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“Nanette” and why a new wave of comedians don’t want to be funny

Comedy is often more insightful, and less reductive, than straightforward political pleas.
By Olivia Goldhill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In Hannah Gadsby’s highly acclaimed comedy special Nanette, she announces that she’s quitting comedy. Jokes are too simplistic, she says: they convert her trauma into humor and obscure the ugly truth of her story. Comedy, says Gadsby, has prevented her from evolving.

Gadsby isn’t the only comedian taking at least an occasional break from humor. The Daily Show host Trevor Noah recently used his platform to make a lengthy speech about the nature of national identity, arguing that he’s right to celebrate the French World Cup players as both French and African. Last Week Tonight, hosted by ostensible comedian John Oliver, typically features straight, serious journalism, such as an investigation into Miss America pageant’s scholarships or discussions of Shariah law in Brunei. And the phenomenon of talk show hosts making earnest, quite un-funny political pleas is now so common that comedian Michelle Wolf recently did a skit parodying these monologues.

“I am gonna throw my pen down on the desk, and I’m gonna shake my head in crestfallen bewilderment. I’m gonna look you in the eye, and I’m gonna tell you that Trump is bad!,” she cried. “Children in cages, gun reform yesterday, nevertheless I persisted, this is comedy now. And finally, the meticulously crafted clippable GIFable takedown that will fix everything, change minds, and save the republic.”

The trend that Wolf critiques has been building for a while. In 2015, Megan Garber argued in The Atlantic that comedians were the new public intellectuals. More and more comedy came with moral messaging, she pointed out: “Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers—as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment.” Whereas once philosophers and political theorists held a public role of guiding national debates and parsing the nuances of current affairs, comedians were increasingly taking on that responsibility.

But whereas Garber’s piece pointed to the growing number of politically loaded jokes—such as Amy Schumer’s sketch of a Bill Cosby trial—more and more comedians are losing the jokes part altogether. Having become political comedians, they’re dropping the comedy act and becoming straightforward commentators. Why?

According to Gadsby, comedy is too simplistic a medium. That may well be true for some of her older jokes, such as a story of a stranger who mistook her for gay man. In her live show, Gadsby reveals that he later identified her as a gay woman, and so beat her up. And Gadsby’s right that far too much comedy makes fun of racial minorities, LGBT members, and other oppressed groups. As a queer women, Gadsby says that the self-deprecating jokes she makes that fit into this mold are also painful. “It’s not humility,” she says. “It’s humiliation.”

But, more broadly, the critique doesn’t hold up. Though some of Gadsby’s jokes may have made light of painful experiences, effectively smoothing ugly trauma into more palatable anecdotes, comedy has a long history of pushing boundaries, dwelling on the darkest aspects of life, and revealing deep, depressing truths. Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Bill Hicks are just a few of the greats who used stand-up to rail against racism, drug laws, and the lack of Social Security or government-protected rights while remaining committed to comedy.

Comedy is no less powerful a weapon today than in earlier decades, but what has changed is the environment and audiences that comedians address. Just as politics has become more partisan, so too has culture more broadly. Comedians today are predominantly on the left of the political divide and catering to an audience that shares the same views. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and Bill Maher are all explicitly left-wing, and embrace that ideology in their comedy. (It’s not entirely clear why there are so few conservative comedians. An Atlantic article on subject runs through several possible explanations, including conservatives’ lack power in the entertainment industry. A 2012 book A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor, meanwhile, argues that political satire is inherently liberal: conservatives buy into traditional institutions while both comedians and liberals are prepared to tear them down.)

The blatant partisanship creates two potential obstacles to comedy: Firstly, as Donald Trump and Brexiteers veer ever further and more strangely off course, it’s harder to convert real-life absurdities into absurdist comedy. Meanwhile, comedians on the left have positioned themselves as clearly within the political system. As the Los Angeles Times notes, both Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee recently set themselves up as left-wing figures engaging with right wing guests Tomi Lahren and Glenn Bleck. Stephen Colbert has transitioned from conservative satirist to earnest talk show host; his political views are now transparent, while his comedy has faded away. Too often, rather than using comedy to make jokes from the outside, left-wing humor earnestly defends one perspective and ridicules those on the other side.

As Wolf points out in her skit, it’s easier—and conveniently crowd-pleasing—to dispense with humor and wholeheartedly embrace political rants. Liberals reward straight-faced declarations of anger and calls for justice with applause and praise, so why not give up on jokes altogether?

But though comedians’ political rants may go viral, they’re not necessarily that insightful. Basic, feel-good statements about the importance of respect and equality are emotionally evocative, and they can even be powerful. Progressive viewers may take solace in in the knowledge that John Oliver has the same opinion of Trump’s Supreme Court choice as they do: “For anyone who believes that the constitution protects things like reproductive and LGBT rights, this is bad,” he said earlier this month. But this is not exactly advancing the conversation or saying anything new.

Similarly, though Gadsby says she’s quitting comedy, the best bits of her show are, in fact, the comedy. The way she tells Van Gogh’s story— as an artist who benefitted from mental health medication and perhaps had an enhanced perception of yellow precisely because of these drugs—is original, unexpected, and funny. Meanwhile, aspects of her political message, highlighting how straight white men benefit and everyone else suffers from a patriarchal society, are affirming to hear. But they don’t necessarily sound that different from the rants that many of us non-professional comedians have with each other.

Comedy can be certainly be reductive. But as Gadsby inadvertently shows, comedy can also emphasize overlooked truths and push what would otherwise be a straightforward diatribes into nuanced critiques. Humor is the intellectual twist that comedians bring to public affairs, just as philosophers and theorists bring their intellectual expertise. Without any such insight, comedians may take on the role of public intellectuals, but they won’t be doing a very good job.

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