Comedians : they don’t offend me; they just don’t make me laugh

SJWs flex their power by being “offended” when they hear comedians. I’m seldom offended by the content, but I’m always offended by the lack of humor.

Comedians The Beverly Hillbillies Free SpeechLast night, I had some down time (a short commodity today) and I watched a movie that came out in 2015, but is still quite pertinent. It’s called Can We Take A Joke?, and focuses on the fact that audiences today, especially on college campuses, object to comedians on the ground that the comedians offend their delicate sensibilities. The movie, which interviews comics such as Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Lisa Lampanelli, and Jim Nortan, and free speech advocates such as Greg Lukianoff (of FIRE) and Jonathan Rauch, a Progressive who apparently believes in free speech, is a joint project of Reason and FIRE.

Over and over, the comics interviewed (including some as-yet-unknown college age comics) make the point that it’s their job to push the limits, a job that came into being with Lenny Bruce. And over and over, they point out that people, despite knowing that a comic today will be crude or push buttons, start screaming “I’m offended.”

What’s funny in an ironic way about all the comics interviewed is that they are most funny — and most effective — when they are simply talking to the camera about their job, about free speech, and about censorship that comes, not from the government, but from society itself. As Rauch and Nortan both point out, even if speech is ostensibly free because the government doesn’t quash it, it’s not free if societal norms are so narrow nothing can be said anyway. As one of the comics said, and many others have said before, this situation means that speech in America is only as free as the most sensitive, easily offended person in any room, any state, or any nation. Charlie Hebdo, anyone?

My issue with all the comics is that I don’t think they’re funny. Merely saying the “f” word repeatedly or the “c” word repeatedly doesn’t make me laugh. Lenny Bruce at least worked the obscenities into larger, rather intelligent jokes. These comics, when they’re not talking intelligently to the camera (or, in Penn Jillette’s case doing the most amazing magic in family friendly shows that help showcase constitutional rights), tend to be as in love with dirty words as the average child . . . and, in their acts, to use them as intelligently.

Years ago, when my son was 3 or 4, we took a walk up to Eagle Lake in the Desolation Wilderness (part of the Lake Tahoe region). It’s not a long walk and it’s stunningly lovingly — or was, when I was a child, and it was empty, rather than a busy freeway of hikers. In any event, whether because he’s never been a hiking fan or because the crowds were getting to him, my little guy started whining very early in the walk.

We carried him a bit, but mostly, because it was a walk easily within his capability, we tried to cajole and cheer him. I described to him the wonders of the trail (surprise views, cool rocks to climb, a lovely lake), but he was unimpressed. Finally, he’d had it. Digging deep into his barely-out-of-the-toddler-phase vocabulary, he came up with the biggest, nastiest insult he could imagine: “I hate this. It’s a dirty, stinky walk to poo-poo lake.”

If he hoped to shock me, he failed. I laughed so hard I almost fell over. Please note, though, that what he said wasn’t inherently funny or clever. It was funny only because it was the outer reaches of a very small child’s imagination and vocabulary when it came to the art of the insult.

The problem with so much comedy today is that, although the comics’ imaginations and vocabularies should extend far beyond a three-year-old’s, too often they don’t. They throw out swear words, and the trained monkeys in the audience laugh. Insult comedians such as Lisa Lampanelli (who’s an interesting person off stage) make crude racial and sexual remarks, devoid of wit, and the trained monkeys in the audience still howl.

Readers know that over the years I’ve raked over the coals people such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver. While I strongly disagree with their politics, my constant complaint has been that they’re not funny. They’ve got such mindless shticks: Liken Dubya to a chimp, and the fellow trained monkeys in the audience laugh. Make some inane remark about the cut of Obama’s trousers, and the trained monkeys in the audience guffaw approvingly. No wit and not even any inspired silliness.

(Full disclosure: Only once have I been really offended and that was by a bunch of Jewish comics who traded in “humor” that would have made Hitler proud. It was obscene, vicious, and most decidedly witless. But I didn’t demand their silence. Instead, just wondered why they would say such terrible things — and vowed not to watch them in future, since they clearly were not to my taste.)

For decades, mainstream comedians were expected to keep it clean and they did. This forced them to have inspired silliness, such as this classic:

Or this one:

Or this one:

The above are examples of humor as a universal. These comedians are not playing to a specific demographic. They’re playing to the human funny bone, whether funny situations or funny personalities.

And yes, it’s absolutely true that, by the 1960s, the top-rated show on TV was the utterly inane The Beverly Hillbillies (although the earliest episodes, rather than being as dumb as we remember, actually had some pointed social commentary), soon to be followed by the even more inane Gilligan’s Island. Outside of the bland wasteland of prime time TV, society was changing fast and comedians reflected that change. The problem, as I see it, was that too many looked to Bruce as an inspiration for shock, forgetting that the shock played out against a backdrop of genuine laughter arising from clever, unexpected wit.

A good comedian knows that shock is funny only if it’s wrapped in wit, or zaniness. For the latter, just take the entire Blazing Saddles movie, which is a laugh-out-loud scathing indictment of racism. For the former, you can’t miss with these wonderful one-liners from the now-forgotten Dick Gregory (who, I think, got lost in Richard Pryor’s shadow):

“Just being a Negro doesn’t qualify you to understand the race situation any more than being sick makes you an expert on medicine.”

“In most places in the country, voting is looked upon as a right and a duty, but in Chicago it’s a sport.”

“I never believed in Santa Claus because I knew no white dude would come into my neighborhood after dark.”

“I am really enjoying the new Martin Luther King Jr stamp – just think about all those white bigots, licking the backside of a black man.”

“I am really enjoying the new Martin Luther King Jr stamp – just think about all those white bigots, licking the backside of a black man.”

Or, my personal favorite, “Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said: ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said: ‘That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.'”

Pointed, thoughtful, funny, but neither crude nor vicious — and all the more powerful, I think, for avoiding low crudity or meanness.

I applaud those of today’s comedians who take a firm stand for free speech. I just wish they’d be funny about it.