Why We Fight About Comedy


Saying that “comedy is important” is not a groundbreaking statement. We all know this. As comedians are quick to point out when they say something stupid or offensive, comedy is catharsis. It says something about our culture that’s deeply meaningful. No need to scrape your brains off the wall — I know that I haven’t blown any minds.

Still, it’s worth reminding ourselves why exactly comedy gets people so fired up. Jezebel is no stranger to infuriating comedy fans — years ago, there was The Daily Show kerfuffle and, more recently, there was the Daniel Tosh scandal, the Open Letter to White Male Comedians and the Great Rape Joke Debate which has resulted in one of our writers, who is also a comedian, being inundated with vile rape threats from strangers online, all while her larger point is continuously being misrepresented and dismissed by people (often professional and well-known comedians) who ought to know better.

Comedy is something that’s deeply, deeply important to me.

Some background: My most precious memory is of the first time I can remember making an adult laugh at one of my jokes. I was 8-years-old. After that, making people laugh became addicting. As a sad and awkward middle schooler, I used comedy to get people to like me (I used to trip myself on purpose when walking into a classroom so that my classmates could laugh at my literal pratfall). In college, I put all of my efforts into one day becoming a comedy writer. I interned at The Colbert Report in 2009 — it was one of the best experiences of my life. When I moved to New York, I involved myself at the Upright Citizens Brigade, a famous improv company, to make friends. And before I had friends, I used comedy shows as a way to fill the void caused by loneliness.

I only say all this to prove that I’m not being flippant when I say that the artform means the world to me. I’d even go as far as to say that comedy — and not just the professional kind, but the simple act of laughing and making people laugh — is what makes my life worth living. Saying anything that could alienate me from the comedy community is an idea that I find downright terrifying. But it’s important all the same. Because — dur — comedy is fucking important. (Sorry — I’ll be saying that a lot this post.)

I don’t think this whole “feminists vs. comedy” debate (which is totally meaningless, by the way, as plenty of comedians are feminists and lots of feminists love comedy) is entirely about sexism. (Not to say that it’s not about sexism at all — as Lindy has proven, comedy does indeed have a MAJOR woman problem.) Rather it’s about having the tools you use to cope being taken away from you. Those who feel attacked by the very reasonable request that a comedian considers their words before making a joke (note: I wrote “considers,” not “censors”) are worried that their coping mechanism is being taken away. Those making the request to begin with are angry because they’ve been denied that coping mechanism from the get-go.

If comedy really is catharsis (and I 100% think that it is), it’s understandable why it matters so much to us and why it’s entirely worth fighting for. Its importance is why so many people — even people who aren’t involved in comedy — are quick to join in on the debate and even quicker to get angry. Hell, I’ll even say that it’s understandable why male comics/comedy fans are so defensive about having their material censored (which — once more with feeling! — is something that no one is actually trying to do).

Then there’s the other side (our side) that questions why one portion of society has more of a right to catharsis than we do. The debate gets even more heated when you throw a sensitive topic like rape into the mix. Joking to heal is one thing, but what if a joke doesn’t heal? What if it actively hurts? Why should one person be denied catharsis so that a hack comic can make a bad joke and not get called out on it?

This isn’t even a debate because there’s no end or winner. Still, that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it. The significance of comedy is an ongoing and evolving discussion. If a joke bothers you, you shouldn’t be afraid to say that it bothers you (this is not an endorsement of heckling — hold off on your conversation until after the show, please). If you’re upset by a trend, you have a right to say that you’re upset by a trend. And, yes, comedians have a right to say whatever they want and that’s fucking great. We need people to push the envelope because that’s often when the best, most profound work happens, but, as Lindy has pointed out time and time again, comedy isn’t untouchable. An individual comedian does not get to determine what anyone else’s catharsis should be and no one gets to determine another person’s coping mechanism.

The next time someone tells you that you shouldn’t take something seriously because it’s just a joke, remind them that comedy is an important thing — for some of us, it’s the most important thing. If that’s not something worth fighting for — regardless of your angle — then I don’t know what is.

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