Looking through Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Dish yesterday, I came across a pretty interesting two-part post on comedy. The first quoted a Chris Rock interview from Vulture, in which he talks about not playing colleges:

Q: You recently hosted Saturday Night Live, and in the monologue, where you were talking about the opening of One World Trade, my wife and I both felt just like you: No way are we going into that building. But you look online the next morning, and some people were offended and accused you of disparaging the 9/11 victims. The political correctness that was thought to be dead is now—

A: Oh, it’s back stronger than ever. I don’t pay that much attention to it. I mean, you don’t want to piss off the people that are paying you, obviously, but otherwise I’ve just been really good at ignoring it. Honestly, it’s not that people were offended by what I said. They get offended by how much fun I appear to be having while saying it. You could literally take everything I said on Saturday night and say it on Meet the Press, and it would be a general debate, and it would go away. But half of it’s because they think they can hurt comedians.


That they can hurt your career?

Yeah. They think you’re more accessible than Tom Brokaw saying the exact same thing.

What do you make of the attempt to bar Bill Maher from speaking at Berkeley for his riff on Muslims?

Well, I love Bill, but I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

When did you start to notice this?

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

Paul Zahl in a podcast talks about ‘discourse-stopping words’, labels which, within a given circle, function as cheap ways to win an argument ad hominem by stereotyping an opponent. That Chris Rock, speaking at an advertisedly irreverent event, could be accused of racism by college kids is surprising. And like he said, “you can’t even be offensive on the way to being inoffensive.” People don’t tend to wait for the payoff of what you say, consider a comment’s role in an argument’s overall trajectory. As he describes it, some people just latch on to the first transgressive thing they hear.

The politics of such correctness are pretty interesting. One reader, who is a comedian, wrote in to The Dish:

I am a comic who, until I got a TV writing job a year ago, made most of my income touring colleges. It’s not as black and white as Chris Rock’s interview suggests. Different types of schools have different crowds, just as clubs in every city differ. Engineering schools have better crowds than even the best clubs. They’re intelligent and earnest. Jesuit schools are great too. Major public universities are like club audiences, but younger. They’re a little bit of everything.

Then you have the worst two: liberal arts colleges and Christian schools. The two political extremes are the worst. But they’re horrible in different ways.

(Good for the Jesuits!) It may not be only the intelligence and earnestness of engineers, but also their lack of tightly-held humanities paradigms. But the convergence of extreme right and extreme left indicates an obsessive clinging to ideology – that is, ideological abstractions – as an underlying cause.

Comedy stands in a long tradition of speaking truth to the uptight, especially the dominant ideologies of a culture. In many of Shakespeare’s plays, the fool is a voice of wisdom: when the arrogant King Lear thinks he is still “a man more sinn’d against than sinning” because his daughters have abused the power he gave them to drive him into exile, the Fool tells him that “he’s a mad yeoman that sees his son a gentleman before him”, calling the king mad indirectly. Three things bring Lear around in the end: intense suffering, the Fool’s indirect way of speaking truth, and the love of his daughter Cordelia in the midst of deserved judgment. (That doesn’t seem like a coincidence.) The Fool’s ability to speak truth comes from his lowly status – his ego does not threaten nor compete with the king’s, so the king may listen to him. Comedians are meant to not take themselves too seriously, thus lowering the stakes and allowing us all to just relax. Our rejection of certain forms of comedy or subjects for it sometimes does spring, legitimately, from its basic objectionability, but it also springs from overcommitment to our own ideas and identities. (Obscenity alert!)

I saw Aziz Ansari play Charlottesville a while back, and it was the closest I’ve come to an ecstatic experience in several years. Ec-statis – out of stasis, out of one’s self. Was it offensive? Absolutely – a total scandal(on). But Aziz treated himself like a joke, and it allowed me to loosen my preoccupations, prejudices, and judgments of others. Even to loosen my values, in a sense, because ‘values’ and ‘ego’ are so often, in practice, indistinguishable.

Such was the case 2,000 years ago with women caught in adultery and predatory tax collectors betraying their people and heritage. ‘Values’ were both good and egoistic back then for the religious leaders. And political correctness is a good thing, sparing people the indignity of enduring hateful speech, but… a sign of fundamentalism, and ego-investment in ideology, is placing something beyond the realm of laughter. Laughing at oneself, that slight pause in taking ourselves and our judgments so seriously and that slight lapse in our burden of always being the judge, can begin to look a little like forgiveness. Jesus always engaged in this kind of deconstruction, spending time with people who were most recognizably sinners, and if he were alive today – admittedly a dangerous and misused idea – I suspect he would be spending at least part of his time with ignorant racists and witless chauvinists, if only as a way to shock us into realizing the depth and breadth of his unconditional love – “I did not come for the righteous, but sinners.”

I feel bad for the sheltered fundamentalist Christians and the sheltered uber-progressives who can’t laugh at Chris Rock. But if I look at myself, I would have a hard time laughing at certain things –  certain illnesses, certain character flaws and affectations and pretensions which have structured my past, certain ideals which I’ve chosen to define me (shoutout to MC for the wittiest Mbird criticism on the site). But laughter is somehow a release of tension, a relief from our self-imposed obligation to take ourselves with the utmost seriousness. Not that there isn’t a place for total seriousness – and some things genuinely are more harmful than hurtful, depending often on context and craft – but there’s a place for some comedy every now and again. Laughter can’t be engineered, so saying ‘laugh more’ is unhelpful. But the things we cannot laugh at may give deep clues to our inner judgments and blockages – so even when the likes of Chris Rock aren’t being funny, they’re still well-worth listening to. Resurgent right-wing Christian self-seriousness, ascendant left-wing progressive seriousness, and what appears like a generally calcifying and hardening political dialogue are probably good news for comedians: we need these places of deconstruction more than ever, and one would predict the comedy industry will only grow in the next few years.