Welcome to the latest installment of Tragedy Plus Time. Each segment will focus on a particular ‘life crisis’ – sometimes globally tragic, sometimes more of a personal affair – and we’ll explore how many of the comedians we know and love have dealt with it.
One of my biggest failings as the class clown growing up was never having a really good response to being made fun of. I wasn’t really the kind of kid who made fun of others, I was much more of a self-deprecating type. Much to my chagrin, this didn’t stop others from jumping on board. And whenever someone made fun of my height, my video game t-shirts/hats/wristbands, or, less often, my ethnicity (looking ethnically ambiguous probably spared me a lot of trouble) I tried everything I could think of to come back with something witty, to no avail. Playfully laughing along with the joke felt weak, and tossing a straight insult back seemed petty and came with the potential of getting beat up (remember, I was small). I settled on a carefully crafted non-response – a slow nod, followed by a glance around the room – hoping for either an embarrassing silence or a quick change of subject. This usually did the trick, but it never felt like I was playing to my strengths as a self-proclaimed comedian.
The actual comedians of the world have to deal with this situation all the time. Sometimes they’re being attacked directly, other times the attack comes in the form of an unfair stereotype. Whether it’s being discriminated against, pigeon-holed, or in the case of Muslim comedians, outright feared, the comedians in question now have to factor this prejudice in on top of simply being funny. Like the video game cartridge being dangled over a young boy’s head, just out of my-er, his reach, these injustices have no obvious solutions (outside of a nut punch, of course). But the truth is, there are always solutions for those clever enough to figure them out. And who’s more clever than a comedian?
Tina Fey Addresses The ‘Women Aren’t Funny!’ Argument By Cleverly Avoiding It
Like abortion, religion, politics, and many other topics of great (and often pointless) divide in our culture, the ‘Women Aren’t Funny Debate’ isn’t so much a debate as it is a statement you’ve already taken a stance on. Either you believe this statement is a well known truth someone finally had the guts to say, or you believe it’s the purest example of horse manure coming out of a person’s mouth. Arguing with someone with the opposite belief is an exercise in futility. But we can’t help but engage in the conversation, because we want to believe that given the right combination of facts and emotions we can get someone on the other side of the fence to say: “You know what, you’re right. I’ve changed my mind. Women really are humorless creatures!” (see what I did there?)
Every woman in the comedy world has an uphill battle to face. There are all manner of supposedly funny men in the world, ranging from hilarious to intolerable at different points on the spectrum depending on who you ask. But according to a vocal minority, women should be dismissed outright. Even Tina Fey — an SNL veteran, writer/producer and star of 30 Rock, and one of the biggest female comedians in show business — had to deal with her fair share of discrimination coming up in the comedy world. But she’s developed a pretty straightforward philosophy about the whole thing. From her memoir Bossypants:
I think of [her friend Amy Poehler] whenever someone says to me: ‘Jerry Lewis says women aren’t funny,’ or ‘Christopher Hitchens says women aren’t funny..do you have anything to say to that?’
Yes. We don’t fucking care if you like it…Unless one of these men is my boss, which none of them is it’s irrelevant. My hat goes off to them. It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.
Fey went on to address the topic on the final season of 30 Rock this past year. On the show she plays Liz Lemon, a more neurotic, less confident, and mostly filter-less version of herself. Liz Lemon is the kind of person who would be incensed enough to address the “women aren’t funny” issue rather than ignoring it. When her infantile co-worker Tracey Jordan insists to her that women aren’t funny, Lemon insists on proving him wrong. She performs a favorite sketch of hers in front of him and all of her coworkers. The end result is Liz making good on her word and victoriously looking over at her audience in stitches, albeit some of them for the wrong reasons (Tracey Jordan takes one look at Liz Lemon’s outfit in the skit and finds himself laughing at the very idea of a woman doctor).
What’s important about the scene is that we don’t actually see the sketch beyond the first few lines. The show cuts to a montage, and over the montage we hear the following song:
This sketch is hilarious. Take it from meeeee. Women are funny we can all agree. Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball… No we’re not going to do it’s beneath us all! ‘Cause we don’t need to prove it to youuuu No we don’t need to prove it to youuuuuu!
The episode acknowledges but quickly dismisses the debate by flat out saying there is nothing to prove, especially on your hilarious, critically acclaimed sitcom in the process of closing out its seventh season. The instinct to try to engage with or prove the argument wrong is what separates Liz Lemon from Tina Fey, an incredibly funny woman who is obviously the exception to the rule.
For more responses from famous female comedians on the “Women Aren’t Funny” issue, check out this recent video.
Dave Chappelle Gives Up $50 Million To Save His Soul
The tricky thing about self-deprecation is that at some point you’re solidifying a negative image of yourself. What starts off as a humble, disarming act turns into simple self-mockery. You can only make fun of yourself for so long before you’ve made it clear that this is how you see yourself and how you prefer to be portrayed.
Dave Chappelle learned this lesson in one of the most high-profile meltdowns the comedy world has ever seen. He created Chappelle’s Show in 2003 and it quickly became one of Comedy Central’s most popular shows. His sketches dealt with a lot of the same material he used in his standup, which included a fair amount of race-related humor. One of the most well-known bits from the first season was about a blind white supremacist who eventually discovers that he himself is black.
The show constantly pushed the envelope when confronting racial stereotypes. Many sketches featured a liberal use of the n-word, the most taboo of all racial slurs (all the more reason for its comedic potential). A sketch revolving around reparation checks being given to all black people showed them immediately blowing the money on booze and rims for their cars. It’s hilarious stuff teetering on the line of inappropriateness. Like the usage of the n-word, it’s the kind of material that only someone like Chappelle would have license to get away with.
After two highly successful seasons, Chappelle accepted $50 million to make two more seasons of Chappelle’s Show, but despite making it big, something soured his interest. In May 2005, partway into production of the third season, Chappelle abruptly left production of the show and took an impromptu trip to South Africa. Rumors began to fly about what caused Chappelle to leave: stress, drugs, or him simply itching to spend his vast new fortune. The truth is Chappelle needed to do some soul searching.
During the interviews he gave about the supposed meltdown, Chappelle said he felt unsure about his latest material, wondering if the work was still true to himself. He began to feel like he was being socially irresponsible, like he’d crossed the line he’d been walking on like a tightrope for two years. The specific incident he cited was a moment when he was shooting a sketch featuring himself as a pixie that was a visual personification of the n-word:
‘There was a good-spirited intention behind it,’ Dave says. ‘So then when I'm on the set, and we're finally taping the sketch, somebody on the set [who] was white laughed in such a way — I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me — and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with. Not just uncomfortable, but like, should I fire this person?’
After this incident, Dave began thinking about the message he was sending to millions of viewers. Dave says some people understood exactly what he was trying to say with his racially charged comedy…while others got the wrong idea. ‘That concerned me,’ he says. ‘I don't want black people to be disappointed in me for putting that [message] out there. … It's a complete moral dilemma.’
The show’s creator never returned, and Comedy Central eventually aired a truncated third season of “lost episodes,” which ultimately became the end of Chappelle’s Show. The first season’s DVD remains the best selling TV series of all time, ousting even The Simpsons and Seinfeld. Chappelle himself eventually returned to doing standup, his first love, and has been maintaining a relatively low-key persona ever since. No major comedic material has emerged from him post-Chappelle’s Show, though in recent sets he’s toyed with his audience about the idea of a comeback.
Jerry Seinfeld & Larry David Reinforce A Positive Stereotype
Embracing and making fun of our differences as a society are what I like to think of as the yin and the yang of comedy. They are two parts of the whole, one would not truly exist without the other. More specifically, if you’re just focusing on one aspect, or one half of the equation, you’re probably not a very good comedian.
Culture, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, relative cleanliness. All the ways we differ in the world, all rife with comedic possibility. Anyone attempting to enter the comedy world (or any art) should embrace their own particular combination of nature and nurture in the hopes of having a unique perspective. As a minority, you have a theoretical leg up, or a potential disadvantage, depending on how you look at it. How will treat what makes you different without alienating your audience or betraying your cultural background?
When Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David created the Seinfeld pilot and first showed it to NBC executives, it was supposedly rejected for being “too Jewish,” though there are no details to back up what that actually meant. Thankfully the creators didn’t seem to think much of the ambiguous note, as the series got no more or less Jewish once it was finally given a full run (the pilot is in no way brimming with Jewish references, unless you count Jason Alexander’s blatant Woody Allen impression). But as it was based on the lives of Seinfeld and David, two Jewish comedians not interested in hiding their backgrounds (though you could technically count George Costanza not being Jewish as a concession) — inevitably their cultural history would be mirrored in the lives of their characters on the show.
While the show was an unquestionable success in the eyes of the comedy world, there’s been a fair amount of debate as to whether or not Seinfeld was ultimately good for the Jewish culture. Could a show that features Soup Nazis, ‘Shiksappeal’, and characters making out during Schindler’s List be doing more harm than good?
Seinfeld, David and the other writers on the show were primarily interesting in making people laugh. They weren’t out to promote Jewish culture or squash anti-Semitism. The truth is, for every self-deprecating Jewish joke on the show, there were dozens more that were universal in nature (this ratio could be the difference between something like Seinfeld and Chappelle’s Show). There’s humor to be mined from everywhere, and they were an equal opportunity offender. But the one specific stereotype the creators did reinforce along the way is simply how funny Jewish people are. From David Suissa of the Jewish Journal:
One of the most endearing qualities you can have is the ability to poke fun at yourself. No people have poked fun at themselves and embraced humor quite like the Jews. For more than a century, Jews have tickled America's funny bone…If making someone laugh is one of the most generous of all human acts, then the Jews have been the most generous of immigrants.
In fact, I have this theory that the best fighters against anti-Semitism in America have been not the Jewish activists (like the ADL), but the Jewish comedians…Comedy disarms a lot better than press releases. A funny routine by Billy Crystal or Seinfeld poking fun at Jewish stereotypes is a lot more endearing than a press release complaining about how reinforcing Jewish stereotypes legitimizes anti-Semitism.
Maybe the show wasn’t really about nothing after all.
The Axis of Evil Come Together For The Greater Good
Say what you want about the negative stereotypes surrounding most minorities — none of them have to contend with the same level of fear and hatred that Muslims do right now. A female comedian might first have to overcome the stereotype that she isn’t funny. A Muslim comedian may first have to overcome the idea that he’s not a threat to you and everyone you love.
Enter Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani and Aron Kaden. These three Muslim comedians — an Egyptian, an Iranian and a Palestinian — were more traditional stand ups when they first met in the 1990’s, but in a post-9/11 world they found themselves having a difficult time as performers playing anything besides terrorists. They eventually decided to take matters into their own hands.
When they first went on tour they named their show ‘Arabian Nights,’ but later decided to fully embrace the stereotype bestowed upon them, adopting the much more topical ‘Axis of Evil’ title in 2005.
As the Axis Of Evil Comedy Tour ventured around the country, the group started doing the legwork of what some saw as the last cultural stereotype to be broken down. Their routines shed light the difficulties of being a Muslim with a wink and a smile, inspiring laughter rather than guilt. In their Comedy Central special, every comedian had to pass through a security checkpoint stationed by a comedian dressed as a security agent who gave them all an extremely hard time before letting them get upstage:
The broken comedic barriers don’t end there. The group was later used to jump start the comedy scene in Arab world. A man named Jamil Abu-Wardeh exported them back over to the Middle East, where they were given an entirely different sort of challenge: to get their own people to laugh at themselves. Adjustments needed to be made to remain culturally sensitive (as difficult as it may be to be a Muslim comic in America, you can still pretty much say whatever you want once you get up on stage), but they appeared to make some great inroads, even impressing the King of Jordan.
Sadly, the Axis of Evil broke up in 2011, but plenty of Muslim comedians are still performing regularly, continuing to tackle Islamophobia and other cultural issues by making light of it. Dean Obeidallah — who guest performed with the Axis of Evil and is now performing with several other Muslim comedians in a group called “The Muslims Are Coming!” — sums it up by saying:
We want to answer the tough questions, we encourage people to ask the tough questions, talk about the stereotypes that are lingering in your mind. I think comedy is a fun way to try and do just that.
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