Every week or so, outrage-junkies desperate for their next fix will seize upon the words of a comedian and send the denizens of social media into meltdown. It’s a familiar sight, and the latest target of their derision is SNL alum Amy Poehler.
Poehler is the creator/producer of Difficult People, the comedy series at the centre of the controversy. The first episode includes a storyline in which one of the main characters deals with the backlash from telling an offensive joke on Twitter. Yes, it’s all very meta-ironic.
Here’s the joke in question:
“I can’t wait for Blue Ivy (the 3-year-old daughter of Jay-Z and Beyoncé) to be old enough for R. Kelly to piss on her.”
My interest isn’t in whether the line is funny, but rather in the way comedy’s purpose has come to be defined in such serious terms. One of the claims we inevitably hear whenever a comedian captures the gaze of the professionally-offended is that “comedy is about punching up.” Right on cue, Ana Kasparian employed this argument throughout The Young Turks’ analysis of the controversy:
“As a comedian, you’re supposed to punch up, not down… It’s OK when the joke is about someone who’s in power. It’s not OK when you’re attacking people who have no power… You shouldn’t punch down. Again, I feel like that’s just a general rule.”
Let’s just ignore the parody-defying claim that joking about the daughter of billionaires Jay-Z and Beyonce is “punching down.” Nowhere is it written that comedy’s only purpose is to lampoon the powerful. That isn’t even a necessary purpose. The primary goal of every comedian is to make the audience laugh. Everything else, by definition, comes second.
Comedy can be a vehicle for social commentary, but it doesn’t have to be. Not every comedian is going to be George Carlin. Sometimes, even most of the time, a joke is just a joke. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the comic’s worldview. Indeed, the offending line from Difficult People doesn’t have a target. The intended targets are the malcontents who grab a megaphone and a pitchfork whenever someone stumbles over one of their many emotional tripwires.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume comedy’s purpose is to punch up. From whose perspective should we judge the punch’s trajectory? Is a joke’s legitimacy based on the power/privilege dynamic between the comedian and his target? I recently wrote about the simplistic, self-serving conception of privilege that many on the far left subscribe to, and this notion of punching up is undoubtedly tied to that.
Privilege is never as simple as “Group A is more privileged than Group B.” If we insist on measuring the boundaries of comedy via an ill-conceived privilege hierarchy, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’re going to need a team of privilege mathematicians. At the very least, we’ll require some sort of privilege app to run our “knock knock” jokes through.
Can a black person make fun of a lesbian? Does the punch’s trajectory change if the black person happens to be a rich male? What if he loses all of his money and is diagnosed with cancer? The trajectory has to move at least 90 degrees north, right? Then again, what if the lesbian suffers from severe clinical depression, rheumatoid arthritis, alopecia, and has a lazy left eye? Get your privilege calculators out, folks.
This approach to social discourse is exhausting. There seems to be a belief in some circles that oppressed groups—or those perceived to be—are both infallible and exceptionally fragile. In a recent video about the sins of “New Atheists,” the Majority Report’s Sam Seder provided us with a textbook example of this obscenely condescending mindset:
“[Sam Harris] is expressing a view that there is something inherently problematic in [Islam], this non-Western religion, that is problematic not just with those who commit acts of violence, but those who take a poll saying, ‘Well, I subscribe to the same principles as these people do, short of ever acting upon it in a violent way.’”
Anyone can hold contemptible views, wherever they land on the privilege spectrum. Can you imagine the far left offering up the same defense for Westboro Baptist Church? The notion that Sam Seder would ever say, “I have no problem with those people or their views” is comical. It’s a closing bit.
No group or individual is exempt from having their worldview scrutinized or satirized. You don’t get a pass simply because of a misplaced desire to infantilize certain groups based on race, sexuality, gender, or religion. Comedy doesn’t have to punch up, down, left, or right. It can punch in any direction or no direction. It isn’t reasonable to think an entire art form should be tailored exclusively to your values. The sooner some people realize that, the sooner they can stop immiserating themselves through manufactured outrage.