(amateur poet's amateur personal essays)

Category: Comedy

But It’s Satire!

Hold on to your hats, this is a long one.

I accidentally started a pretty heinous argument on Facebook a while back. The conversation itself was started in the comments of a friend’s post linking this article. A man commented that it’s unfair to assume that any person who laughs at a “sexist joke” is perpetuating negative stereotypes about women. He went on to say that there has to be a better way to tackle sexism than to “banish people who have an inkling toward offending others.”

I’m partly afraid to talk about this argument, as the man in question has shown himself to be an expert ~~~~*internet arguer * ~~~* ~ with no interest in much other than confirming his own bias and learning just enough to placate me and come out on the “right side of history.” He sent several private messages to me and a friend trying to explain his perspective, and he became very frustrated when we weren’t particularly interested in hearing that perspective. “But I’m LISTENING!” he would say, and then argue his same point, slightly nuanced by some out-of-context part of whatever new information we had provided.

Listen, and listen closely: I can almost guarantee that the comedy you so proudly call “offensive” and defend as satire is more complicated than you imagine it. I am a woman comedy-obsessed, a woman who has spent a good chunk of time in my local comedy scene. I am a woman who has taken a college course in comedy’s history, composition, and context. Allow me to explain, internet sir, just how wrong you were.

In the oldest etymological sense, comedy is derived from the Greek κωμῳδία kōmōidía, which meant either village-singing or village-revel. But hey, you have Wikipedia too. The Greeks and Romans restricted the meaning of comedy to a stage-play with a happy ending. Again, you have Wikipedia. Any event after which a group of people could rejoice (in the form of laughter, singing, or other emotional release) was comedic.

Comedy, as it grew from its Greco-Roman origin, has been concerned with any of three primary goals: characters overcoming powerful circumstance (i.e. romantic comedy), reconciling disgust with a hurtful social behavior (i.e. satire), or demonstrating inexplicable absurdity (i.e. farce). Farce tends not to create much offense, because it is absurd and by necessity divorces itself from any lived reality. Farce basically only generates concern with regards to the “lowbrow” nature of its sometimes slapstick physicality – fart jokes, body horror, and the like. Romantic comedy gets heat for being inherently sexist, but this is based largely on modern tropes and not by necessity on the “comedy” part, but rather the “romantic” part. I’m saving any conversation on romantic comedy for another post.

The comedic offense that most will lay down their life to defend is that of satire, of your Stephen Colbert, your Family Guy, your Onion. Satire, forgetting momentarily one more time that you have Wikipedia, is comedy where “vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule.” All well and good. The part where shit gets complicated is the part where satire is intrinsically and inextricably linked with irony and sarcasm. Satire often heaps sarcastic praise upon something that it means to criticize, often dresses in ironic lion’s clothing for the sake of sheep. Irony and sarcasm are excellent tools, but their shortcoming is that they are by necessity a mask, which brings in the potential for misunderstanding. It is perfectly possible to completely miss that something is meant to be ironic or sarcastic. Other than this tiny, negligible flaw, irony and sarcasm have never, not once, caused anyone a single problem, ever.

Did you catch that? My sarcasm? Probably. You probably, then, also “get” shows like the Colbert Report, where Stephen Colbert takes on the persona of a modern conservative, and takes conservative ideals to mocking extremes in the name of social commentary. Colbert is widely revered, and between his show and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, many people get their news from entirely satirical sources. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and it provides a wonderful ironic distance from the downright bleak landscape of modern life. Laughing at things that otherwise might leave you despondent – that’s definitely the good side of the satire coin.

However, there are indeed times when satirical news reporting goes awry. Take Colbert’s recent controversial joke. Yes, that joke. Basically, Colbert said that he was starting an organization called the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” He made this joke to point out the hypocrisy of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who instead of changing his team’s fairly racist name, started a corollary foundation called the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.” Shortly after his broadcast, an official Colbert Report Twitter account posted just Colbert’s anti-Asian organization name, without the explanatory context. Twitter took arms, under the head of activist Suey Park, against Colbert, arguing (here phrased simplistically) that racist language is always hurtful, regardless of context.

This incident was the first example my internet arguer friend brought up when trying to explain just how people overreact to “so-called offensive” jokes.

Generally, in farce or in romantic comedy, the laugh reflex is a form of emotional release. We see body horror and we laugh, and somewhere deep down we suspect that the cause of the laughter is the absurdity of life and existence itself. We see something downright nonsensical and absurd, something we don’t understand, and we laugh as a way of signaling to others that it is not dangerous. This is one of the evolutionary attempts at explaining laughter – a sign that things are safe, that everybody is on the same page. In romantic comedy, the laugh (the village-revelry) is a more elaborate version of this release which comes only once the horrible circumstance keeping the lovers apart has been overcome or undone. Again, everybody is on the same page.

However, laughter in satire is meant to mock the “butt” of the joke into social compliance. The satirist is an evolved playground bully. They notice an unacceptable behavior, and under an ironic or sarcastic guise points that behavior out to their society, sometimes exaggerating it. Their society laughs, and the transgressors now see how their behavior is unacceptable (insert Supernanny impression) and know that to fit within their society, they should cut that behavior out.

Of course, as I’m sure you’re aching to tell me, there are problems with playground bullies. It’s a messy and tangled web to extricate what behaviors “should” be socially shunned, but a good starting place is harm and intentionality. If the “weird” kid on the playground is not hurting anybody with their behavior, and does not intend to hurt anybody, the bully is probably in the wrong, or at least wasting their energy. Some good examples of social correctives are when the person being mocked is someone who engages in an intentionally harmful, like assault or hate speech. Pointing out that the person is intentionally hurting people can shame them into reexamining their behavior and intentions.

Of course, modern comedy (and let’s be realistic, even ancient comedy) is rarely an isolated example of one type of comedy. There is no romantic comedy without a little satire (blocking characters, much?), no satire without a touch of farce, etcetera.  And this is precisely the problem.

As satire and farce become more linked, there is what I see as a new form of comedy emerging. Born in the observational comedy boom (think Seinfeld, early Gaffigan, Louis CK) was a form of referential humor. Pointing to something absurd in life that we all have just accepted. This referential humor asks the listener to think about the thing referenced in a new light, but doesn’t always necessitate social change. Seinfeld mocks airline food, and you laugh and say “you’re right, it’s terrible, I’m so glad someone finally said it.” A relief laugh. Louis CK mocks smartphone culture, and you laugh and say “Oh god, he’s so right. I have to get my nose out of my smartphone from time to time.” A relief laugh, with a minor change effected. The line becomes blurred, and sometimes the muddy laugh elicited is more recognition than social corrective.

Take another look at the Colbert example – he donned the clothes of Dan Snyder, and mocked the charity-cum-racism of the so-called Original Americans Foundation. He dragged Asian cultures through the mud for the sake of this joke, and whether that was necessary or not I don’t quite care to argue. This is fairly textbook satire, but I think in some small part Suey wasn’t reacting wrongly. Colbert’s joke had two “butts,” so to speak. He brought up a stereotype of Asian people, specifically referencing widely-known poor impressions of the way that they sound when they speak, in order to mock Dan Snyder. There are layers of responsibility that are very difficult to untangle – yes, it was socially corrective to mock Snyder. He seems like an asswipe. But no, it wasn’t socially corrective to reference this stereotype of Asian people on the way there. So is Colbert responsible to the Asian people, or does his social corrective satire take precedent? I’m not here to argue either way, but I am here to argue that it’s wrong to get mad at people who say his joke was offensive. People laughed at the joke, and in doing so they socially endorsed both the corrective satire and the non-corrective stereotype referenced.

The million-dollar question, then, is what is Colbert’s responsibility as a satirist? When I try to “talk shop” about the comic’s responsibility, comics are quick to remind me that anything that “gets a laugh” from an audience is comedy. This is not untrue (see: village-revel etymology.)

I do, though, believe that the modern die-hard satirist, by so vehemently taking on and defending the mantle of satire, is at least responsible for eliciting more socially corrective laughs than laughs of recognition. If you will defend your joke as satire, you owe your comedy the work of actually making sure the joke is satirical, i.e. that it “holds vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings up to ridicule.”

And hey – this makes neither the satirist nor the audience inherently bad. It just makes modern satire more complicated. When somebody tells you your joke reinforces stereotypes, instead of jumping down their “PC Police” throat, or defending your joke, consider the laugh that joke gets. Is it laughter at you as the vehicle for this socially transgressive stereotype, or is it laughter that acknowledges and takes the social transgression away from that stereotype? Imagine yourself telling your “offensive” (and I’m sure wonderfully multifaceted) joke in a room full of people who truly and honestly believe the stereotype you’ve mentioned is true. Would you enjoy earning their laughter with this joke?

If your answer is yes, we have a more complex conversation to have about you as a person, a conversation that will altogether set your comedy aside for a while.

If your answer is no, and you’re still being told your joke is offensive or hurtful, think briefly about your joke. Firstly, is there anything more to your joke than just reminding the audience of this stereotype? Is there a way to un-muddy the laugh a bit, place more apparent blame on the social transgressor? Is the person you’re mocking truly a social transgressor at all (are they hurting anybody)?

Consider the following quote by Rene Descartes: “Any community that gets its laughs by pretending to be idiots will eventually be flooded by actual idiots who mistakenly believe they’re in good company.” Work to limit the possibility of these “idiots” feeling comfortable around your comedy.

And yes, sometimes people are just looking for something to get worked up by. Sometimes that thing is an unintentional bit of prejudice, sometimes that thing is outcry against what you see as “just comedy.” But if somebody is taking the time to tell you that you overstepped a boundary, you owe it to yourself and that person, as human beings, to examine, if only momentarily, that boundary. Remember again my bully analogy: it is socially corrective to ostracize someone for hurting others, but it is not socially corrective to ostracize someone for actions that do not harm others.

After my little internet argument, I googled “offensive jokes.” Among the first results: “What’s the difference between a joke and two dicks? You can’t take a joke.”

Joke’s on you, I can take both.

Just kidding, I have no proof that I can take a joke.

Er, I mean, I have no proof that I can take two dicks.



Standupiversary (guest post)

by Ryan Thompson

This week marks my two year Standupiversary: two years since the first time I went on stage with a prepared list of “jokes” and told them in front of strangers. This seems like a good time to look back at where I started, where I am now, and the time in between. Here are a few stories, observations, and reflections – thrown together, much like one of my sets, in a half-thought-out order.

In the past 2 years, I have been on a stage (of some sort) with a microphone (in front of varying numbers of people) 95 times. I know there are people who have been doing this for shorter periods of time who have been on stage a lot more than me. Living where I do poses a challenge: the closest all-comedy open mics are 1.5 hours away, in Pittsburgh. When I’m home, I’m relegated to mixed mics, which happen in bars and coffee shops, sometimes without a PA system. These consist of acoustic cover songs (I’ve heard Wagon Wheel and Free Fallin’ more times than any human should), the occasional poet, and my standup (sometimes along with my hilarious friend Jimi). These open mics serve as almost background noise for the patrons of these small college bars. If they hear a song that they drunkenly recognize, they half-sing along as they continue to eat their half priced chicken wings (which are, admittedly, quite good).

Sitting at the bar with an Angry Orchard, I nervously jot down phrases on a notecard to help remember the jokes I want these strangers to enjoy that night:

Shaken Baby
Dog Years

When I walk onto the stage, people become confused. The person who was just on stage tries to hand me the guitar.

“No, I’m going to tell jokes”

“Oh. (pause) So, you don’t need the guitar?”

As I take to the stage, I take a moment to look at the crowd, preparing myself for my time. I loudly proclaim my name and my mission statement, hoping not to startle them, but rather to ease them into my world for the next 10 minutes. It fails, and they continue to eat their food and converse with their potential one-night stands. I stand under the hot stage lights of the otherwise dimly lit back room of Toby Hill. Even though their attention is never fully on me, I tough it out and tell my jokes. Occasionally, one table will pay attention and I’ll get laughs.

This is where I started doing comedy: not under the best circumstances, but I needed to be on stage.

My first trip outside of a 30 mile radius to joke was exciting. I was on TWO shows in one night: one at a skatepark, and the other at a slam poetry event.

I prepare my set almost 2 weeks in advance and practice it relentlessly. I dress up for this. I wear nice pants, a button down shirt, tie, and a sweater vest – even though it’s a lot of degrees outside. I arrive at the skatepark and ride around for a while on the various ramps until the show starts. I’m on first, and there is no host, so I just kind of have to walk up and start. The mic keeps cutting in and out. Thankfully, my experience back home had taught me how to deal with this, and I ditch the microphone completely. After delivering my last punchline, I speed off to the next show.

This one feels a little more… put-together. Four slam poets go on stage before me, spilling their hearts out, emotions and feelings and truth. Then me. Then I get on stage and tell well-rehearsed jokes about Triscuits and Bigfoot for fifteen minutes. This goes surprisingly well. It’s a much needed break from the stories the poets are telling, full of abuse and unrequited loves. It’s a good experience, but I still feel a little uncomfortable, out of place, one of only 2 comedians on a show of 12 slam poets.

Not all of my shows were shoddily thrown together hodgepodges; some were real comedy shows in comedy clubs with people who paid money on a Saturday night to see a show. I haven’t done many club shows in the past two years, but the few I’ve done have been some of my best. The most recent of these shows was in Buffalo this past December. I’ve become friends with my favorite comedian ever, Kyle Kinane, and am lucky enough to be able to do shows with him occasionally.

Sitting in the green room as the host is on stage, I’m told I’m expected to do eight minutes instead of the five I was originally told. This may not seem like a lot, but I’ve got a five-minute set prepared and so I have to scramble to figure out where to put different jokes to fill time. I look like the governor just called to explain that my execution has been moved to five minutes from now and I’m hastily writing my final words.

“Relax,” Kyle says to me from the comfy green room couch. “It’s just jokes. You’ll do great.”

I finish my set list right as the host is supposed to call me to the stage, but he has a forgetful moment, and he brings up the feature act first. I’m super relieved that I have an extra 20 minutes to look over my set. Finally, my name is called, and I walk on stage. Just like the back room of Toby Hill, I stand for a moment and scan the crowd; I can barely see anyone because of the lights. I tell my first joke, and unlike Toby Hill, I hear the crowd and realize everyone is actually paying attention – they’re all laughing. I get offstage and completely forget about the anxiety of having to change my set just minutes before.

“That was awesome, man.” Kinane says to me as I re-enter the green room. He has a beer in hand. He’s ready to get on stage and captivate the audience for the next 45 minutes.

I’m relieved. I’m comfortable. I’m happy. I think, “this is really what I want to do.”

I’m not claiming to be an expert on comedy. I’m not claiming to be funny all the time, though I do try hard to be. I have traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles to get on stage and try to make strangers laugh. It sounds weird when I say it like that, but this is what I’m choosing to do. It’s only been two years, but I’m a comedian, and I don’t plan on stopping.


Photo by Ashley Crowley.

Ryan Thompson is a comedian from Northwestern PA. Leave it to Ryan to show me up on my own blog by writing 1200 words. Ryan’s comedy lives in the space between honesty and absurdity. His whimsy is balanced by a plainspoken delivery and flavored with a dash of cynicism and self-deprecation. Ryan’s comedy smirks and watches you retrace the steps it has already taken.

Find him on Twitter: zerohacker.

On Dating a Comedian

It’s time for something I’ve been trying to write for a bunch of months now.

At some point before Ryan and I were together, I googled “Dating a comedian.” I guess I just wondered what the internet had to say on that matter, or something? Shhhh, don’t worry about it.

Turns out, (almost) nothing nice.

First, let’s be real, it’s not just women that date comedians. Sarah Silverman, for example, has definitely had boyfriends. Also there are gay male comics. Also a whole brilliant spectrum of queerness!

Second, I have so much to say on this that you can consider this post a “Part 1,” to be continued.

Look, here’s what I know about Dating a Comedian, or at least, the one I’m dating. He’s as good as I am, if not better, at gauging how I’m feeling. He gets so, so excited when he can make me laugh. At shows, I get to see his jokes land well and watch him at his most proud. He makes me laugh after I come down from a sobbing fit. I get to help him think about his jokes and his path in comedy. I get to pretend I’m his Jeannie Gaffigan, his Jessica Seinfeld. He knows when a joke “works” or doesn’t, so he is capable of adjusting with feedback from me about my comfort zones and needs. He’s incredibly communicative. We have the same taste in comedy (most of the time, sorry Weird Al.) So far I’m only in one joke of his, and certainly not an integral part (It’s an autocorrect joke, I’m the one he was texting.) I’m so fucking proud of him as a comedian and as a person.

I don’t get why someone would write off all comedians as potential partners.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I’m some relationship guru. I’m not saying my relationship is perfect for anyone, maybe not even me. I am saying, though, that I think I know how to effectively communicate and how to maintain expectations in my relationship. If Ryan and I don’t work out, I’m not going to write some scathing personal essay about how comedians are terrible people and I’m not going to go back and communicate the things I wasn’t happy with in the past in some new, connected light based on a fundamental aspect of my partner’s personal identity.

There are people who act douchey. There are comedian douchebags, there are writer douchebags, there are unemployed douchebags, there are corporate lawyer douchebags. I’m sorry if you dated someone who treated you douchily. I know that sucks, I truly do. It makes you act like a different person, it makes you scared, and it sometimes worms its way into your brain pretty permanently. I have all the sympathy in the world for people who have been used in mean-spirited jokes against their will.

If you don’t like comedy, or if you know there are topics you’re iffy on (we all have them, whether they’re political issues or personal experiences you’re triggered by), or if you don’t want to be around comedy all the time – don’t date a comedian. But don’t forget that it’s nobody’s fault you’re not compatible with a person.

But here’s the thing – I love comedy. I hear about pretty much every comedy related news story, I go to so many open mics I can confidently tell you 75% of some of my friends’ material. I could certainly tell you 99% of Ryan’s. (Tell you, not perform. Haven’t got that performing thing down yet.) I think my boyfriend is hilarious.

If you like comedy, but someone has made a cruel or mean-spirited joke about you onstage – tell them that was shitty. Explain to them precisely why it was shitty. Tell them that supporting their comedy is important to you (unless that’s a lie, then see that other “if you don’t like comedy” paragraph) but not more important than your relationship. Talk about what the joke meant to your partner, whether they truly feel what they’re saying, what the joke means to you, and whether it matters to you if the joke is “true” if they’re still going to tell it. Talk talk talk, figure things out, and if their responses are sub-par, you’re not compatible with them.

If they knowingly hurt you again, then the relationship was bad. Comedy’s not at fault for an inconsiderate person.

Ryan made a joke that hurt me yesterday morning. It wasn’t in front of anyone, it was just between the two of us. He was trying to scare me, and after saying “boo” to no avail, he said “the fuuuuuuture.” It should be noted that I now actually think this is very funny, but in the moment I was in a li’l baby rotten mood, I hadn’t had coffee yet, and it hurt. I semi-calmly explained that I didn’t find that joke funny. Ryan felt bad. I felt bad for coming across as humorless, like I take myself too seriously to be with a comedian. (It was “just a joke,” after all.) We both felt bad and we both explained why. When I later talked to my therapist about the whole thing, he pointed out that it’s okay for there to be a moment when a joke that would “normally” be kosher doesn’t pass.

It’s okay feel shitty about something your partner did or said, and it’s okay to ditch someone for disrespecting your boundaries. It’s not okay, though, to stay silent and resent who they are as a person because they don’t change their behavior.

And hey, look at that, I used my partner in an essay. Never date a writer.

On Lightness

Last week’s post was cathartic. A handful of different people reached out to me to say very sweet things – both identifying with how I’ve been feeling and reminding me they’ll be around if I need them. That was wonderful, thanks to all of you.

It’s been another rough week, and this time I’m going to write some lightness.

On my first real date with Ryan, we both traveled separately to Cleveland for a comedy show. I took a 6AM megabus and spent the morning in Cleveland by myself, and he left work a few hours early to drive out to meet me that afternoon. I remember hopping into his car and trying so hard to make my “Hi” as breezy as possible, even though I was running on empty and had lied that I was exploring all morning while really I had found a coffeeshop and sat there for hours upon hours almost dozing off. We walked around the block where the show was, holding hands, me mostly watching him shop for records. He kissed me in a toy store, between racks of Star Wars action figures and a glass case of lego vehicles.

The comedian we traveled to see was Pete Holmes. It’s a little bullshit to say a relationship was built on one specific thing, a little chintzy, but if there was one thing that drew Ryan and I to each other at first, it was our mutual love of Ole’ Petey Pants (self-applied nickname).

The second time I ever hung out with Ryan was when Pete’s new special, “Nice Try, The Devil” was released. He went to a comedy show in town and then stopped by my house to watch the special with me. We sat together on a loveseat in the living room, with my roommates on another couch just nearby, and with each laugh I let myself fall a little closer to leaning on him. It was delightfully innocent and awkward.

Pete Holmes was given a show on TBS last October. When it first started up, Ryan and I both held off watching it so we could watch it all at once together. On the Saturday morning after the show started, we woke up and watched the week’s episodes all in one chunk. Even then, Ryan knew things had been hard for me lately; as he’s the only person I’m really comfortable crying in front of, he gets a lot of my ugly. But while we were watching TPHS together and laughing, I couldn’t help but to look at him and explain how genuinely happy I was. Laughing and cozy and enjoying something we both unequivocally love.

Pete has a remarkable ability to illuminate the possibility to find small moments of lightness in the world. He marvels and wonders openly. I hope more and more as time goes on to be like him, to be able to appreciate the “cosmic joke” of life. Check out this bit (admittedly an old one) if you want to understand a little.