“Laughs are cheap. I’m going for gasps.” – Mac in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
There’s an older episode of The Green Room with Paul Provenza when the late Patrice O’Neal, arguably one of the best stand-up comics in recent history, gets serious for a moment, saying: “I love being able to say anything I want. I had to learn how to stop caring about people not laughing. Because the idea of comedy, really, is not everybody should be laughing. It should be about 50 people laughing and 50 people horrified. There should be people who get it and people who don’t get it.”
O’Neal gets right to the chaotic, trickster heart of comedy with that statement. Comedy at its best balances humor against shock–not necessarily vulgarity, mind you, but a sort of unsettling surprise. It’s a topsy-turvy glimpse at an uncanny, upside-down world, which, if the joke lands, provides a bulwark against torpor and complacency. Great comedy inhabits the absurdity of the world. It makes itself into a vantage point from which everything seems delightfully ridiculous, including (often especially) the comedians themselves. We wouldn’t need comedy in a world that wasn’t absurd. Perhaps that’s why Dante only included humor in his Inferno. There is no absurdity in paradise.
Unfortunately, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a comedy special recently released on Netflix, only embraces the non-laughter half of O’Neal’s dictum. It’s the very epitome of self-serious, brittle, didactic, SJW “comedy.” It’s not funny. And worse, it’s not meant to be. Gadsby, a queer Australian comedian, uses her “stand-up special” as a way to destroy the very medium she pretends to be professionally engaged in. Her basic argument is that, since comedy is by its very nature self-deprecating (true), people who define themselves as members of an oppressed minority shouldn’t engage in comedy because they’re only participating in the violence already being done to them by society at large.
As Soraya Roberts writes in The Baffler, “[Gadsby’s] performance is not comedy, in fact, but a rejection of comedy–a medium she boils down to half-truths made up of tension (the set-up) and relief (the punchline), as opposed to the whole truth of storytelling’s beginning, middle and end.” It’s interesting to note here how Gadsby defines comedy down to a vapidly narrow set of very specific and au courant therapeutic concerns. “Laughter is not our medicine,” she actually says at one point in the show. It’s the same predictable posturing we’ve come to expect from mediocre talent riding the wave of SJW self-seriousness, a sort of emotivist mad libs. “Punchlines need trauma because punchlines need tension,” Gadsby harangues the audience. “I will not allow my story to be destroyed.”
The flaws of this sort of SJW anti-comedy are obvious. There’s no shock, no surprise, no wild current of absurd energy charging the room with tension. And so it’s a stretch to even call it comedy in the broadest sense. It’s more like a cross between a TED Talk and a gnostic sermon. But maybe more importantly, if Gadsby’s ideology is taken to its logical extreme, all comedy is verboten, because it would mean either that marginalized people are making fun of themselves (out) or that only non-marginalized people have “access” to “comedic spaces” (definitely out). And so the end game of this specious logic brought to the stage is the self-defeating conclusion that minorities simply don’t do comedy.
I’d like to think that, opposing this “art valued merely as political representation,” as Robert aptly categorizes it, is the already fast-aging subgenre of proper anti-humor. Real anti-humor isn’t predictable and didactic, but almost errs in the opposite direction. It’s wild, dadaist, and often feels like it’s approaching escape velocity from the gravitational pull of reality itself. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are probably the most obvious examples. Can anyone watch a clip from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and feel like they’re being preached to? Can they watch Doctor Steve Brule and feel as if some ideological line is being toed? Can anyone predict what’s going to happen next on Eric Andre’s show?
Of course, comedy is vast. There’s room enough for the surreal energy of anti-comedy as well as the heaviness of confessional humor. There’s a long and venerable tradition of comedians using their personal pain as a source of comedic energy going back at least to Lenny Bruce, which is also enjoying a recent resurgence thanks in no small part to Tig Notaro and the now persona non grata Louis C.K. But make no mistake, this is all still a performance. One of the risks of breaking down the wall between person and comedian, or at least in performing the crumbling of the fourth wall, is that the audience is convinced they’ve apprehended that person in their entirety. In Gadsby’s case, she convinces herself: getting high on her own supply, as the saying goes. Bill Burr, another comedian in his prime due to be remembered as a legend, rails against this from time to time. It’s a show, an act, not a confessional. And your apprehension of the act, imperfect as it might be, gives you even less access to the “real” person performing it than detractors might assume. Burr’s take is actually much more generous than people might think. It bears at least some resemblance to Simone Weil’s notion that we are more than the ideas of ourselves, others’ ideas or our own. And in blurring the line between entertainer and whole human, Gadsby diminishes herself. You, in your deepest sense, can’t be “performed.”
Someone who gets that in spades is Norm Macdonald, the legendary former SNL “Weekend Update” host who, in his mastery of the formal aspects of comedy, holds a position, odd as it might sound, as something like the Robert Penn Warren of comedy. Macdonald also has a new show on Netflix, and it’s interesting to contrast his Norm Macdonald Has A Show with Nanette. Whereas Nanette is a single person on stage talking about herself, staring down comedy with a cold eye and naming it as an enemy, Macdonald’s show is a series of interviews with fascinating people assisted by a co-host. If Nanette takes a stand against comedy, Norm Macdonald Has A Show is a comedic deconstruction of the talk show format itself. Having spent decades perfecting his craft, Macdonald is able to create situations where comedy arises out of the banal, where it expands to cast strange shadows on the seemingly anodyne. Misunderstandings are obvious and never edited out of the final product. Stories meander hilariously without ever achieving something resembling a conclusion. And Norm himself often melts into the background, letting other egos and other personalities take the lead as the situation warrants. The show is like a strange biosphere, tended by an expert gardener, in which comedy is given the proper environment in which to flourish. And Macdonald’s personal life? We pick up a bit on it here and there, but the essence of the man is obviously bigger than and beyond the format. The essence of any man would be. Muddling the two would only diminish them both.
Perhaps ironically, Macdonald almost didn’t get a show because of some comments he made about the #MeToo movement. But his oeuvre, including his new show, will stand the test of time because of his commitment to craft. Nanette, like bellbottoms or Pogs, will be seen as an interesting time piece, an artifact of an age when watered-down Foucauldian cant was a bigger influence on the comedic scene than Eddie Murphy or Lenny Bruce—an age when comedians decided to stop being funny.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.