James Gunn, Hannah Gadsby and the insufficient rewards of provocative white guy comedy

You’ve probably heard about James Gunn being fired from his job as director of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie franchise after alt-right activists turned up old tweets with gross and inappropriate jokes.

It’s prompted a fresh round of questions about “what is funny?” a debate that can never be resolved. But as it happens, The Atlantic has a long piece about Mel Brooks this morning and I think it gets at something important:

The musical number “Springtime for Hitler,” first unleashed in the movie version of The Producers (1968), of course turned Nazism into merry choreography—boys and girls singing and dancing in S.S. uniforms and regalia. The joke was something more than a joke. Those who had seen Broadway shows in the ’50s and ’60s knew how closely Brooks adhered to the shape and sound of Broadway style. The audience for musical comedies was heavily Jewish, so the wit was partially aimed at them and at Jews in general—an audience inclined to feel itself a victim of history.

“Did you think, Oh my God, these people are going to have a fit?”

“They loved it. They knew what I was doing. … However, I got letters, I must have gotten 100 letters from rabbis, students, scholars, and I would write back to every single one, and try to explain to them, the way you bring down Hitler … you don’t get on a soapbox with him … but if you can reduce him to something laughable, you win. That’s my job.”

Brooks made Hitler into the joke.

You can argue that can’t be done, because Hitler’s presence in history is so monstrous that no laughter can escape the black hole of evil he created. I wouldn’t argue against that. But I do understand Brooks’ instinct: Comedy as rebellion.

Which brings us back to Gunn, and another comedian targeted by the alt-right for gross jokes, Michael Ian Black. On Twitter, Black responds:

Responding to the query, “When is it ever funny to joke about child rape?” Black replied, “I think this is a good question. Here’s the answer: I don’t know. When is it funny to joke about Nazis, cancer, gun violence, suicide, drug abuse, cutting, car accidents, deeply held religious beliefs, sexuality, bestiality, etc. But comedians joke about all that stuff and more.”

He added, “Sometimes those jokes work, sometimes not. Comics often push the line because either we’re trying to make a larger point or, as is often the case, just trying to get a rise out of people. I have always believed nothing is off limits, but I understand why some people disagree.”

Noting that every comedian “has to wrestle with how far they want to go,” Black continued, “Some play it safe. But some go as far as they can. Those are the comedians I always admired. Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, George Csarlin, etc. If they had Twitter, do you think they’d face backlash? Of course. And I know what they’d say – f— ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”

But of course, there’s a good reason some people can’t or won’t take a joke.

Have you seen Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special “Nanette” on Netflix? It’s worth an hour of your time, but beware, it’s gut-wrenching. In it, Gadsby explores whether she – a lesbian who doesn’t present as a gender-normed woman – should continue to do comedy. To make light of her experiences – as a victim of sexual violence, as a queer woman in a society that wanted to outlaw her – she decides is participating in her own humiliation, to make jokes is to omit crucial parts of her narrative.

“When I came out of the closet, the only thing I was allowed to do was to be invisible and hate myself,” she says. At a couple of points during her increasingly raw performance, the audience appears to be seeking entry points into laughter even though the jokes are no longer forthcoming. But there aren’t any — and that’s the point of Gadsby’s performance. She’s not helping them deal with the release of their tension and discomfort through laughter anymore, because that tension is something those of us who are socially marginalized for our differences carry around with us every day.

What I would say: Provocation isn’t good enough anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time.

Maybe there was a time it was, when provocation was a form of “punching up” against oppressive society. Anymore, though, provocation for the sake of provocation – a white guy form of comedy that makes rape jokes then doesn’t know why you can’t take a joke – becomes tedious, and more importantly, often loses the irony that gives it any good reason for being. Provocation without irony is often just bullying. It’s just ugly.

Emily Nussbaum wrote about this last year in the New Yorker, after the election.

Last September, Donald Trump, Jr., posted on Instagram an image of Trump’s inner circle which included a cartoon frog in a Trump wig. It was Pepe the Frog, a benign stoner-guy cartoon that had been repurposed by 4chan pranksters—they’d Photoshopped him into Nazi and Trump drag, to mess with liberals. Trump trolls put Pepe in their avatars. But then so did literal Nazis and actual white supremacists. Like many Jewish journalists, I was tweeted images in which my face was Photoshopped into a gas chamber—but perhaps those were from free-speech pranksters, eager to spark an overreaction? It had become a distinction without a difference. The joke protected the non-joke. At the event that Tila Tequila attended, the leader shouted “Heil Trump!”—but then claimed, in the Trumpian manner, that he was speaking “in a spirit of irony.” Two weeks ago, the Russian Embassy tweeted out a smirking Pepe. The situation had begun to resemble an old story from the original fake-news site, the Onion: “Ironic Porn Purchase Leads to Unironic Ejaculation.”

I’ve been a 20-year-old white guy making 20-year-old white guy jokes. I regret it now. And I’m hugely thankful that that phase of my life occurred before Twitter was a thing.

I’m not certain I’m building to a conclusion here, except to caution would be jokesters to think a little bit. Is the bit you’re doing have a point, or is it shocking for it’s own sake? Does that shock bring enough laughter into the world that it’s worth whatever hurt it might create for other listeners?  Is it more important to be funny than to be kind?

Is it more important to be funny than to be kind? Almost never.

Author: joeldermole

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.

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