will discuss several over the next few days, but I wanted to focus on just one for now: comedy as subversion of the current paradigm. My own experience in this came when I was running for Governor of North Carolina in 2008, as a third-party candidate. My wife Donna was a reluctant observer to this process, I should note. Her only condition was that I promise that I would not actually win. With hard work, I was able to keep this promise, falling short of victory by more than 45%. Maybe that should have been my slogan: “Munger: When He Promises to Lose, He Really Loses!”

 

Given my near-total lack of experience with campaigns and “real” elections, it was comedy that I ran at all. I’m a political scientist, after all; we know very little about politics, and we certainly can’t predict politics. In fact, we mostly predict the past. The immediate past, what happened yesterday, is our specialty, and can be predicted with a high degree of precision. Elections or political events a week from now are deep mysteries to us, as Brexit and Mr. Trump’s election illustrate.

 

Still, I headed out on the campaign trail, and was eventually invited to four televised debates with the real candidates, Bev Perdue (the Democrat who won in 2008) and Pat McCrory (the Republican who won in 2012). In a way, I’m their worst nightmare: I have a Ph.D. in economics, a certain superficial glibness, and absolutely no chance of winning.

 

The problem was that I mistakenly thought that in debates one was supposed to answer the questions. I quickly realized that this was not true: you are supposed to bicker. The moderator would ask a question, I would answer it, and the other candidates would bicker. As one observer put it, “Munger should have smiled more.”

 

I did occasionally score some points, though it was by accident. The high point of my campaign was likely my response to some informal questions after an interview was completed. Bev Perdue, the Democratic frontrunner, was running some odd ads, and the interviewer asked me what I thought. Thinking the mic was turned off, I answered: “She’s running commercials that mostly seem to establish that she was once a child. She was once younger, and at some points in her life, she’s had some unfortunate haircuts.” The mic was not off, and I was famous, if only for a little while.

 

In retrospect it was my finest moment, probably because it was an honest though unexpected reaction to the absurdity of pretending that any of us were in fact capable of “doing the job” expected of governors. The debates I was participating in were absurd on their face, but all of us had to pretend they meant something. As McLellan puts it:

 

What’s missing from such debates [he means over politics in general, but this fits for formal debates also!], and what I hope to provide in this essay, is an account of comedy as inherently subversive to any incarnation of human conceit. Our attempt to render the world intelligible through language, social rules, moral codes, and the organization of human activity is both necessary and inherently unstable and provisional. Our best attempts to do so routinely crash against reality. Our plans get ruined. We misunderstand each other. Arrogant people make fools of themselves. We use bad logic. We have thoughts we know are wrong. Our bodies fall apart. Moral busybodies are exposed as hypocrites. Weird things happen during sex. Bosses take themselves too seriously and then fart in board meetings. Children snatch the hats off popes and interrupt BBC Skype interviews about geopolitics.

 

 

 

Jokes, On Us

 

McLellan is quite right that many absurd things happen on their own. His contribution is to point out that many of the things that we take as normal or conventional are the most absurd of all, and that comedians are allowed, and possibly obliged, to point this out.

 

Which raises the question of jokes. According to the OED, the first recorded use of the word “joque” in English is quite recent, occurring in the second half of the 17th century, and certainly by 1691, apparently deriving colloquially from the Latin “jocus,” or jest. The intended meaning is “Something said or done to excite laughter or amusement; a witticism, a jest; jesting, raillery; also, something that causes amusement, a ridiculous circumstance.”[1]

 

Of course a joke has to work. Which means that it has to be funny. It is interesting that the language of comedians is so morbid, but it may be because their business is so hard. McLellan’s example is apropos: St. Genesius did what many comedians have done on stage - he died. Of course, the fact that he actually died is what makes it funny. But any comedian “dies” when attempts at jokes produce crickets and blank stares. Nick Helms famously described “dying” at The Apollo Theater in Harlem: “ ‘I went out and did my routine, as I’d planned it. And they didn’t laugh. They didn’t laugh at all. It was like being in slow-motion, it was like being trapped under water or something.”

 

The alternative, of course, is that the audience does find the jokes funny. But in that case the comedian will say he “killed.” The relationship with the audience is partly symbiotic, but also partly adversarial: the performer must kill or die. Those are the only choices.

 

The reason that the comedian/subversive’s role is so important is that humor by its nature breaks the listener out of his stupor, or the intellectual straitjacket imposed by convention. As McLellan puts it:

 

[C]omedians must join with civil libertarians against encroachments on freedom of speech, particularly on college campuses. This is not because all speech is good, but because speech codes and censorship are authoritarian attempts to arrest and render permanent the current paradigm. The conceit is always the same: “We have now figured out the best rules of speech and personal conduct. Let’s make them permanent and force others to conform.” They may be right about their ideas being the best so far (I tend to think they are) but as we’ve seen, attempts to codify them into hard and fast rules are doomed to fail and be replaced with new ones.

 

This is not a side effect of humor, but rather its very essence. One definition of humor that rings true to me is Isaac Asimov’s observation that humor lies in the sudden, possibly inappropriate, and (from the point of the view of the listener) unexpected alteration in point of view.

 

To put it another way, then, political humor has two elements:

 

  • First, a pleasing incongruity
  • Second, a misdirection in the way the joke is presented, in the sense that a logical basis for the incongruity is planted but hidden.

 

The humor then arises out of a logically consistent but unexpected and possibly unsettling reframing. There is twist that forces us into a change in point of view, but the twist is hidden in the setup of the joke and we could have seen it coming if we had been aware of the trick.

 

For political humor, the “misdirection” is the unquestioned and perhaps even unrecognized assumptions the listener or reader makes about the political world. The “incongruity theory” of humor argues that the human mind, for whatever reason, is attracted to situations where we expect one thing to happen, but what actually happens is something else. That seems a pretty apt description of the political process recently.  That’s why I found McLellan’s conclusion so persuasive. As he puts it:

 

What is true of language, social rules, and moral codes is even more true of politics, where the fatal conceit of organizing humans like pieces on a chessboard is doomed to fail. It doesn’t matter who is in charge or which ideology prevails, the cracks, contradictions, paradoxes, and inevitable failures of state control are plain to see. And the more authoritarian the system, the more absurd it is.

 

If the misdirection is the listener’s shocked realization that the truths he takes for granted may not be truths at all, the humorist has done his job. It takes courage to lay bare those sorts of criticisms, of course. Before a lot of audiences, you might die.

 

 

 

Note
 


[1] In the Oxford English Dictionary, “Joke, n.” The first known written source was from 1670 J. Eachard, “Grounds Contempt of Clergy,” p. 34:  “To have the right knack of letting off a Joque, and of pleasing the Humsters.” If it matters, “humster” is “one who expresses approval by humming,” a function today which presumably has been taken over by “retweeting.”

A Different Comedy Nightmare

Response Essays
April 5, 2017

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.

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?

Bombing on Stage: Comedy as Political Resistance

Lead Essay
April 1, 2017

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.

Several years ago, in 303 AD, a pagan comedian named Genesius began his career in Rome under the viciously anti-Christian Emperor Diocletian. Desperate to ingratiate himself with the powers that be, G-Dawg, as his friends called him, wrote a play mocking Christianity and performed it before the Emperor. In the middle of the show, while receiving a mock baptism, Genesius had a vision of the risen Christ, stopped the show, converted to Christianity, and denounced the Emperor. He was immediately tortured and executed. For this act of resistance, Genesius of Rome is venerated as the patron saint of comedy by the notoriously good-humored Catholic Church, not least because, if there’s one thing comedians fear, it’s being murdered for insulting the room.

Since then, the relationship between comedy and political power has been fraught with controversy, with no signs of letting up. As a political comedian, I’m often asked the same questions: What’s the role of comedy in effecting social and political change? Should comedians be activists or unbiased? Are certain topics off-limits, or is the whole point of comedy to be offensive? Should comics give their real opinions, or should they “stick to being funny” and leave policy to the experts?

These questions are not limited to comedy, of course, but strike at the very heart of the culture wars. Today, debates about offensiveness, free speech, social justice, safe spaces, marginalization, privilege, and the oft-touted rule of “punching up” dominate the discourse, and not a day goes by without a viral video of “Comedian DESTROYS Trump” or a “problematic” comic being called out for an offensive tweet and forced to apologize.

What’s missing from such debates, and what I hope to provide in this essay, is an account of comedy as inherently subversive to any incarnation of human conceit. Our attempt to render the world intelligible through language, social rules, moral codes, and the organization of human activity is both necessary and inherently unstable and provisional. Our best attempts to do so routinely crash against reality. Our plans get ruined. We misunderstand each other. Arrogant people make fools of themselves. We use bad logic. We have thoughts we know are wrong. Our bodies fall apart. Moral busybodies are exposed as hypocrites. Weird things happen during sex. Bosses take themselves too seriously and then fart in board meetings. Children snatch the hats off popes and interrupt BBC Skype interviews about geopolitics. 

(In fact, while writing this essay in the airport, I lost track of time, missed my flight, and ended up on a different plane sitting next to a guy who spent two hours vomiting into a bag. That’s reality.)

Comedians are the champions of that reality. We are the ambassadors of absurdity, a monastic Order of St. Genesius hell-bent on undermining human arrogance. We are experts, not in any academic field, but at recognizing the absurdities that lie within all of them. As an art form, comedy is inherently anti-authoritarian. As Stanley Hauerwas once said, “If you desire to rule the world, the incomprehensibility of the world must be denied or tamed. What cannot be tolerated are forms of humor that might make the attempt to control a dangerous world absurd.” In short: You are not God, and it’s the job of the comic to remind you of that.

Heavy stuff, but the subversive nature of comedy is evident in even the most innocuous of genres, such as puns. The first pun I ever wrote was “I started a charity for middle aged white women. It’s called the You’re Applying Too Much Foundation.” Puns are funny (and/or painful) because words like “foundation” can mean more than one thing. The human conceit that language is stable and reliably conveys meaning is upset by such jokes. The result is laughter, or groans, depending on whether you’re a dad.

It’s the same reason social rules and moral codes are such a limitless source of material. Our attempts to create guidelines to navigate the world will never be able to fit perfectly or anticipate every possible event or interaction. The chasm between our expectation of how humans should behave and how they actually do will always be hilarious. We can (and should) update our rules to more closely match our level of awareness of the complexity of the world, but the juxtaposition will always be there.

What is true of language, social rules, and moral codes is even more true of politics, where the fatal conceit of organizing humans like pieces on a chessboard is doomed to fail. It doesn’t matter who is in charge or which ideology prevails, the cracks, contradictions, paradoxes, and inevitable failures of state control are plain to see. And the more authoritarian the system, the more absurd it is. Whether it’s propping up drug cartels by banning drugs, bombing innocent civilians to fight terrorism, regulating sectors of the economy that politicians know little about, or designing a health care system for a country that doesn’t seem to care about its health, there is no possible political activity that can process and control the messy reality of the world without something left over to make us laugh.

This is not to say that comedians need to become anarchists (although that’d be nice) but that comedy itself is anarchist insofar as it celebrates and bears witness to a world that the state must deny in order to wield power. While Leviathan is busy imposing standardized laws and regulations, creating dutiful citizens through state-controlled education, managing labor to serve as cogs in the corporate machine, and demanding ultimate loyalty above all else, comedy celebrates a world of mess. Comedy celebrates transcending boundaries and borders, complicated people, mixed motivations, and ambiguous morality. As ambassadors for the provisional and transient nature of cultures, ethnicities, moralities, nations, and societies, our commitments necessarily put us at odds with authoritarians who want that change to stop. Or, as the philosophers on Twitter put it, we’re cucks. Treason is baked into the job description.

But if the very nature of reality makes political comedy inevitable, what form should it take? Too many arguments in favor of the political relevance of comedy myopically cast it as performing a specific function within the two party system. But as Jason Brennan has shown in Against Democracy, politics turns regular people into hooligans. They become vicious, ignorant team players, with many comedians all too willing to play the role of the mascot whose job it is to entertain the crowd while they root against the other side. 

It’s not entirely our fault. Fans demand it. During the election, whenever I made fun of Trump, people complained that I was pro-Hillary. When I made fun of Hillary, people complained that I was pro-Trump. And when I made fun of Johnson, no one cared because everything is funny when you’re high and he wasn’t going to win anyway.

This omnipresence of absurdity in politics is why comedians must point it out no matter who is in charge. Sadly, this is rarely the case. Comics who found their voice as rebels during the Bush administration swiftly became apologists for unlimited state power once Obama took office. The Daily Show lost its edge and started pulling its punches, even while the president deported more immigrants than Bush, terrorized Pakistanis with flying death robots, waged war on whistleblowers, and violated civil liberties with impunity. Of course, now that Trump is in charge, these same comedians are suddenly suspicious of attempts to organize the world by fiat and are back speaking truth to power. Hey friends. Glad to have you back. Hope you stick around.

But even behind Leviathan’s back, the danger is the same. History is full of rebellions that turn authoritarian. Today’s free thinkers are tomorrow’s dictators, and comedians who find themselves allied with activist causes must be aware of their causes’ corrupting influence. Activists make for fair-weather fans, as art is praised as helpful propaganda or else condemned as “problematic.” Once an artist finds their success relies on appealing to a specific audience’s prejudices and goals, the temptation to become a team mascot is hard to resist. Fans who loved you for speaking truth to power will suddenly turn on you when they wish to wield power without scrutiny. As George Carlin said, “Everyone appreciates your honesty…until you’re honest with them. Then you’re an asshole.” Which is not to say that being an asshole is always good or that problematic art is always valuable, but rather, that all art is necessarily problematic insofar as it bears witness to a reality that resists being solved.

Take, for example, my most popular bit about the wage gap.

I inevitably get the same question after the show: Is the joke against the idea of the wage gap or for it? What do you really think? These questions are fine to ask, and it’s always nice to start debates. In fact, there’s a great show called Unsafe Space run by Lou Perez and Toby Muresianu where comedians perform material on a controversial topic, followed by a panel discussion of actual experts on said topic. And yes, I’m specifically mentioning it so Toby feels obligated to book me.

But the point of the 77 cent joke is not to push an agenda. I don’t care whether you agree with the wage gap or not. The point is to make women mad, then happy, then mad, then happy, to knock you off kilter and surprise you with absurd logic. That’s it. Of course, authoritarians of all stripes will never stop demanding that jokes be translated into unequivocal prose so they can be judged as supporting or against their worldview. You can spot these tiresome bores because they begin every sentence with “so you’re saying that” followed by something you never said. But again, if such translation were possible, comedy wouldn’t exist.

Demanding that comedy serve a specific function within the state also crowds out more interesting moral questions, like what does it mean to do comedy in a way that gives people hope? That humbles them? That makes them feel less lonely? That fills them with compassion and understanding toward their fellow man? These questions are left unexplored; meanwhile, the same old debate about whether a joke is offensive rages on.

Take, for example, the recent furor over whether Dave Chapelle’s Netflix specials were homophobic and transphobic. Homophobia and transphobia, are, like all ideas and systems, poorly fit onto the reality of the gay and trans experience, as well as the reality of straight cis men attempting to come to terms with what is to them a new, unexpected reality. The mismatch between the two has long been fodder for comedians eager to dismantle those systems by celebrating the reality such bigotries attempt to deny. The story of social progress has meant replacing those outdated tropes with a new system of ideas, language, moral codes, and social rules. When a comedian takes the side of an old dominant paradigm against that messy reality, it offends the inhabitants of that reality.

But as much as we’d like to think otherwise, every system is a poor fit. There is no escaping absurdity. The new regime of political correctness will suffer the same fate. Contradictions and absurdities will arise (and already have) and an emerging paradigm that cannot tolerate jokes being made at its expense is not one that will survive for long. The rules of PC culture may have been created to more closely match the reality of human experience (or maybe not), but there is always a remainder.

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. But Leviathan is not a specific regime, a set of people, or even an ideology. It is the physical embodiment of the human conceit that we can understand the world perfectly, that domination can ever be successful, that rebellions can be put down forever, that an artist can truly fulfill his purpose by performing for an emperor and against his victims.

For this reason, comedians must join with civil libertarians against encroachments on freedom of speech, particularly on college campuses. This is not because all speech is good, but because speech codes and censorship are authoritarian attempts to arrest and render permanent the current paradigm. The conceit is always the same: “We have now figured out the best rules of speech and personal conduct. Let’s make them permanent and force others to conform.” They may be right about their ideas being the best so far (I tend to think they are) but as we’ve seen, attempts to codify them into hard and fast rules are doomed to fail and be replaced with new ones.

Trying to make art safe and predictable is an assault on the idea of art itself. In fact, we have a word for inoffensive art produced to soothe an audience and render it undisturbed and unsurprised. That word is kitsch, and we should respect it as much as we respect the mass-produced dolphin statues they sell in gas stations. You can shut down as many speakers or artists as you want to make the words people hear soothing and safe, but there is no way of controlling speech or art that does not give rise to a new set of contradictions, paradoxes, and ironies. In other words, we’ll always have comedy.

Coming Up

Discussion through the end of the month.