Stephen Daisley

Identity politics and the rise of American anti-comedy

Identity politics and the rise of American anti-comedy
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Amy Schumer won’t be appearing in any Super Bowl ads this year. Not because she’s just announced she’s pregnant (mazel tov!) but because she wants to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players standing up — or, more accurately, kneeling down — to racism. Though, as the New York Post points out, it’s not entirely clear if the stand-up comedian had been asked to front any commercials. Still, it’s the Insta likes that count and, as Schumer posted on her page: ‘I know it must sound like a privilege ass sacrifice but it’s all I got.’

Privilege ass celebrities are getting woke all over the shop. Progressive culture, which is now the dominant culture, divides its subjects into victims and the privileged, assigning grievance sainthood to the former and demanding self-abasing contrition from the latter. There are certain pleasures to be derived from performative masochism on gender or race, not least the opportunity to signal that you are not the problem (why, you are an ‘ally’!); it’s all those tacky people in Arkansas trailer parks — they're the problem. Thus can wealthy white stars pass for radicals while exculpating themselves from the economic arrangements that saw black households earn $21,000 below the American median last year. In identity politics, checking your privilege never involves checking your bank balance. 

Schumer’s decision to turn down work (insofar as that work had even been offered) is fair enough. But it intersects (that tedious little prig of a word) with the decline of her comedy style, and that of a substantial body of her peers, into humourless sermonising and rageful self-pity. Comedy has been grappling with offence culture — and losing — for some time now. As Jennifer Saunders recently told the Cheltenham Literature Festival: ‘There is always someone tutting in the back of your mind every time you write a joke that is on the edge: 'Don’t you think someone might be offended?' [...] I do look back at stuff we’ve done in the past and think: Oh God, the Twittersphere would go mad.’ That is less of an issue in a new style of comedy that for the most part forgoes any actual comedy. 

A pioneer of anti-comedy is Samantha Bee, who practised her sneer on the Daily Show but now presents her own half-hour, Full Frontal, on TBS. Full Frontal is not inadvertently unfunny in the way Saturday Night Live was in the early Obama years, when the writers couldn’t fathom how to poke even gentle fun at their idol. Unfunniness is almost the mission statement of Full Frontal. Here is one of Bee’s routines from last week, on that famously punchline-rich subject, voter registration laws:

‘Tribal leaders are doing their best to assign addresses to voters in time but it is insane that they have to because North Dakota straight up made a law saying people with certain addresses can't vote - with no justification. Even when Christopher Columbus screwed over Native Americans, he was at least like, 'God told me to do it'.’

Bee concludes righteously: 'Voting shouldn't be a privilege but, as long as it is, if you can, you better fucking use it and help other, less privileged people do it too.’

There was no humour involved, save for a few titter lines about random celebrities. This was no anomaly; anti-comedy is what Bee specialises in and what draws in audiences of self-serious progressives for whom This Moment Is Too Serious For Humour. In May, Bee treated her viewers to a monologue on family separations at the alleged border between the United States and Mexico, telling Ivanka Trump: ‘Do something about your Dad’s immigration practices, you feckless c***! He listens to you! Put on something tight and low-cut and tell your father to fucking stop it.’ Predictably, the 'free speech’ right wing demanded a boycott of her show and the ‘civility in public life’ left was suddenly relaxed about shrieking personal attacks. Bee apologised, but the question should never have been whether profanity and verbal abuse have any place in a comedy routine - spoiler: they do - but whether Samantha Bee does. 

The primal scene of anti-comedy was the election of Donald Trump. His victory inspired a puritanical backlash against a perceived flippancy in American life. Trump won, this reaction assumes, because Americans don’t take politics seriously enough. Stalking the minds of these comedians is the dreaded suspicion that the culture they helped create, the culture of vulgarity and shock value, in some way cut a path for Trump. Most presidential campaigns are acting gigs in which the candidate performs a role — family man, freedom’s defender, hope of a generation. Make America Great Again was closer to a stand-up tour, with Trump firing out zingers from the mic and playing off his audience’s raucous approval to venture even more outrageous material. His mocking of a disabled reporter was shocking for its tastelessness but also discomfiting because it reminded us that, only a few years ago, Stephen Colbert was still yukking it up with the word ‘retard’ and Bill Maher was cracking down syndrome jokes. Before Trump launched his White House bid with a peroration about Mexican rapists, Amy Schumer was dropping this gag into her stand-up routine: ‘I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.’ Trump punches down, as his guilty enablers do. Samantha Bee regularly hisses at Trump but her show's most vicious mockery is reserved for ordinary people who support him, including cancer patients and children. 

Caitlin Flanagan notes in the Atlantic: ‘Trump and Bee are on different sides politically, but culturally they are drinking from the same cup, one filled with the poisonous nectar of reality TV and its baseless values, which have now moved to the very center of our national discourse. Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless. Both consider self-restraint, once the hallmark of the admirable, to be for chumps.’

During the administration of George W Bush — who used to be Hitler but has since become the new conscience of the Republican Party — there was much blather about comedy formats like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report holding the White House to account more meticulously than the news media. This reflected progressive resentment at post-9/11 deference to the executive and the military though that mindset had already begun to break down by the time boots were on the ground in Iraq. No doubt comedians were flattered to be told they were doing journalists’ jobs better than them but they began to believe it, and from there our present troubles sprang. 

As opinion-heavy comedy formats accrued more respectability, their coarse, assaultive humour became more culturally accepted too; if presidential candidates could go on shows that specialised in dick jokes, why couldn’t they spice up their own stump speeches a little? And as politics has taken on the tenor of sophomoric humour, the humorists have come over all prim. Watch almost any Stephen Colbert monologue — on immigration, for example, or Brett Kavanaugh — and you see essentially the kind of harangues Keith Olbermann was delivering to camera a decade ago on MSNBC, only somehow more prissy and less entertaining. 

Anti-comedy marks liberal culture’s switch from post-Sixties libertinism to the progressive authoritarianism of today. Boundaries are enforced rather than pushed; where comedy helped us work through life’s perversities and injustices, anti-comedy scolds our laughter as ‘problematic’. This style of stand-up has emerged in tandem with a parallel phenomenon: traumedy, in which stand-ups, usually from minority groups, deliver joke-lite monologues on harrowing personal experiences. The most celebrated is Hannah Gadsby, whose Netflix show Nanette details her history as a victim of sexual assault and homophobia. As Vox (approvingly) describes her style: 'Gadsby uses her identity — the reality of her physical presence, and the literal wear and tear of discrimination on her body — to deconstruct what it means to be a comedian who has been failed by comedy. Nanette’s uneasy relationship to comedy is a reflection of what it means to exist as a queer, butch woman (or in Gadsby’s phrasing, 'gender not-normal') in a social system that has always made you the punchline to the joke. And even more, it’s a powerful rejection of comedy itself.’

We might object that this sounds ‘comedy not-normal’. Or, less sensitively, bullshit. Gadsby seems to be rejecting comedy in the same way that the Saudis are rejecting competent assassination plots. Unfortunately, Gadsby isn’t all that funny but she doesn’t need to be because traumedy is not about making people laugh, it’s a form of therapy for the traumedian and, in some cases, the audience. Whether the trauma is the horrific crimes Gadsby was subjected to, or progressive America’s ongoing tantrum against the result of the 2016 election, there is no room in traumedy for humour. Therapy is, after all, about taking yourself seriously and, as that white, racist, cis-male cultural appropriator Mark Twain said, ‘against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand’. When a stand-up can no longer stand laughter, it’s time they sat down.