Comedy has always had a well-understood purpose: not merely to entertain, but to push boundaries and to keep us honest. Throughout history, it has secretly been at the forefront of the battle for free speech. The jester in the king’s court was always the only one allowed to tell the truth. Considered beneath contempt, it was his willingness to include himself in the joke what freed him from the constraints that society imposed on ordinary people, and allowed him, no matter how dark, provocative, or offensive he was, to be free to perform. Jokes and sketches were the conduit through which such thing as thoughts that no one dared to say out loud, could eventually from time to time, and for everyone’s relief, see the light of day. The jester’s talent was that of reflecting the saddest and often most horrible aspects of life, and making them look, for just one brief moment, not only tolerable but even laughable. The audience’s critical judgment of his performance was based on his and his alone capacity for transcending those aspects of life that in any other moment, were in fact, unbearable. That was, and still is, comedy’s main purpose.
Unfortunately in recent time, the understanding of comedy has dangerously shifted in public consciousness and among critics. The world of critical thinking has been hijacked by people who, not only can’t understand its main purpose or function but hold their political preferences above their duty of being professionally objective. More and more critics are taking the view that, for example, stand-up-comics have a responsibility to stay within society version of ‘morally acceptable’ parameters. Those are the same people who, from an artistic perspective, deep down are, besides humorless and ideologically driven, fundamentally ignorant. As Andrew Doyle said in an article for British magazine Spiked: “To judge art by how effectively it reinforces contemporary ethical trends, is entirely to misapprehend its purpose. The best critics are able to appreciate a piece of work on its own terms, whereas the worst seem to believe that success should be measured on the basis of how closely the artist reflects their own ideological perspective”.
In 1890, Oscar Wilde, in his provocative novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” wrote: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” That was, in and of itself, an absolutist rejection of any argument in favor of constraints on the expression of any artistic endeavor. Yet, despite the cultural significance of the Irish playwright book, examples like that of Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” most unbearable form of criticism, serves perhaps as undeniable proof that, if nothing else, that of Oscar Wilde, is today not much more than lost wisdom. Where praise for Nolan direction was counterpoised by those who complained that he had not included a sufficiently diverse cast (in spite of the historical fact that most of the people present were young white men), that of Tarantino’s more recent movie was instead, in some poorly-thought opinion, contaminated by the Pulp Fiction director “sexism”, for the lack of lines received by its lead female character played by Margot Robbie. For as ridiculous as they are, such obvious mainstream manifestations of activism masquerading as criticism are not only subjected to the movie industry. The most vicious of such onslaughts are, as one would expect, being waged against 21st century comedians around the world.
Accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other or socio-culturally-induced “ism” and “phobias”, are constantly being thrown at an agonizing rate against anyone who, while standing on a stage, attempts to push the boundaries of people’s imagination with jokes and funny stories. Let’s take the “Woke” critics reactions to Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix comedy special “Sticks and Stones”. In two viral reviews published respectively on Vice and the Atlantic on the day following the release, the so-called “critics” urged audiences to stay away from the special calling it: “a double down on misogony and transphobia”, or labeling his motivation as a: “clear sign of Chappelle deep anxiety about the social movements shaping the country”.
First, let’s not make any bones about it, the one-hour special written by the veteran comedian is indeed filled with provocative references on the most contentious topics of today’s political debate. From encompassing every stereotype in the book, like poor white people on heroin, all the way to include the #metoo movement, the LGBT community, and even pedophilia in his jokes, that of Dave Chappelle is a loud and clear statement against the tyranny of Political Correctness. But, as Hannah Giorgis makes clear in her review for the Atlantic by writing: “Sticks and Stones is astonishing in its unrelenting clarity about where Chappelle’s sympathies lie”, to them and to anyone faithful to the intersectionality and poststructuralist theory, that of Chappelle is not a reactionary outburst, but a proof of his new political alliance. What such pseudo-critics don’t understand, is that the comedian’s routine is, in fact, the exact opposite of what they see. Chappelle’s special isn’t at all a political statement, but precisely: an apolitical one.
By all intent and purposes, comedy is a form of theatre. No different than a play or a movie. In an article for Areo Magazine called “Separating Art from Propaganda”, fiction writer Shane Fraser writes: “A message isn’t art unless it’s explored with so much nuance that whatever remains cannot be as exceedingly simple as what the author meant to convey.” By those standards, Stick & Stones doesn’t indeed qualify as art but registers as propaganda. What the statement misses, although true in the context it was written, is also what today’s most ideologically driven critics of comedy so blatantly misunderstand. There’s no nuance indeed in Dave Chapelle’s jokes, yet comedy’s role is, after dancing right at the edge of what is considered accepttable, to push the boundaries with a statement that often deliberately takes the nuance out of the message. The comedian’s ability to do so in any given moment and place is exactly what transforms him or her, from a propagandist, to an artist. As George Carlin once said: “It’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn, and then to cross it deliberately”. Dave Chappelle, therefore, isn’t being right-wing when he jokes about feminism, nor he’s being left-wing when he makes fun of America’s Founding Fathers. His conscious choice to include some of the most taboo subjects of the political-left in his comedy routine isn’t a declaration of his political stance. It’s the exact opposite, it is to say that ideologies shouldn’t have a say when it comes to comedy. Chappelle, as George Carlin has done so many times in the past, right there on stage, like a true comedian, has done what he is supposed to do; found where the line is, deliberately crossed it, and took the audience on a journey that in their everyday life were either too ashamed or too afraid to embark. That’s what his statement is about, and that’s what makes him an artist.
Konstantin Kisin – who made headlines around the world when he refused to sign a behavioral agreement that demanded his jokes to be “respectful and kind” – writes for Quillette: “Comedians use lies to tell the truth—the notion that the exaggerations, stories and carefully crafted falsehoods we deliver on stage should be taken literally will be the death knell of comedy”. As he points out: race, gender, class, sexual orientation or any kind of grossly exaggerated form of stereotyping, not only shouldn’t be excluded from comedy but are, in fact, what makes comedy often funny in the first place. Sadly, today such concept doesn’t sit well with a lot of people involved in the art industry (although not exclusively), nor it fits into the Identity-Politics cultural lens that so many in the world are, either brainwashed by, or consciously trying to impose on the rest of the population. More and more comedians are starting to feel the pressure of people who get offended at their jokes, and feel entitled to censure them because of it. But to interrupt a comedy show because you’re offended is no different than interrupt a horror movie because you disapprove of murder. Even if what you’re hearing or watching is immoral, the depiction of immorality is not necessarily an endorsement of such behavior. Hearing a joke about a thing, is not the same as doing that very thing. Just like watching a person getting shot on TV, isn’t the same as witnessing a murder in real life. One can make a joke about race, without being racist, just like a director can shoot a murder scene, without being a murderer himself. And whether are Dave Chappelle critics, or Christopher Nolan’s, or Tarantino’s, the fact that such absurd forms of criticism must in their view trump any possible artistic intent, is a clear manifestation of the widespread assaults that our cultural and educational landscapes are nowadays indeed facing.
It is a sad truism of 21st century Western civilization, that those who are suffering the most in the midst of this cancel culture are those who are, as their historical counterparts always have, trying to look at the world in its many horrifying manifestations, see the many hidden truths that it has to offer, and present them in a way that they best see fit, with or without anyone’s consent.
That said (and because of that), in our fight for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, keeping our eyes open, we must give priority to our comedians, because there’s no doubt that the most dangerous sign of the rapid decline in our capacity to appreciate art, value freedom, and wisely handle cultural issues, is best represented by the current politically correct war waged against comedy and its many attempts to censure our modern jesters on TV, stage, and college campuses. Because, provocative as they might be, what most people don’t get, is that once you make it acceptable in the king’s court to tell the jester what is off-limits in one context, you enable those who seek to take advantage and expand those limitations further and further. And if we keep allowing that to happen, we risk compromising our main weapon against those who wish to put limits on our freedom of speech, and take away our liberty to truly express who we are, how we want. Whether we like them or not, as Jordan B. Peterson likes to say, comedians are our canaries in the coalmine, and every time one of them loses his or her voice, we should raise ours, before freedom as we know it, becomes a thing of the past.