It's Friday afternoon. I'm coming down with the flu as I sit here in St. Paul, Minnesota wondering how the shows are going to be tonight. My Facebook page is ablaze with debate and commentary about the shooting at a Batman movie in Colorado. It's comics, fan of comics and people who support the right to own guns. They're all missing my point when I tweeted: “If you're a comic making jokes about the Batman shooting you're an idiot. You're not making fans, you're loosing them.” People make the usual points about gun violence in America, stand up comics’ right to free speech, different senses of humor and how joking about tragedies is a release.
Frankly, I'm a little disgusted with stand up comedy lately. We just had the debate about rape jokes thanks to the Daniel Tosh incident, and now comics want to whine about their right to make gun jokes how they want, when they want, however they want. That is absolutely true. Everyone has the First Amendment right to say what they like. However, people do not come to a comedy club to see comics exercise their First Amendment right. They come to laugh. You make people laugh when you make them feel good.
I consider myself a social commentary-style stand up. That means I want my audience to think when I make them laugh. Comedy doesn’t have to be dumbed down. That means my jokes have to be constructed like a mathematical formula: 1+1=2, or premise + setup= punch line. You don't have to share the same opinion the joke is written from to laugh if it's written well. Most importantly, I never forget what my first job is: it is to make people laugh; and if I am very good and a little lucky, I can make them think second. Saying you're an artist and then arguing for the right to make a stupid and tasteless joke that doesn't shine light on any of the more important social reasons why this happens, but just about the incident itself, is an intellectually dishonest argument to make.
An artist struggles to make sense of things, not point at them and say, I think this is funny. This never seemed more true to me when the rape joke debate overwhelmed the Internet last week. Over and over I read comics saying: “I have the artistic right to joke about whatever I find funny.” Wow! That's what you're going to hang your hat on to be an artist, your First Amendment right to make rape jokes? Some art. Also, enough with the First Amendment argument! Let's save the right to free speech for civil rights leaders, oppressed minorities and those telling us unpleasant truths we need to hear. I know, I know, comics will say: “That's exactly what I am doing! I am expressing unpleasant truths that need to be heard.”
No. You aren't. You aren't making a wise and thoughtful joke about society’s ills, you are making a sick joke at the expense of people who were murdered by a deranged man. If that's your style of stand up, good luck getting booked with that shit.
Last night, I told one of my favorite stories as my closer. It's about doing a gig in a bar with a Confederate flag. After the show a guy who laughed during the show came up to me and said he has a Confederate flag in his home because it represents states rights. Here we go. It does represent states rights; states that wanted the right to keep other humans as slaves with no rights. He explained that you have to look past that. Bull shit. It's another intellectually dishonest argument. It's a symbol of racism and the flag of the side that lost. Period. Maybe it does represent states rights but when those rights are about denying other people’s rights, it's a symbol of denying rights. You can't be ignorant to the fact that the vast majority see the Confederate flag that way. It's like the Nazi swastika. It started as a spiritual Tibetian symbol but when a government bent on committing genocide adopts it as their symbol you can't use the swastika as anything else. Charles Manson didn't carve it into his forehead because it represented magic and luck, he did it because it represents evil and fear. To me, claiming the Confederate battle flag can be used as a modern symbol for individual states to proclaim their sovereign right over the federal government, is the same bullshit argument comics make for tasteless jokes about a tragedy and then claim they are artists with a First Amendment right. Give me a break.
Stand up comics have the right to tell any jokes about any subject they want but few have the skill.
That's the point. When the audience is in a comedy club and they hear something wildly offensive they don't stop and think to themselves, well that comic has the right to express himself no matter how disgusting and inappropriate I think it is to poke fun at the tragedy on the same day it happened rather than attempt a smart and thoughtful joke that makes me think and gives me comfort. No! What they're thinking is: “What an asshole! That's not even funny.” That's what the audience is thinking. I don't know when stand up comedy became dislodged from empathy. Many times you hear comics complain that society has become too sensitive. In fact, I think we have become too jaded. Speaking as a comic that has gotten into trouble with audiences, bookers and club owners about my content for various reasons - too dirty, too smart, too political, too whatever - I can tell you that finding the balance between what I want to say, making audiences laugh and getting paid has never been more tricky. The political climate in this country is the social climate of America. We are divided and shouting over each other.
Stand up comics taking to the Internet to explain why they can make rape jokes is something else. It's stupid. If you want to make jokes about tragedy then you need to ask yourself why you want to be a comic, because those jokes should be seen not as a effort to make people laugh but as a warning sign from you.
Then again, what do I know? I've just been a comic for 20 years.