Comedians and Society

George Carlin was ahead of society. He led freethinkers, skeptics, others. Think of all those clips from George Carlin routines that we play today as reference to important, vibrant, current ideas. Those clips are always years old, sometimes decades. Something similar could be said of Louis Black. Ellen. There are others.

Recently we have seen a rash of something very different happening. The comedian who offended everyone at an atheist conference in Australia earlier this year comes to mind. Recently, when Daniel Tosh suggested that it would be really funny if a woman in his audience was gang raped by five men, almost everyone responded with one big giant "WTF?" There were those who decried criticism of Tosh ... "Comedy is subjective, man, leave it alone." ... and one apparently well known comedian of whom I've never heard, Louis C.K. came to Tosh's defense as well.

These are comedians whoa are not ahead of society, but rather, are lagging well behind, languishing along with their clueless neckbeard fans in a long gone era.

Now, here's my question. Is this a pattern, and if so, what is the pattern? Here are a few ideas:

1) Oscillation. The degree to which most/mainstream comedians (or more generally, comedy) leads vs. follows cultural and social evolution simply varies back and forth over time, and oscillates because it varies...movement one way potentiates movement in the opposite direction as opposition emerges, or opportunities arise for shifting the comedic center. This would be much like shifting fashions where there is a simple spectrum or binaries: dress length, mustache or no mustache, that sort of thing.

2) Selection bias and culling. The comedians we remember are the ones that led society. There were morons like Tosh and CK 30 years ago, we just forgot.

3) It is all random. That would be funny.

So, what is it? Between all of us we must know.

More like this

As with most forms of art, the effect is predominantly (2) with a bit of (1) mixed in. Comedy at its best is a way of poking holes in what we assume as a society, especially when more direct means are dangerous. (Think of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.) But it can also be used cruelly, to make fun of people on the margins of society. Racist and sexist jokes are in this category. There have always been people who tell such jokes.

It's technically true that comedy is subjective. The jokes often only make sense in certain social contexts. For instance, jokes about bad airline food used to be a comic staple, but they only make sense in a world where it is normal to be served food on an airplane, and we no longer live in that world. This is also the reason why oscillation plays a role--Polish jokes were common when I was a kid, but it's been years since I heard one (except for one that specifically plays on the alternative meaning of "Pole" in engineering contexts). Even though almost all of those Polish jokes would work for any agreed-upon value of $STUPID_ETHNIC_GROUP, they are out of fashion AFAICT.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Jul 2012 #permalink

Mr. Laden, I'm a big fan, and I honestly and truly do not mean to rude on this.
But I have to say, if you are not familiar with Louis C.K., you are best off not be criticizing contemporary stand-up. He is (probably) the most well respected and best known stand-up comedian of the era.

zf, I am absolutely not familiar with his work. What Tosh did is clearly documented and wrong, and supporting that makes LCK a bit of a dick; but lots of people are getting this all wrong, and it would not be appropriate to criticize his comedy per se if I don't know anything about it. Also, it may end up bein the case that Tosh addresses this adequately and everybody lives happily ever after.

Please pull the stick out of your ass, Mr. Laden.

Interesting, thanks for that link. The version provided by the comedy club is self serving. It may well be more accurate, but in a he-said, she-said situation it isn't automatically true that it is more accurate.

That Tosh has said what he said subsequent to the event (apologies, etc) is important and to his credit. However, he did say this:

the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies

suggesting that he my be more inclined to fall into the "comedy is subjective so shut up" school. It is hard to read at this point.

And this is all water under the bridge as long as we learn the important lesson of the day.

A comedian who can't handle a heckler without resorting to simply being vile isn't any good as a comedian and won't get far. Just look at Michael Richards. We'll see how this guy goes - are there enough idiots in the population for him to thrive or will he be collecting food stamps?

By MadScientist (not verified) on 11 Jul 2012 #permalink

Tosh has/had (?) a V show on comedy central. I've seen it a couple times. It was/is (?) mostly him making snide remarks about youtube videos where people injure themselves

By Drivebyposter (not verified) on 11 Jul 2012 #permalink

I believe that Carlin made rape jokes as well, specifically in the context of "you can make jokes about anything".

By bean curds (not verified) on 11 Jul 2012 #permalink

Bean Curd, he did. He did not, however, make jokes about putting Jews in gas chambers and later burning the bodies and then sifting through the bones to get the gold fillings.

22 years on, and rape has, unfortunately for the world of comedy, gone the way of the holocaust. (I believe that routine was out around 1990, but it was probably older than that)

ZF - I think you mean "the most well respected and best known stand-up comedian of the era" in your specific location or community. The most well respected and best known in my location would probably be Adam Hills or Tim Minchin.

It certainly sounds like Tosh mis-read his audience in this instance.

Greg, Louis CK is quite a funny guy and his humor, rather like Carlin, can hold a mirror to society. Check YouTube for the clip Louis CK being white and Louis CK talks about growing up Mexican. Though he is white he was born in Mexico and his father's side of the family still lives there. I do not know his political leanings. Please give those two videos a quick look. And think carefully about his joke about Tosh O. I wouldn't call it support. He's actually targeting Tosh. (whom I know much less about since he isn't too funny).

"Ahead"? "Behind"? If you weren't a self-proclaimed sceptic, I'd think you believed that society was on some kind of monotonic path of constant improvement towards the Millenium.

Comedy is, basically, offensive. Stand-up comedy is a more or less (frequently less) bowdlerised of everyday privately-between-you-me-and-the-gatepost comedy. So it's bound to offend someone, somewhere.

I've never heard of, much less seen, George Carlin (USA != World, remember), but it appears from Wikipedia that he is most known for a routine involving gratuitous profanity at a time when that was seen as regressive rather than progressive. To some of us, it still is, in an immature, third-form, kind of a way.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 12 Jul 2012 #permalink

" If you weren’t a self-proclaimed sceptic, I’d think you believed that society was on some kind of monotonic path of constant improvement towards the Millenium."

Burying one's point in snark is usually a sign of a weak argument. But yes, rape is far more exposed as a behavior and a crime, far less accepted, and now we can finally start the business of making it less common. This is change over (medium to short term) time in a particular direction.

Interesting that you've not heard of the internationally famous George Carlin. You might be the only person with access to electronic communication who hasn't!

Greg, if you have never heard of Louis CK, I'd say it is 2) Selection bias. He is one of the most famous comedians today and is onto the 3rd season of a TV show bearing his name.

Louis CK is basically the Carlin of our age. He actually talks about rape in a few of his routines and skirts the edge of acceptability, but a lot of his jokes are actually pretty enlightening. Obviously, people who think rape should never be mentioned in comedy aren't going to like it, but he puts forward a lot of humanistic ideas in his jokes.

By Ashley Moore (not verified) on 12 Jul 2012 #permalink

Since you're such a fan of George Carlin, you no doubt remember the time he suggested that a man in his audience should watch his children burn to death in a car fire.

I will never understand the attitude that some things are so sacred you can't even joke about them. Especially not since Mel Brooks made "The Producers" barely 20 years after the liberation of Auschwitz.

Oh, and yes, Carlin very famously did make rape jokes, arguing that the thought it could be hilarious if constructed right. He'd sometimes specify the rape of senior citizens.

I'm not a stand-up comedian, but I (try to) do humor on a skeptical forum:

My feeling on humor is not simple. While I feel that humorists of all kinds do need plenty of freedom, and that pushing boundaries and mocking people is often useful for comics to make a point, it's important to make sure the target of your mockery is a deserving one. To me, that means humor should discomfort the comfortable, and cast doubt upon the beliefs of the blindly faithful. It needs to be edgy.

I read somewhere that there are basically three kinds humor. In one, the humorist targets him/herself. In another, the jokes are on the powerful. In the third, the weak and marginalized are targeted.

The third kind of humor is about the only kind one sees or hears coming from wingnuts and other authoritarian types. It's essentially a vicious kind of humor, a laughing at those who are outside norms, and/or unable to defend themselves. Most people with any compassion won't even recognize this crap as humor.

I think there have always been examples of all three types of humor. That jackasses like Daniel Tosh dredge up authoritarian "humor" is to be expected from time to time, and condemned. Not silenced, but condemned.

I don't think humor's changing particularly, aside from the usual shifts in topical material.

Fans will tend to keep comedians and humorists on track. Ultimately, there's relatively little market for bullying authoritarian humor. Screaming foul when a comic gets out of line does help. Even Tosh has now sort-a kind-a apologized for his rape "jokes":…

By HalfMooner (not verified) on 12 Jul 2012 #permalink

Well, OK. Most of us have moved beyond rape jokes, but maybe not everybody. It really is true that the recognition of rape and other forms of sexual molestation as a problem is more recent than Carlin's routines. The whole point of this post is change over time. Citing decades old comedy made by a cutting edge edgy comedian who offended everybody but usually hilariously supports the actual argument I make.

Society is moving in the right direction (and away from rape as a casual theme is the right direction) more quickly than comedy is, apparently. That there are respected comedians who people like making rape jokes is not justification. It is, in fact, possible that there is a funny rape joke. I can not rule it out. At the moment, I'm not thinking of any.

TTT, "It would be funny if five guys raped you right there" and "The Producers" are not comparable. This is part of the problem here. I'm admitting that there could be a funny rape joke. But people who want unfettered joking about rape seem incapable of admitting that there can be an offensive rape joke. Can someone please explain this to me?

It is also true that I don't follow modern comedy. And so, I very much appreciate this extra information. Keep it coming.

Also, do keep in mind that there is a second version of this story in which Tosh didn't do anything wrong or even slightly questionable. That version comes from him and the manager of the club, and it is a bit garbled, but it is out there. They are essentially calling the women liars, but doing so by saying that the quotes were taken out of context. However, the quotes were given in full context, so if Tosh and the manager are right, then they (the women) lied about the statements that were made AND the context.

I am a Heavy Metal listener to a point. Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, etc. One thing I have noticed with Metal is that each generation seems hell bent on outdoing the previous generation. That to me is how we got bands like Cannibal Corpse and Slipknot. Two bands that I wouldn't listen to at all. These bands seem to only want to be more dark and scary than the band before. They don't think too much about substance.
This is where I think comedy goes as well. They saw that Carlin or Lewis Black or Don Rickles were outrageous and they decide to be more outrageous. Jim Norton comes to mind. These comedians have at some point conflated the concept being outrageous with the concept of being offensive. Carlin and Black and many of the others offended a lot of people. But usually it was a specific group that had power or authority that they (the group) might be abusing. The real problem is the Fair and Balanced treatment. "I offend everyone, so it is ok,"
So to your latest question. I think that many of these modern comedians believe that to be truly funny you must be offensive. Many off the tweets that have supported Tosh have been from comedians expressing that thought. if you don't offend someone in the audience, you aren't funny.
What concerns me more is that when Tosh wanted to respond to someone in the audience telling him that he was being offensive and not funny, he went immediately to gang rape as the response. That spooked me.

Here are the funny rape jokes:

Except they are not rape jokes so much as anti rape jokes.

Kinda like saying "I found some funny racist jokes" and they are jokes about racists, not about how silly or stupid or funny looking some ethic group or another is.

But, people will claim that these jokes are the same as "It would be funy if five guys raped you right now"

because there are people who need their rape and their rape jokes and who need rape to be more OK than it is.

Humor is about presentation of surprise. Probably it's more a relative function of what you understand about the world around you than merely being subjective, which is why your sense of humor (hopefully) develops as you get older. In other words, what strikes you as funny is partly a function of intelligence and social awareness.

Comedians also have their own culture and are prone to their own kind of group-think. There's an idea floating out there that being an obnoxious jerk is automatically funny. Says something about the state of our society, no?

By I. Snarlalot (not verified) on 13 Jul 2012 #permalink

Tosh has always seemed rather sophomoric to me. But I can still imagine defending him, especially if he admits to misreading the situation or even just being an ass with a mic,

As for over-the-line offensive but somehow still good...
Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr pop to mind.

"I. Snarlalot
July 13, 12:50 pm

Humor is about presentation of surprise."

Very good point. Perhaps I should not preface all my own stuff with a detailed explanation of what is to follow? Maybe my explaining the gags at the end is less than productive, too.

By HalfMooner (not verified) on 13 Jul 2012 #permalink

"The comedian who offended everyone at an atheist conference in Australia earlier this year"
Nice of you to speak on behalf of EVERYONE at the AAI conference. I had no idea that all those people wiping away the tears of laughter while Jim Jefferies absolutely destroyed on stage, were secretly traumatised and offended deep down inside. Quit trying to project your own prudishness on to everyone else to try and give your babyish whining some validity.

Where you there? What it a good show? Everyone else I know hated it.

Humor can be powerful stuff, but I tend to balk at the notion that it has to be about power relationships.

Take puns.

Then there's P. G. Wodehouse. Out of nowhere he could drop in a very subtle turn of phrase that can, for seemingly mysterious reasons, put a smile on my face.

On the other hand, you have to wonder about people who are perpetually moved to hilarity over the most predictable clichés, or who always fall for the most obvious set-ups leading to the laziest punch lines.

And then there's the debasement known as talk radio, which confuses meanness with humor much the way that rapists confuse violence with sex. It's just not humor. Putting it in a political context and labeling it as such doesn't make it so.

By I. Snarlalot (not verified) on 14 Jul 2012 #permalink

"...put a smile on my face."

And thus, the patriarchy!

" most obvious set-ups leading to the laziest punch lines."

Ooops, I just did that, didn't I.

Greg I hope you can see that Louis CK is one of those rare comedians who act as the king's fool. Able to criticise with humor. Also I was right, he wasn't commenting on that guy Tosh's rape jokes. Try and catch more of Louis CK on youtube.