For years, Ken Levine has done a “summation” post of the annual Oscar telecast, full of pithy humor. I don’t normally do much more than skim these over, because I don’t watch the Oscars and therefore I never have the full context for what Levine is making fun of, and in all honesty, I occasionally find Levine’s sense of humor a bit mean-spirited.
Well, yesterday he wrote a surprisingly whiny post announcing that he’s not doing the Oscar posts anymore, and not for the obvious reason (this year’s telecast is likely to be a colossally unentertaining train wreck), but because of…sigh…he doesn’t want to run afoul of “cancel culture” or “the woke crowd”.
But the major reason is the current woke culture. God forbid I offend anybody. What good is being snarky if you’re not allowed to criticize? And it goes beyond possibly being insensitive. Now you’re branded as a racist.
In the privacy of our homes, part of the attraction of watching the Oscars (and especially at Oscar parties) is taking shots at the horrible gowns and stupid tuxedos and ridiculous hairdos. What makes them so funny is how those offenders thought they were looking so glamorous and elegant. Bringing down people who take themselves too seriously is a comedy staple. And you may not be proud of yourself for making fun of these entitled people, but you do.
However, if I say one despairing thing about Viola Davis’ dress I’m loudly pegged a racist. If Penelope Cruz mangles her turn announcing the nominees and I point it out, I’m a racist. If I’m happy for a deserving winner who happens to be white I’m a racist.
I find this incredibly disappointing, and it’s really tiresome hearing from comedians who are upset that they apparently have no avenue to being funny other than by offending somebody. Maybe a Black actor is wearing a dress inspired by traditional African tribal wear; maybe Cruz has a speech impediment. I don’t know, and maybe it’s occasionally unfair if someone takes your funmaking moment that’s directed at someone and interprets as not being motivated simply by a desire to be funny. But then, maybe your little joke actually is rooted in a preconceived notion, a prejudice, and maybe we should be a bit more intellectually curious about that. In short, I have become very weary of white people who whine about “the race card” getting played.
And to be honest, elevating “Hahaha, look at what someone decided to wear!” isn’t punching up. It’s just making fun of someone’s looks, whether they’re rich or poor or whatever, and I suppose it’s up to the person laughing to decide if it’s even “comedy”. It frankly isn’t to me. It’s why the least appealing part of Joan Rivers’s career was her “make fun of the people on the Oscar carpet” phase.
Levine wraps up thusly, though, which just made my jaw drop:
It’s a shame because comedy suffers. And as a society we need comedy. Now more than ever. But if those who provide it have to walk on eggshells, then what’s the point?
Yet another comedy writer or comedian complaining that comedy is all hard, now! It’s so hard! But we need comedy! I’m providing a desperately needed service in dark and gloomy times, but you’re all being mean to me for it!
Well, look. I grant the premise that we need to laugh and we need comedy. Absolutely. But…do we really need this particular kind of mean-spirited comedy that’s not so much motivated by finding the funny things in life but by primarily making fun of specific people? Levine sounds like everybody else who I ever hear complaining about “Everybody’s offended now!” When I hear people talking about this, I like to ask: “Just what specifically do you feel you can’t get away with saying now?” The hemming and hawing starts immediately, because no matter how hard I press, they’re never going to admit that they really want to be able to tell mean and sadistic jokes about n*gg*rs or k*kes or sp*cs or f*gg*ts or whatever. But that’s what it almost always boils down to, in my experience.
Maybe not for Levine specifically, but as I look around at a world where certain things are not really seen as viable sources for comedy, I’m not seeing comedy itself suffer as a whole. There’s funny stuff out there a-plenty. The last ten years have seen shows like Brooklyn Nine Nine and The Unicorn and Kim’s Convenience, all of which are funny without resorting (much) to potentially offensive minefields. (B99 has come in for some criticism for its treatment of asexual/aromatic people). Christopher Moore and other humorists are still writing books. Daily comic strips still generate humor; the venerable Nancy has been rejuvenated of late by a new writer/artist, and no “offensive” content is needed.
What’s more–and this is what’s really bugging me about Levine’s rant–is that comedy has not always needed to rely heavily on the kind of material that’s now seen as unfunny or outright offensive, and Levine of all people should know this. He’s been writing comedy for years! He wrote episodes of M*A*S*H, for God’s sake, and that show was on almost fifty years ago. The idea that comedy is somehow being hobbled today by “the woke crowd” simply doesn’t hold up when one considers just how much older comedy is still funny and didn’t need to do any of the eggshell-walking stuff to be funny.
Recently The Wife was on bed rest following a medical procedure (she’s fine!), and one thing she did to pass the time, during which I joined her a bit, is watch a lot of old episodes of Bewitched. That show holds up as being pretty damned funny, even if its sense of humor is dated by being a sixty-year-old show. Some jokes fall flat because we’ve moved on in a lot of ways, but the show really does hold up. A lot of M*A*S*H still holds up. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was airing fifty years ago and a ton of that material is still hysterical, and not much of it at all needed to lean on anything that might get ‘canceled’ now to get laughs. The “Reverend Jim takes his driving test” scene from Taxi? Forty years old, and funny. The “Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton figure out golf” scene from The Honeymooners? Still funny, and nothing to be canceled here (unless it’s Ralph’s absurd pseudo-Scottish outfit). We also watched an older George Carlin HBO special, one from the late 1980s (Carlin wore a light blue shirt, which tells you something since he spent his last several decades only wearing black), and it was still hysterical, despite a few jokes that didn’t age well.
Of course there’s a lot of comedy that has not withstood the test of time; I never see Sam Kinison or Andrew Dice Clay mentioned much these days when the subject of older comedy that’s still funny comes up. I never found either of those two amusing, even when they were popular and using their shock value to generate nervous laughter. My point isn’t that everything stays funny, but that shifting mores and evolving societal choices don’t neuter all old comedy, which would have to be the case if we really were making comedy so much more difficult now.
There’s plenty of stuff that’s making me laugh, so what am I to make of the idea that comedy is somehow in handcuffs now, that it’s so hard to be funny without offending? Frankly, not much, because I’m too busy laughing. And sure, maybe I’m not a great test subject–I’m one who is still amused by a pie in the face, after all–but the material that makes me laugh exists, so I can’t be the only one. It’s not comedy that’s suffering, it seems to me; it’s people who want to make people laugh a certain way and are discovering that people don’t want to be made to laugh that way anymore. And how surprising is that, really? An awful lot of people probably never found that stuff funny, and if amplifying their voices means some jokes don’t get told, well, that’s a trade I’m willing to make.