Nuances of Offensive Humor

I've been a big Anthony Jeselnik fan since late 2009 after I saw him do a segment on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. From time to time, I've had to kind of deconstruct that, because Jeselnik is the type of stand-up comedian whose stock-in-trade is offending people and grabbing taboos by the throat. It's never been that I've felt that taboos should be untouched, and that some topics are sacred. I've just always liked comedians that didn't have to play the offensive, that could get a thrill without pushing the big obvious button.
I've been compelled, on multiple occasions, to express my opinion on the cultural impact that all mass media entertainers have on the awareness, frame of reference, and understanding of the average person. Not that they have a responsibility to be careful with their power, although that would be great, but that they should be aware that they do have power and that if they use it to be an asshole, people (and sponsors) will respond accordingly. Responses, criticism and consequence are part of freedom of speech, too.

Offensive comedy has changed a lot about what pop culture deems to be funny and acceptable. That's fine, and it's a longstanding tradition evident in every comedian's reverence for Lenny Bruce. But these days, there's a certain kind of ugly laziness that comes in with offensive humor, where the only joke you need is, "I'm saying something I'm not supposed to!" with an ironic wink and shy giggle. When I was watching the Conan O'Brien documentary, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, he runs into two kids before a show and, in an effort to make their hero laugh, one of the kids refers to being "jewed out" of some money. Conan gets them into his show on the condition that they stop saying that word.

When I go watch open mics, there are always comedians who only understand comedy as saying something that is ironically pro-rape or pro-racism or pro-misogyny because lol we're being so bad look at us. One guy, with a few leftover seconds in his allotted time, decided to finish with, simply, "Fuck Koreans." Get it? Because it's non-sequitur and obviously racist and he's saying something he's not supposed to. This is what humor means to a bunch of people now.

So no, I couldn't really get into guys like Jo Koy. It's got nothing to do with "being able to take a joke" and everything to do with being unable to laugh at the easiness and ignorance. It makes me tired more than it makes me mad. They make a terrible combo for me watching stand-up. I fear a whole generation of rising stand-ups whose mantra is: think of something you're not supposed to say, and then say it. That's all.

When people don't laugh at a joke, most comedians will think, "Well I've got to work on this one to make it funnier." Yet when it's an offensive joke that doesn't draw the desired response, the thinking seems to be, "This audience is too uptight and PC." It's never that maybe they need to work on that joke, overcome its darkness or flip it around.

Yet, somehow, I'm a big Anthony Jeselnik fan. So that must mean there's a way to do it, right? I think he does several things that, usually, helps me overcome the perpetual darkness that inhabits his routine. First of all, he's a joke comedian. He inhabits a character and does set ups with a punchline. There's no conversation, no confession, you don't get a sense of who he is at all because it's all wrapped up in this courageously arrogant character. Once, he related a story about someone asking him when to tell when he was joking. To paraphrase, here's how he said you can tell: He's on a stage with a fucking microphone.

But separation between material & true character isn't enough. I firmly do not believe that comics like Koy are racist, they just don't give a shit about what they do with their influence. So I think what turns me around on Jeselnik is that these are not easy jokes. Especially when he hypes them up beforehand ("I don't care who your favorite comedian is, because after this next joke, you're about to trade up.") It's hard to pigeonhole his work into "shock humor" because shock humor is almost characteristically simple. Whatever Jeselnik is talking about is just as much about flipping expectation as it is about the taboo. While he's the type of comedian that sees no line, and when he does, he crosses it, he does it in a way that surprises you. And I can at least appreciate that.

I was a little afraid to listen to his WTF podcast interview. I was worried it would be like the interview with Steve Byrne, whose work I liked, but found it harder to enjoy once he rationalized his weird colorblind racism and overcompensated for non-problematic double standards. But the Jeselnik interview was surprisingly insightful, and only proved further that, at the very least, there's a lot more thought about what to touch and what not to touch. I think he gets a different kind of thrill, equal to laughter, from horror and awkward silence, which is a very confident and egocentric position to take, but it works in this dosage.

Most interestingly, here's what Jeselnik had to say about racial humor, which he does touch on, but has even his own personal choices:
There's nothing I've been frustrated with. When I hear comedians use the n-word on stage, I wish I could find a way to do that without having to say -- I don't want to say "the n-word," that's like saying, "oh my pee pee." When comics use a much cleaner version of a word, it's a real turn off. I had a joke where I used the word nigger, but I just couldn't. I said it twice in a joke, and I was like, "I can't. I can't do this."

It kind of bugs me that I feel like I can't say it, because there's no other word I feel that way about. I feel like I have friends, and I can just picture their faces. I don't even care about being accused of [using it gratuitously to take ownership] I just feel like that word has so much power over a certain group of people more than any other. I would never make fun of someone's miscarriage, but I would certainly make fun of miscarriages... It's just a personal line.

And there's something refreshing about one of today's most offensive, roast-style comedians acknowledging that it's okay to have personal preference and personal lines. My favorite comics, if they aim to offend, also distract you with some other craft: expectation, or funny logic. It's just a shame that doesn't always come through to the audience, and the way they digest it.