Are Millennials Too Sensitive for Comedy? (No)

Pete Ludovice, a professor at Georgia Tech and comedian, and Charlie Bennett, a Georgia Tech librarian, had a conversation on their podcast Consilience about the sensitivity landscape of comedy. I enjoyed Charlie’s excellent questions to Pete as well as Pete sharing his personal experience and assessment of the evolution of comedy throughout the years. It might seem strange to say, but I also very much appreciated the reservation both of them had, as is usual for the podcast. Rare is it that a discussion of political correctness and comedy goes without lambasting young people for their feels or calling them buzzkills!

Pete and Charlie cover a lot of ground, but I mainly want to use their conversation as a springboard to discuss a few ideas (as well as some examples).

What is “okay” and “not okay” to joke about? Are there absolutes?

Pete in the podcast episode starts to address this question and is wisely channeled into a more concrete answer by Charlie. As a reminder, this isn’t a question of free speech and what someone is legally allowed to say on a stage in front of people. This is about whether our culture should be accepting of certain speech. Should we be tolerant of edgier and edgier types of humor? Should we celebrate and support people who explore comedy in those spaces?

The answer I’ve landed on is that any topic can be made funny, even the most horrific, but that comedians have to take responsibility for when they fail in trying.(1)Charlie also mentions the debacle with Trevor Noah, the recently-appointed future host of The Daily Show who was found to have several pretty ugly tweets from years ago. I wrote a whole piece on this already, but I don’t believe he took full responsibility for his mistakes. It takes skill to make a joke about rape or race or mental illness or a tragedy. At least, it takes skill to find humor in those subjects that isn’t “punching down”.

I’m surprised the phrase didn’t enter the conversation on the episode, but “punching down” versus “up” refers to who or what is the subject being ridiculed in a joke. If the comedian is making fun of a mentally challenged person (2000s Carlos Mencia, for example), that’s punching down at an already stigmatized person. That’s using the power a stage, audience, and microphone give to keep someone down. If the comedian is ridiculing a huge political party’s recent actions (Jon Stewart for 15 years), that’s punching up at a group with power.

I don’t believe there are absolutes, but I feel like punching up is a strong heuristic for if a joke is “okay”. I leave room for all sorts of exceptions because comedy is a malleable, surprising medium, though. There’s space for lateral “jabs” or in-group critique, best used when properly contextualized.

Do younger people have different preferences and tolerances for certain types of humor?

I wonder if The Daily Show has so strongly influenced my generation’s understanding of how comedy “should be” that it’s difficult to think in any other way. Jon Stewart has for years told jokes about politics, news, and society, but you almost always felt there was an intent behind it, a meaning. There were times when he was silly, certainly, but in large part he and his writing staff had a message they were delivering by highlighting absurdity in the world.

This is a remarkably different form of comedy than that of someone who might call themselves an “equal opportunity offender” or who would make sillier, lighter jokes at the expense of different groups. When I think of stand-up comedy from decades past, I imagine it more in this style. Not universally, but in greater proportion.

I’m not so confident in tying differences in taste and opinion to separate generations, but I’d wager there are significant trends among younger people today in appreciating comedy. Whether it’s an age thing or a society-wide change, I think more and more people view the role of a comedian on stage as a position with some responsibility.

What’s changed?

Pete on Consilience mentions that Chris Rock no longer does college shows because younger people are too uptight. I haven’t seen one of his specials in some time, but I wouldn’t be surprised at that development. I respect Rock’s work tackling subjects like black culture with bravery and insightfulness. I can also see how his comedy isn’t for everyone. Whether he actually intends to be making points for the audience to think about or just to make people laugh, he can’t force people to interpret his show either way.

Relatedly, last month at a Georgia Tech show, the comedian who opened for Hannibal Buress preemptively complained about Twitter backlash to a lazy joke he made about Asian pronunciation. He mimed a person typing angrily on their phone, rolling his eyes at the reaction.

It felt like a guy accustomed to his privileged position not liking when anyone tells him “no”. He seemed like an outsider taking a shit on the younger crowd by whining about how we push back against what we perceive hurts us and our friends. Sorry, but we’re not sorry that we care and respect marginalized groups of people more than you.(2)I find it very unlikely that the comedian could make the argument that he made the joke “out of love”.

I think we are this way (and why this mentality can be correlated with young people) because we have lived through seeing many of our friends come out as gay, bi, trans*, atheist, and more. We’ve heard personal stories of trauma, rape, and abuse. Online culture especially has allowed these worlds, formerly isolated in individuals or hushed whispers, to be connected. It’s expanded our empathy.

Not all young people are like this, of course. I wasn’t even a few years ago. I think it’s a growing trend, though. What used to be avatared strangers with slowly-loading forum posts and chat clients with impersonal Courier have turned into video series where popular online personalities talk directly to the audience’s face about their experiences. This in turn likely makes it easier for those in our lives to do the same.

I think to reduce this socially-broadened sympathy and understanding to the loaded phrase “politically correct” is often a detriment, a conversation-ender. There’s a great deal of context and reason behind the change that gets ignored or ridiculed in favor of saying we simply don’t understand comedy. That accusation was one I found most annoying when Colbert got in hot water for his poor racial humor.

I don’t see the stand-up mic as an island anymore. I see it as connected to the rest of our culture and either supporting or confronting different parts of it. It’s more rare that I feel a cheap shot is worth the laugh, because I am constantly aware of the implications a small perpetuation of a stereotype can have.

“Hi, I’m Bruce Jenner.”

I went to an improv comedy event this week called The Ark which took pairs from all the improv troupes in Atlanta for one combined series of comedy performances. It was fun! In one segment, an audience member was asked up on stage to be courted by a series of wacky, on-the-spot characters, only to reject them with a ring of a bell to bring on another undesirable match.

One of the comedians approached and said, “Hi, I’m Bruce Jenner.”, surely capitalizing on recent news of Jenner publicly coming out as transgendered.(3)Don’t try to tell me it’s about anything else but that. The audience member quickly and visibly slapped the bell, Ding, the audience laughed, and the next comedian divulged her carrot fingers. Ding.

It was a quick interaction, but it was one that kept sticking out to me. How is it that in the gay capital of the South someone can get a laugh out of punching down towards trans* people by letting the audience laugh at their existence? Surely a “joke” about simply being a homosexual man courting this (presumably straight) male audience member wouldn’t have flown. In fact, orientation was practically a non-issue in every sketch as women played men and vice versa. Any relationship was weird or funny because of the characters, not their gender combination.

These are the thoughts that run through my mind when I hear or see a joke at the expense of a person or group of people that I support in becoming less stigmatized. It’s especially egregious when it’s coming from a seemingly privileged person, like the white male “I’m Bruce Jenner” comedian. It makes it much more likely that this is an ignorant kick in the shin rather than an inside joke amongst general respect.

Did this ruin the night? Of course not. It’s that kind of humor, though, that makes me less likely to come back. I’m simply not so quick to drop my beliefs or what I care about for the sake of a laugh. I see outsiders taking shots at people I care about, people who already don’t get enough respect, and I am not amused.

Future rebound?

One question I still ponder on this topic is whether the future trend will be a rebound from my beliefs. Will more people ten years from now consider people like me as having sticks up our butts because we won’t laugh at a wide range of jokes? Will this be the natural opposite reaction that I suspect happens in many social movements through time and generations? Or will change be a product of more distance from the ugliness of bigotry and stigma?

For example, Pete on the podcast ponders whether people are irked by his jokes accusing them of returning from the asylum when he greets them. They actually do bother me a bit! Sure, those places don’t exist in the horrible form they used to, but too many people I know suffer with mental illness (not only directly but also from social consequences and distrust) for me to be comfortable with that. People really do think of individuals with bipolar disorder, depression, or other mental illnesses as somewhat less human, and the humor of Pete’s joke is on the person being imagined as “crazy”. So it’s a little close to home.

I consider comedy as a potential force for change through ridicule and critique. That’s why it’s frustrating to see it used to maintain the status quo at times.

I’m comfortable where I am in balancing my appreciation for comedy with respecting others. I’m curious where that balance will shift over time. For now, if you’re interested, I’ll end on a high note by mentioned several comedians that I feel do a good job finding that balance and punching up, too. Check out Maria Bamford, Aziz Ansari, Louis CK, and Amy Shumer!

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