Trevor Noah, Ari Shaffir, Jamie Foxx and the cruelness of comedy

Recently, three male comedians have (again) come under fire for offensive tweets and jokes. Across the three of them, they’ve managed to hit almost every hot button issue: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, sizism, and ableism. If they’d crammed racism and Islamaphobia in there too I’d be downright impressed.
Naturally, for each of them, people swiftly came to their defense. Responses are the same tired horse shit you’ve heard before. “It was just a joke, don’t be so uptight!” “Are we the comedy police now?” “What happened to free speech?” “You wouldn’t be  saying that if [insert member of mocked and oppressed group here] had made the joke!”

All of these reactions are stupid and downright boring, much like the “jokes” themselves. If the jokes had actually been funny  or clever or even opportune, I might be more forgiving. But they weren’t. Not only is this bad behavior, it’s bad comedy.

Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah
Jamie Foxx
Jamie Foxx
Ari Shaffir
Ari Shaffir

The jokes are lazy at best. I agree that the function and essence of comedy is to hold a mirror to society, to shine a light on our foibles and point them out in a way that is not only funny, but makes us think. To make us go, “huh, why do I behave like that? That kind of thing is ridiculous.” But to play to tired old stereotypes and cruel jokes is not what contemporary comedy is supposed to be about and it just ruins the fun for everybody.

Jamie Foxx’s comments on Bruce Jenner’s possible (and frankly, irrelevant to the rest of us, it’s his damn business) transition could have been fabulous. He could have skewered the tabloids’ collective obsession with this rumor. Example I came up with while getting a cup of coffee: “The tabloids are so desperate for another Kardashian woman, they’re even saying Bruce Jenner is one.”

OK that’s not great either, but at least it’s not pandering to foolish concepts of what it means to be trans*. It’s mocking ridiculous tabloid culture. It’s not picking on the little guy. It’s not hurting someone who’s already been hurt too much.

But that was just one stupid, poorly crafted joke, one time, at one “awards show” (what even are the iHeartRadio Awards anyway??? Is that a thing??) Trevor Noah, meanwhile, managed to produce tweet after tweet of offensive content (I read multiple articles about this and each one had additional tweets I didn’t see in the others, the man is prolific to stay the least). Had he made a choice comment that was biting and offensive but well timed (and again, funny) I wouldn’t find all the fuss necessary. But he showed a pathetic obsession with writing cruel and demeaning tweets about oppressed groups. I understand that as a biracial man growing up in Apartheid South Africa he didn’t exactly have an easy time of it, but that’s not an excuse to pick on women, Jews or lesbians. Mocking people who historically have been oppressed, abused and treated as less than human does not help their cause, or your own (I’d like to point out that Foxx and Noah are both black and Ari Shaffir is Jewish, one would think this would have made them more sympathetic to others lacking privilege).  All it does is further empower the white male patriarchy we’ve all fallen under. All it does is fuel a society that has systematically abused all these people again and again and again. Why would anyone want to help their own tormentor?

But those jokes were all tweets. Tweets are usually not crafted with the same care and time as a joke performed on stage, especially jokes for an hour-long Comedy Central Stand up Special. Shaffir, an up and coming comic, devoted space in his set to ruthlessly mock Damienne Merlina, an even lesser known comic. With seemingly no purpose or point. He mocked her size, her disability and his general dislike of her. Look, if you don’t like someone, you don’t like them, no one says we all need to be friends, but even if you have so much anger, hatred and vitriol for someone that their mere existence upsets you to your very cored, why on Earth would you spend time during what could be your big break to tear them down? There wasn’t even a punchline, there wasn’t even a reason for his nastiness. And it wasn’t good natured ribbing between two comedy buds (Merlina has said she barely knows the man), it was cruel, tasteless and unnecessary bullying.

(I hope a positive comes out of this and all the new found attention boosts Merlina’s career.)

Damienne Merlina
Damienne Merlina

Plenty of male comedians have had long and successful careers without tearing down minorities or oppressed peoples. It is possible. It’s also possible to be edgy and push the envelope without being cruel or offensive. And frankly, as a comedian in 2015, that’s your job. There’s a reason no one talks about Andrew Dice Clay anymore.

When comedians (or TV shows, or pundits, or movies or any source of media) says something like this and no one calls them out on it, it makes people think it’s ok to say these things. And then it’s a few steps from words to actions that could permanently ruin, or end, someone’s life. It gives people an excuse to do horrible things, because they think society is OK with it. We have to stand up and say no, you can’t behave that way. Every time this happens we have to say no, until it stops happening. We can’t brush it off as people being too sensitive because this shit is real and this shit is dangerous.

Mocking those who have less privilege than you do will always be mean and will rarely be funny. What is funny is mocking the system that creates these privileges.

But maybe the rumors are true, and men just aren’t as funny as women.

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