Comedy Revisited

Someone on the Twitterverse pointed to me to this hilarious clip from Stephen Colbert. We are treated to a FOX correspondent’s comparison of birth control and abuse counseling to spa treatments, as well as Colbert’s reliable evisceration of the absurd: “A women’s health decisions are a private matter between her priest and her husband!”

D was listening in on the clip, and asked me “Don’t you think this is kind of dark?”

Some background: the previous night, I had gone out to an open mic night and gotten upset at an amateur comedian making light of violence toward women. There was no context, and I’m inclined to believe this guy thought he was simply saying something outrageous for the sake of the yuks. I didn’t laugh then, but there I was the next day, cracking up at “You know the ladies! They’re always pumping out breast milk, getting a mani-pedi, having a cosmo with their abuse counselor, then pick up some spermicidal fro-yo!”

So I started to answer D by saying, “First off, I know for certain where Stephen Colbert actually stands. He is unambiguous about where his loyalties lie.” D responded, “So…intent, no?” Well…not exactly.

My objection to the amateur comedian, and others like him, begins with the lack of clear intent. Some comedians, like Colbert, make their intent concerning controversial humor crystal-clear. That isn’t necessarily a byproduct of their fame, by the way – it’s a result of the manner in which they set up their jokes. Context. Other comedians obscure their intent, and whether it’s intentional or not, it sets up a problem: it allows the comedian to sit on the fence. We, the audience, are left thinking “Okay…maybe s/he was trying to make a point concerning XYZ?” Or, maybe not – because the fact is, there are probably many audience members who laugh at marginalizing humor unironically. If that’s the case, the comedian is encouraging further marginalization – and it’s a cop-out to claim that none of it matters, simply because we’re talking about jokes.

As such, I think clear intent is the first step toward a successful comedy routine. Beyond that, though, I stand by what I’ve previously written about intent not serving as carte blanche when it comes to humor. If you’re regularly pissing off your audience (hey, Tracy Morgan!), it’s probably not very good for business. It’ll always be a gray area: the fact that we’re dealing with humor allows for that haziness. Regardless, comedy is often a form of cultural expression, even if it is “just jokes”. I don’t think it’s preposterous to ask those who practice it to pay closer attention to their craft.


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