Standing up against stand-up comedyPosted on December 17, 2019
I am not against stand-up comedy. No, I like stand-up comedy. It’s a form of entertainment I consume myself; an artistic endeavor that I find pleasure in watching. What I am against though, is when stand-up comedy becomes a tool of symbolic violence.
Stand-up comedy is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States, especially in New York City. I personally watch a fair amount of stand-up comedy online. Some of the comedians I watched recently were Yumi Nagashima and Jo Koy, whose jokes I admittedly giggled at a lot particularly because of the Asian cultural references (accents, parents) that resonated with me.
While amusing when in the moment, it can be damaging. Even when the oppressive -isms (sexism, racism, classism, colonialism, imperialism…)¹ are ever so slightly present in jokes, it still inculcates audience members with the belief that it’s socially acceptable to make such facetious remarks in a frivolous manner. I just came to realize that a lot of my own internalized oppression comes from the fact that a majority of jokes in the realm of stand-up comedy (at least in the ones I’ve seen) are about race and sex, which have all reverberated deep into my subconscious. Entertainment is very powerful – it’s so easy so consume while on auto-pilot, that we don’t always realize its influence on us. The -isms don’t need to be blatant for it to have an impact; it’s even more dangerous when it’s subtle.
Now I can’t help but think of how stand-up comedy has contributed to perpetuating cycles of oppression. It’s no surprise how stand-up comedy began in the United States back in the 19th century already with casual, throwaway insults about women and other ethnic groups.² In “The Comedy Problem”, Larry Charles tries to make sense of why comedians in the past have gotten away with their crude, offensive humour:
“They used hate language for laughs, big laughs, and pushed that boundary again. And because it was almost immediately met with mass approval and acceptance, there was never a moment of reflection or pause or examination of the ethics and responsibility and especially the consequences of their acts.”
“Sometimes, because the point of view was so fresh and unique, it could be argued that is was relevant and pertinent, especially if it was funny by the standards of the audience of that time. But more often than not, the humor and new latitude was parlayed for easy and cheap laughs. These simplistic laughs using shock value to blindly upend some superficial idea of the status quo without concern for consequences wound up creating a world in which freedom is absolute but consequences are nil. In fact, as it turns out, the freedom is only an illusion, but the consequences are real.”
Unfortunately, these still ring true today. A great deal of comedians continue to write offensive material because of its shock value, and it’s disconcerting to think about that fact that each comedian uses their material multiple times, in different shows, with different audiences.
Stand-up comedians are trained to read a room, and will adjust their jokes accordingly– so it’s basically a reinforcing feedback loop when a comedian makes a joke, then the audience laughs, which then serves as encouragement for the comedian to deliver similar jokes. Rinse, repeat. I know a comedian who performs at least 12 times every week, and has done over a hundred shows in a year. Imagine the impact of that.
Michael Philips³ makes the argument that the impact of racist humour is not limited to just victimized groups, but extends to a cognitive and affective impact on current and potential victimizers. He breaks it down by describing the cognitive consequences as racist humour spreading and reinforcing racist beliefs, and affective consequences as
“It joins together those who participate – both performers and audience – in a community of feeling against that group. By appreciating such humor together, we take common joy in putting them down, e.g., in turning them into objects of scorn or contempt or into beings not to be taken seriously (wife jokes). Our mutual participation in this through shared laughter legitimizes this way of feeling about them. Those among us who fail to laugh – or who object to laughter are immediately outsiders, perhaps even traitors. In general, the price of objecting is a small exile. By participating, however, one accepts membership in a racist association (albeit a temporary one).”
Just recently, while watching Jo Koy on Netflix with a friend, I noticed how my friend was waiting for me to laugh, probably because my own laughter would serve as a cue or give him some kind of permission for him to laugh too. So when I did let out a giggle, he eventually did, too, despite his initial hesitation to. There’s also a possibility that he only laughed to “participate” and not become an “outsider”, as Philips outlined. Either way, we see what a seemingly harmless giggle can do. Now visualize that situation happening in a comedy bar with a big audience. I’m pretty sure that hypothetical scenario in your head ends with the whole room laughing, and the comedian receiving the validation he/she needs to deliver jokes of the same nature.
How can we disrupt this cycle of oppression that stand-up comedy perpetuates?
Again, I am not against stand-up comedy. I’m all for it. Humor, as John Fugelsang said, “can be a social corrective”, and I do see that stand-up comedy has a lot of potential in contributing to social change. Plus, there ARE comedians out there who are also social activists who don’t resort to lazy, offensive humour. I support stand-up comedy. I simply want to challenge comedy that marginalizes others.
I know it won’t be easy — in my online research I encountered some online comments to “leave comedy alone”. And while I do consider comedy as an art and I do believe in creative freedom, I also believe that freedom doesn’t mean being ignorant of one’s responsibility as a human being to consider the impact of their content on others.
So perhaps we can begin with revisiting our notion of “funny” and “entertaining” as well as how and why we consume entertainment. Larry Charles did say:“The very definition of what is funny, what is comedy, is being questioned. But that is good. And essential. A multitude of voices can be a healthy thing and lead to a new synthesis that creates the next paradigm in comedy. And maybe even in society.”²
Or you can walk into a comedy bar and show those comedians you’re not having any of it.
 Boehnert, Joanna, Bianca Elzenbaumer, and Dimeji Onafuwa. “Design a Symbolic Violence: Addressing the ‘isms’”. figshare, August 7, 2019. https://hdl.handle.net/2134/36272.
 Charles, Larry. “The Comedy Problem.” Complex. Complex, October 1, 2019. https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2019/10/the-comedy-problem.
 Philips, Michael. “Racist Acts and Racist Humor.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 14, no. 1 (1984): 75–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/00455091.1984.10716369.
 O’Hara, Mary. “How Comedy Makes Us Better People.” BBC Future. BBC, August 30, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160829-how-laughter-makes-us-better-people.
 Manwell, Colleen Frances. “Stand-up Comedy as a Tool for Social Change.” Stand-up Comedy as a Tool for Social Change, 2008. https://lsa.umich.edu/content/dam/english-assets/migrated/honors_files/Manwell Colleen-Stand-Up Comedy as a Tool For Social Change.pdf
 Stahl, Michael. “Comedians as Activists in the Era of Trump.” Vulture. Vulture, January 20, 2017. https://www.vulture.com/2017/01/comedians-as-activists-in-the-era-of-trump.html.