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Two New Books on Comedy and Cancel Culture

It’s not often that I review a book by a right-winger, but I’m making an exception with You Can't Joke About That: Why Everything Is Funny, Nothing Is Sacred, and We're All in This Together, by Gutfeld! co-host and Fox News contributor Kat Timpf. Fortunately for my self-respect and sanity, another book by another female comedian, this one with a progressive slant, came out at the same time: Not Funny: Essays on Life, Comedy, Culture, Et Cetera, by Jena Friedman, enabling me to do a tandem review.

There has been much debate in the news recently about idea of ‘sanitizing’ the language in new editions of classic books, erasing words, descriptions or plotlines that might offend the sensibilities of modern readers. These two books about comedy tackle the same debate in their own particular arena: are there things that just should not be joked about, whether out of concern about causing offense, or concern about actually perpetuating racist, sexist, ageist, ableist or violent ideas under the guise of ‘it’s just a joke.’

***TRIGGER WARNING*** If you are sensitive about insensitive humor, you may want to skip to the new book synopses below, as this review will likely have more triggers than a Waffle House at 3am.

The debate over ethical comedy often revolves around the idea of ‘punching down’ versus ‘punching up.’ In its simplest formation, punching down involves aiming your humor at classes of people with less power or social privilege than you, while punching up involves aiming your humor to tweak at people with power.

This distinction is not particularly clear or helpful. For example, a writer cited George Carlin and Richard Pryor as exemplars of comedians who punched up, who spoke truth to power and got plenty of laughs by doing so. But is it really so simple? Take, for example, this bit on religion by Carlin:

“Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He's all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can't handle money!”

Carlin may be punching up at the institution of religion, the control it exerts and the wealth it amasses, but is he not also punching down at the millions of believers for whom religion is a vital part of their lives? 

And Richard Pryor once got into some hot water over an angry off-the-cuff riff on the LGBTQ community at a gay rights benefit at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977, after noticing too many racist micro-aggressions at the event: 

On 18 September 1977, when Richard Pryor took the stage of the Hollywood Bowl as a headliner of the Star-Spangled Night for Rights – a benefit promoted by an early gay rights group – the event had, according to one journalist, “all the makings of a cabaret version of Woodstock”. Less than 15 minutes later, when Pryor ended by asking the audience to “kiss my happy, rich black ass”, the concert was closer to a cabaret version of Altamont. The good vibes had dispersed; a night of unity had turned into a hot, steaming mess. Many in the crowd booed or shouted abuse: “Richard Pryor, you just committed professional suicide!” or “Kiss your ass, hell! I’d like to put a hot poker up it!” Others cheered a provocateur who, before he had dismissed the crowd as self-serving “faggots”, had spoken bravely about the joy of gay sex and exposed the fault lines of the gay rights movement.

Still others sat poleaxed, trying to grasp how, in coming to the Hollywood Bowl, they had taken a detour into the Twilight Zone. “In more than 14 years of covering the great, near-great and terrible of show business, I have never seen anything like it,” wrote John Wasserman in the San Francisco Chronicle. “To call what happened bizarre would not, for me, do it justice. It was like watching a person come unglued in front of you and then, as in a cartoon, disappear piece by piece.”

It is the conservative comic Kat Timpf who first offers a better way to look at comedy than trying to parse which direction the fists are flying. It is the intention of the comic and the joke that matter most. She cites Joan Rivers’ adlib about model Heidi Klum’s dress on the television program Fashion Police in 2013: “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.

Rivers faced massive backlash, including from the Anti-Defamation League.

“There are certain things about the Holocaust that should be taboo,” ADL director and Holocaust survivor Abraham H. Foxman said at the time. “This is especially true for Jews, for whom the Holocaust is still a deeply painful memory. It is vulgar and offensive for anyone to use the death of six million Jews and millions of others in the Holocaust to make a joke, but this is especially true for someone who is Jewish and who proudly wears her Jewishness on her sleeve.”

But Rivers refused to back down, saying, “My husband lost the majority of his family at Auschwitz, and I can assure you that I have always made it a point to remind people of the Holocaust through humor.”

In other words, Rivers didn’t joke about the Holocaust despite the fact that it was a grave subject and the joke would garner controversy and attention, but because it would. Her intention was not to minimize the seriousness of the Holocaust, but to remind people of exactly that.

If it had been, say, Nick Fuentes who made that joke in one of his white supremacist livestreams, you could say that his intention had nothing to do with reminding people of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Timpf refers to Joan Rivers a number of times throughout the book, citing such Rivers lines as “My husband committed suicide. And it was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head” and “I love that she’s [Jennifer Lawrence] telling everyone how wrong it is to worry about retouching and body image, and meanwhile, she has been touched up more than a choirboy at the Vatican.”

Yikes! And yet...I laughed. Dark humor can be healing in its honesty. Anyone’s reaction to a joke is, after all, an opinion. A joke does not have an inherent good or bad quality. It is a starting point, and how one reacts to it is personal, not universal.

A prominent ‘punching down’ controversy arose around Dave Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special The Closer, which was widely criticized as making jokes at the expense of trans people (and women, and gays in particular) to the extent of feeding the prejudice against them to the point of endangerment. I confess that I watched the special and, while much of the routine was edgy, dark and pushing boundaries, I personally never felt his intention was to denigrate and endanger. As someone with great sympathy towards the trans community and great concern about the dangerous prejudice my own teenage trans granddaughter can face, I was ready to be outraged. But in truth, I felt that the intent of his routine was to shine a light on the hate and prejudice. I read a lot of the criticism, such as this New York Times opinion piece by Roxane Gay, who I much admire, but still wasn’t convinced. I was more moved by the fact that there was a controversy, that many in the trans community, including some with direct ties to the person at the center of one of his bits, were supportive of Chappelle. 

The problem with intent, of course, is that you can’t really confine your argument to the intention of the performer. There is also the intent of the listener, and in this internet/social media age, comedy routines are chopped into short clips and shared. A complete routine by Chappelle, performed to an audience with an interest in his comedy, might send one message. But a short clip edited out of context and shared in an anti-trans chat room may indeed reinforce prejudice and even promote violence. And so, is there a danger in edgy humor?

There is no easy answer, but still, overall I tend to believe that just about anything is grist for humor. Writers and comedians should be free to push the edges. Dark humor, whether in books, movies or comedy routines, can be healing, instructive and uniting. The more tense the subject, the more it may benefit from humor.

Both of these authors offer strong defenses of the need for dark humor, the freedom to be able to push boundaries. Both offer discussions of many familiar dust-ups, such as the aforementioned Joan Rivers and Dave Chappelle incidents. We have the Tosh.O rape joke controversy, the Roseanne Barr racist tweet, and even Will Smith slapping Chris Rock over a joke at the Oscars. Kat Timpf uses the hashtag #deadbabyjokes early in her book. Jena Friedman has an entire chapter entitled “Dead Baby Jokes, or How to Talk to a Fetus Lawyer.” And yes, it includes dead baby jokes.

As edgy and provocative as dead baby jokes may sound, they’re also completely innocuous. Unlike racist jokes, which can serve to normalize prejudicial views, there’s no danger in telling a joke about some hypothetical baby in a blender. If countless studies have shown that violent video games don’t harm kids, I can’t imagine morbid, equal-opportunity one-liners do either. If anything, joking about a dead baby is far better for society than joking about a live one, and by a live baby, I mean Donald Trump….

Honestly, it’s a shame, when you think about it: Where might we be now if more kids online had been able to use dead baby jokes to steer their peers away from getting sucked down racist, fascist rabbit holes.

I found both books very interesting and very challenging, and they truly reinforce each other, even while coming from different ends of the political spectrum. Both books are also memoirs of sorts, with lots of material drawn from their own lives. Sometimes, I would forget whether the book I was reading was the one by the conservative or the liberal. I thought it might be fun to end with a short quiz. Here are six quotes from the books. Can you tell whether the quote is from A) conservative Kat Timpf, or B) liberal Jena Friedman? Answers below.

1. “Whenever anyone asks what inspired me to go into comedy, my answer is always the same: 9/11. Watching people jump to their deaths on live TV just as I was about to enter my first year of college had a traumatizing effect on me and my entire generation. It made me realize that life is short and random and sometimes tragic and that I didn’t want to die in a business suit.”

2. “My first character [in an American Girl doll parody] was Fallujah Jones, an Iraq war refugee “with a strong spirit and survival instincts” (they all had that), who fled to America after the US military attacked her Baghdad elementary school playground in search of terrorists believed to have set up shop in the jungle gym. In the sketch, Fallujah was marketed to a little girl in the Chicago suburb of Peoria, who could learn about “Western neo-imperialism from the safety and comfort of her pink-and-white Laura Ashley bedroom.””

3. “I have a dead mom. And right after she died, I really felt like I had it the worst, but then I was on Facebook and I saw someone had posted this picture of a bouquet of flowers with the caption “Rest in Peace Sara...2000-2015. Such a tragedy.” And I said to myself: “Oh my God, only fifteen? That’s so sad! I’ve gone through nothing. And then, I keep clicking through the photos, and I realize a fucking dog. Like, a big dog too, like a German Shepherd. A German Shepherd dying at fifteen is not a tragedy. That’s fucking remarkable.”

4. “The first sketch I pitched was a darkly comedic piece about date rape. The joke was that instead of saying the word “rape,” the character in the scene said the word “duke” in its place. This was around the time of the Duke lacrosse scandal, and I thought “date duke” might catch on as a clever euphemism.”

5. “If you had someone close to you die, let me ask you this question: Do you remember a single card that made you feel better after it happened? Do you remember what any of them said? Did you even bother to read any of them? I hope you didn’t, because if you did, it probably just made you feel worse. When you are feeling devastated beyond hope, the last thing you want to look at is some kind of flowery bullshit, embossed in gold on a piece of parchment.”

6. “I defended Kathy Griffin’s right to publish that photo [of herself holding Donald Trump’s severed head] at the time, and that’s not just because I enjoyed so many episodes of My Life on the D-List. (Even though I certainly did.) It also wasn’t because I loved that image, because I actually thought it was pretty gross….To me, it’s more important to live in a culture wherein a person, any person, doesn’t have to worry that his or her attempt at communication or humor will result in the complete annihilation of their entire life.”

Answers to the quiz: 1: B. 2: B. 3: A. 4: B. 5: A. 6: A.