Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Daniel Tosh, Louis CK, and comedy and advocacy locked in an eternal struggle

On the Daniel Tosh incident: I'm perfectly comfortable with the standard, rational interpretation of these events, which takes all of the following for granted:

First, Tosh made a cheap joke whose punchline was simply a provocative subject. As annoying as that might be, it's got many precedents in comedy.

Second, the lady blurted out an opinion, which can be rude, but also has precedents in the world of comedy. When Tosh is saying intentionally offensive things, he will occasionally have to deal with people being offended. Nobody denied anybody else's right to speak. Nobody was censored.

Third, Tosh was a dick to the woman in his response. He had all the power in the room... a microphone, a sympathetic audience. His response showed him to be a clumsy, flat-footed entertainer playing to the stupidest common denominator of his audience. It's this insane, overheated response that got Tosh the monumental backlash from the rest of the Internet. Again, he deserves it. Nobody is being censored. If people are calling you out for being an idiot and an asshole, then obviously, in a certain person's world, that's exactly what you are. I'm glad he at least apologized, but he has to realize that won't close the discursive floodgates he opened, or entirely absolve him of purveying some ridiculous bullshit.

I agree, on a philosophical level, with this piece in Jezebel, which is pretty straight-up with ya'll on the issue. If you and I already understand each other, you don't need to read it (or you've probably already read it anyway), but if you still find yourself fuming with hate at the humorless lady in Tosh's audience, then maybe check it out as a bit of reinforcement.

Louis CK addressed it on The Daily Show later.

I dig Louis CK; I trust him that he wasn't really supporting Tosh's RJ when he tweeted about him, so much as tweeting a general fan message that got stuck in the wrong context. Louis CK has, after all, taken on an insane challenge: he's tried to be true to his comedic art and impulses, while also being conscientious and respectful of his audience... and since he's now a massive international phenomenon, that audience includes everybody, from frat-boys to minorities. His success at navigating those complex waters is a testament to his genius and audacity as an entertainer.

Look at what he's trying to do here. First, he's engaging with everybody at once, inhabiting a gray area of diplomacy where he's both funny and critical. This involves holding a few things in his head at once: first, the feminist perspective of, "Why the fuck would you say that? Why should we let it slide?"  Second, the comedic perspective of, "We're in it to make people laugh, and sometimes offensive stuff gets the LULZ," and more abstractly, "We are doing our jobs, and we won't be bullied by people who have no investment in our success."

When he says feminists and comedians are natural enemies, he is making a broad generalization. It's far from universal, and the defenders of feminism are quick to jump on the exceptions. However, it's not a total deception. There is a sense in which advocacy of any kind (racial, gender, etc) is at odds with comedy. After all, comedy is almost entirely about pushing boundaries. Even the most benign jokes are premised on the need to break, overturn, or subvert our expectations, with the punchline usually breaking out of the boundaries of the original question ("Why did the chicken cross the road?" "To get to the other side!" "Hey! You tricked me into thinking there was a real reason! Jerk!") Advocates, on the other hand, are at least partly responsible for sculpting the boundaries of speech. Make no mistake -- when you're telling people not to use the terms "faggot" or "retarded," you're erecting (lol) a very justified boundary within the game of language. You're pushing back against the uncritical, offensive, intentionally demeaning uses of those words.

So in this very abstract way, these two impulses are opposed to each other. Of course, they can work together... Louis CK never said they can't, and he's one of the greatest exemplars of ways to make this work. It requires a sort of judo... a kind of humor that calls attention to some boundaries while breaking others... in order to shape the discourse in a positive way. And, in the opposite side, a kind of advocacy (feminism, for instance) that is willing -- through humor -- to puncture some interpersonal boundaries and acknowledge some stereotypes in order to shed more light on the whole edifice.

That's what the great self-aware comedians do... Margaret Cho, Bo Burnham, Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, and of course, Louis CK, among many others.

Then there's a somewhat passive-aggressive reaction piece, questioning Louis CK's Daily Show discussion, on The Daily Beast.

It's nice that this piece presents a range of opinions from people who identify with both feminism and comedy, but I think it's a little uncharitable toward CK. It never bothers to actually ask: what did Louis CK mean when he said comedians and feminists are natural enemies? How does it jive with his persona as an actual comic? Does it make sense, in the larger context, for me to get offended by it?

Luckily, this is mostly dying down at this point, and I think most people feel that justice was served. And by this time, the trickle of remaining opinions (like, for instance, this one!) aren't going to change the landscape of civil rights or humor or anything like that. I just wanted to get this perspective out there, to make sure I had contributed a few words to the balance of the larger consensus.


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