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So Who’s Gonna Kill the Standup Comedian?

Not Literally, of Course, but Seriously

By Gaia AtlasPublished 6 years ago 6 min read
Jaboukie Young-White’s set on Comedy Central is one of my favorite clips. In case you're wondering, yes, his Twitter is lit (@jaboukie) and he writes now for American Vandal and Big Mouth, we stan a short king.

Look. I’ve had it up to here with stand-up comedy specials. If millennials are looking for something else to kill, then here’s my suggestion for the next industry we absolutely destroy. I mean hey, might as well, right? It’s not like the people making the most money in stand-up even care about us young people anyway, right? I mean sure, they want our money as much as anyone else, but—like most industries—the biggest names are doing the most damage while doing the least amount of good. So why not, right? Let’s send stand-up as we know it packing, just like we did with napkins, fabric softener, diamonds, and whatever else they’re blaming on us now.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love stand-up. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I spent listening to comedy radio when I was in high school, or how many videos I’ve watched from comedians like John Mulaney (I can honestly quote most of his stuff, don’t @ me) and Russell Howard on YouTube. I love stand-up comedy because, like everyone else, I love to laugh.

The problem is that lately a lot of stand-up has been leaving a sour taste in my mouth. I couldn’t even get ten minutes into Iliza Shlesinger’s Freezing Hot. But why? Shouldn’t someone who loves stand-up actually enjoy watching stand-up? Why can’t I enjoy now what I used to love?

The answer I’ve found is, frankly, hard to swallow, but here it is: some of my old favorite comedians are downright not funny. And I don’t mean on-the-fringes types who haunt local clubs and can’t land a joke to save their lives. I mean famous, big-time, living debt-free in New York and LA types. I mean people who get movie deals after their special gets big.

And I know what you’re thinking: Obviously, they are funny if they’re making all this money as comedians! But the question you need to ask yourself is this: Is that really it what it takes to be funny? Is being able to land jokes for an hour the same as being really funny?

Well, the young people have an answer for you:


Not even close.

Because here’s what those people up there at the top are doing. They’re not just telling stories, they’re telling stories at the expense of already-disadvantaged people—and those disadvantages are the fucking punchlines. And that’s not funny.

(As it turns out, once you unlearn your internalized bigotry, you don’t actually want to laugh at people for being different. Who knew?)

Now I’m going to interrupt this train of thought to tell you something everyone else has already told you: If you haven’t seen Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, you need to do so right now. It’s good for so many reasons, but the real kicker is the second half, which touched on something I’ve been trying to articulate for over a year now: the difference between edgy, self-deprecating humor and straight-up offensive bullshit.

Because let’s be real, comedians with significant levels of privilege (straight, cis, white, male, or Christian, etc.; pick at least two!) don’t always seem to think they’re being racist or sexist (or homo-/trans-/xeno-/Islamo-/etc.- phobic) when they poke fun at people without their level of privilege. Kevin Hart doesn’t think he’s being sexist when he’s making fun of women, Katherine Ryan doesn’t think she’s being racist when she’s pretending to speak Tagalog (which she calls Filipino because fuck an entire culture, I guess???), and Patton Oswalt doesn’t think he’s being homophobic when he repeatedly attacks both politically correct terminology and LGBTQIA+ people when he says the F-word fifty times in a row for a joke. Know why?

Honestly, it is—in part—because of the audience.

Because you keep throwing money at them after they use hurtful terms to be edgy. Because you keep streaming their Netflix specials after they joke about misogyny. Because you keep supporting them and going to their shows instead of taking a stand against the culture that allows privileged people to shit on everyone else for fun.

"But it’s satire!" you cry.

Actually, it’s not! And even if that was the definition of satire, that would just mean that satire was wrong. But that’s not what that is. Satire is speaking truth to power through humor. But this isn’t speaking truth to power, is it? This is power shouting down to everyone else about their inferiority.

Quite simply, when a man ridicules a woman for being a woman, it’s not satire. When a white person teases a person of color for their race, it’s not satire. When a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man of reasonable wealth takes a dump on political correctness, it is not satire. It’s sinister. Because those jokes aren’t about making privileged people face the truths of a society that benefits them at everyone else’s expense, they’re about privileged people making marginalized and oppressed people feel the need to be less, to ask for less space, to shut up in order to blend in. These jokes say “the way you exist and demand respect is laughable because it’s unreasonable,” which is the truest form of privilege.

When straight people complain about marriage equality on a national stage, they are taking space from the LGBTQIA+ people who are fighting for respect. When men complain about how women act, they are shaming women into conforming by making resistance seem foolish. When non-Muslims make jokes about ISIS, they are confirming in the minds of their audiences that certain people can be mocked and generalized for their religion. When able-bodied people make fun of disabled people, they attempt to strip them of their humanity for cheap laughs. When rich people tease the poor, when cis people tease trans and non-binary folk, when white people tease people of color, etc., etc., etc.

And the worst part seems to be that so many white women and men of color are joining in. You’d think being black/latinx/etc. would open your eyes to how sinister bigotry is and make you want to avoid perpetuating it onstage, but you’d be wrong. You’d think being a woman who calls herself a feminist would make it impossible to want to openly attack people with disabilities or people of other races, but you’d be wrong again. I guess when you’re only one or two traits away from being a rich, able-bodied, straight cis white man, you feel like you’re immune to being a bigot because you still have an area you can point to when someone calls you out for being a bully. You know what I mean. Saying stuff like, “I’m not a bigot, I’m a black man/white woman in America! I’m the victim!”

I don’t know how to say this in any other way, but being a bully is not funny. Showcasing your disregard for people without your privilege is not funny. And throwing your money at people who don’t care is also not. funny.

I don’t know how to convince you that you should care about other people. I don’t know how to make you understand that not being politically correct is not a personality trait. But I’ll be damned if I let you get away with it.

And that’s what gets me called a sensitive snowflake. That’s part of why people make fun of millennials. But you know what? A new generation is here and they’re younger and brighter and smarter and gayer than any millennial has ever been—and if we millennials can’t kill bigoted comedy, they will. They’ve already taken on the entire U.S. government on every level, so this should be nothing for them. Making sure bullies don’t get to spread hate is kind of their thing, and honestly, it’s the most heartening thing happening right now.

So yeah, fuck Kevin Hart and fuck Katherine Ryan and fuck Patton Oswalt and honestly fuck Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock and Louis C.K. (who is abominable for so many reasons) and Iliza Shlesinger and fuck privileged comedians who get up on stage with their fat jokes and their self-righteous attitudes and their half-assed accents just to shit on the rest of us. Fuck all of it. I cannot and will not take another second of it.

But believe it or not, I still believe in stand-up comedy. People like Hannah Gadsby (seriously, please immediately go watch Nanette after this), Solomon Georgio, and Jaboukie Young-White are really making special and funny things that everyone can enjoy because when the marginalized tell their stories, it’s not bigotry with a rhythm, it’s truth. And the truth is often funny. When queer people talk about being queer without making their identities the punchline, when women joke about what they can get away with under patriarchy, when truth is spoken to power, we can all laugh. The truth—without the taint of bigotry—will always be funny. But the era of fake-edgy (read: bigoted) comedy is over—it’s time for a lot of these acts to get off the stage and find some new material.

Because the audience surrounding the world stage is evolving, and it would be a shame for the headlining acts to get left behind.

Or, you know, get killed by Gen Z. Whatever works.


About the Creator

Gaia Atlas

A bi/demi/queer feminist of color with no chill. If you're looking for pieces on body positivity, bigotry in entertainment, and the struggle of common sense vs. evolutionary instincts (aka, smart brain vs. monkey brain), stay tuned.

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Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insight

  1. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

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Comments (1)

  • Laura Lann2 years ago

    Saw a comedy show recently, and it really left a bad taste in my mouth for this reason. And there remain so many jokes of violence against women and minorities in comedy. Sometimes it feels like the crow is laughing along simply because everyone else is laughing and the expectation is to laugh since the person on stage is supposed to be funny. You've said it all really well, and I hope for change.

Gaia AtlasWritten by Gaia Atlas

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