Richard Pryor is considered by many the greatest standup comedian of all time. Watch one of his most famous performances, Live in Concert (1979), and you see an almost flawless (that “n” word, those Asian jokes) comic who excels in all aspects of the form—his physicality, his impressions, his observations, his wit, his emotional intelligence. This was a victim of abuse (and, later, an abuser himself) addressing fraught issues of sexuality, gender, and race in a way that seems fresh even now. And he bent the form around himself. In one bit, Pryor performed in excruciating detail his childhood experience of being battered black and blue by his grandmother. Twenty years before the invention of “cringe comedy,” he had his audience laughing in pain with him, joy and sadness mingling side by side, transgressing the axiom that humor relieves tension.
Pryor’s harrowingly candid approach had audience members shouting “Preach!” and sometimes would cause him to drop the joke altogether. During his 1982 gig Live on the Sunset Strip he announced he would no longer be using the “n” word, which he had peppered liberally throughout his act up until that point. “That’s a word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness,” he says. “I ain’t trying to preach nothing to nobody, I’m just talking about my feelings about it.” In this he differed from other politically aware comics, like Bill Cosby, who in his infamous 2004 Pound Cake speech unapologetically evangelized about what he saw as the failures of the black community. “Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack,” he says. “Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up?”
There seemed to be a direct line from Cosby to Louis C.K., who after he had children in the early 2000s, began injecting his self-deprecating routines with a liberal amount of sanctimony, despite, like Cosby, engaging in wildly contradictory behind-the-scenes behavior (C.K. has since attempted a guilt-free comeback while his forefather’s incarceration prevents a parallel resurgence). His sincerity appeared to seal him off from judgment; indeed, disagreeing with C.K. meant your moral compass had gone awry. He soon became something of an Oprah-like self-help guru, peddling advice while perpetuating a toxic environment that alienated and even cut short the careers of female comics around him. And his confessional-verging-on-sentimental storytelling informed a cadre of popular male comedians, from Aziz Ansari (also accused of misconduct, also already back at work) to Jim Gaffigan to Marc Maron to Chris Gethard. “I’m not wasting all this time pretending comedy is going to fix me somehow, it’s not,” the latter says tearfully towards the end of Career Suicide, his HBO special about depression. But there is a clear dose of prescriptive uplift in these newly introspective male routines. For instance, Patton Oswalt’s catchphrase during his 2017 Annihilation show, “It’s chaos, be kind,” is borrowed from his late wife. That comics like Sarah Silverman and Tig Notaro have in recent years given high-profile TED Talks—“ideas worth spreading”—is likely a side-effect of C.K. The irony being that C.K.’s success is a side-effect of female comics.
There is a clear dose of prescriptive uplift in these newly introspective male routines.
Yael Kohen, author of We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, wrote in Vulture in 2016 that funny women originated honest storytelling after carving out a space for themselves in a community controlled by men. Starting in the seventies, galvanized by second-wave feminism, women flooded standup but found mainstream clubs resistant to their presence, which relegated them to smaller venues and alternative media outlets. “It was unfair, and sexist, to be sure,” wrote Kohen, “but in retrospect, it gave women a chance to practice frequently, and practice offbeat material without limitations, and away from the misogyny of hecklers and other male comics.” Out of this came daring, subversive work like Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman Spook Show, which included a monologue about a self-administered abortion, and Sandra Bernhard’s performance art-comedy (see her striptease finale in Without You I’m Nothing). In the nineties, the type of comedy women like Janeane Garofalo performed was named for the venues in which they appeared: alt comedy.
“Until, as women, we all say no, we’re not going to starve ourselves, nothing’s gonna change. So we’re our own worst enemies most of the time, but I still blame men,” Garofalo said during her 1995 HBO special. She encouraged women to eschew tight routines in favor of experimenting with truth, and comics like Margaret Cho responded by mining their sexuality, their gender, their race in their acts. And then came Louis C.K. Male comics like him could have the best of both worlds, dabbling in indie clubs to hone jokes that were then hailed as “genius” by the mainstream, even though their roots were in the margins. “C.K. found a way to appropriate the truth-first comedy pioneered by female comics for a more aggressive, more masculine comedy-club audience,” wrote Jesse David Fox in Vulture. While C.K. used confession as a front—selectively unloading vulnerability on his audiences as a cover for his off-stage abuse of power—female comics with nothing left to hide simply shared. Since they weren’t concealing bad behavior, they didn’t have to overcompensate with sentimentality. Instead they forged real intimacy with their audiences, trading stories the way women always have, empowering themselves by controlling their own narratives. And the culture caught up. The rise of identity politics, the ease of online dissemination of art and media, and the democratization that made marginalized voices audible on social media finally put women in the mainstream.
“Hello. I have cancer. How are you,” Tig Notaro opens her now-famous Largo set in 2012. Recorded as Live, the routine went viral after being sold on Louis C.K.’s website. The show was born of a string of tragedies: a vicious bacterial infection, her mother’s death, a breakup, and a diagnosis of cancer in both of her breasts. “I just keep picturing God going, ‘You know what? I think she can take a little more,’” Notaro quips. Somehow during the thirty-minute set she never loses her sense of humor or drops her usual stage persona. The show launched her from an absurdist comedian’s comedian into the public consciousness. Not since Pryor had someone so deftly performed real comedy and abject tragedy in the same breath. “It wasn’t that it was funny, but it was just—how can one person get this much bad news?” Notaro explained to The New Yorker. “It just fascinated me, and it became the only thing I could think about.” Still, the set was relatively unplanned as the comedian went on stage only a few days after being diagnosed. “It’s weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy,” Notaro says during the show. “I am just at tragedy right now. That’s where I am in the equation.” She had originally planned to do an observational joke about bees but, after her diagnosis, she changed her mind in the shower shortly before going on stage. Intending to warn the audience of a detour in her material, at the last minute she decided not to. “I don’t want to make excuses for my show before I get started,” Notaro later told NPR, “regardless of what I’m doing onstage.”
“When art masquerades as protest, it undermines its own capacities to expand perception,” artist Walead Beshty told Frieze magazine in the wake of Donald Trump’s election last year. He believes the move “results in mediocre art.” But what happens with the opposite configuration, when protest masquerades as art? The result is Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. Though Nanette is presented as a standup comedy special on Netflix, seventeen minutes into the hour-long set the queer Australian comic clarifies for her audience that the 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. “Punchlines need trauma because punchlines need tension,” she says, dropping the expected act for a prolonged, earnest monologue about her various assaults at the hands of men. “I will not allow my story to be destroyed.”
This neat equation—comedy disempowers, rejecting it empowers—is seductive for its simple rebellion. In truth, Gadsby is guilty of the same sleight of hand she indicts comedy for. “Laughter is not our medicine,” she says. “Stories hold our cure.” It is the sort of statement that has earned her a huge following and near-unanimous critical praise, not to mention a book deal and reverential awe at this year’s Emmys. But it is, again, a half-truth. Positioning herself as a post-comedy revolutionary crashing a male-dominated industry, Gadsby elides the long, complicated history of standup comedy. Many women before her—from pioneering black lesbian Moms Mabley in the twenties to self-skewering housewife Phyllis Diller in the fifties to Elayne Boosler’s revolutionary raunch in the eighties—marginalized by men, defied them, swapping jokes for a new kind of honest storytelling. Gadsby, like so many contemporary comics—see Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Marc Maron—whittles this storytelling technique to the point of dogmatism. Nanette does not defy, it inherits. It is a Trojan horse, a gesture towards challenge, which never actually delivers. The truth is that the response to Gadsby’s comedy is just the latest example of a newly ascendant brand of cultural tokenism—one in which art is valued merely as an act of political representation.
A year before his death, David Foster Wallace edited the 2007 volume of The Best American Essays. Referring to himself as “BAE Decider” in the collection’s introduction, he explained why he had picked predominantly sociopolitical writing that year. “It is totally possible that, prior to 2004—when the re-election of George W. Bush rendered me, as part of the U.S. electorate, historically complicit in his administration’s policies and conduct—this BAE Decider would have selected more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese, some of which this year were quite lovely and fine,” he writes. “In the current emergency, though, such essays simply didn’t seem as valuable to me as pieces like, say, Mark Danner’s ‘Iraq: The War of the Imagination’ or Elaine Scarry’s ‘Rules of Engagement.’” I recalled Foster Wallace’s introduction when, seven minutes from the end of Nanette, Hannah Gadsby listed a series of abuses—both sexual and physical—she had suffered at the hands of men, and said, “I tell you this because my story has value.”
The response to Gadsby’s comedy is just the latest example of a newly ascendant brand of cultural tokenism.
Like money, art’s value fluctuates over time, according to cultural shifts and world events. When Tig Notaro was diagnosed with cancer, she realized that her old jokes had little worth in her current context. “It felt so silly and irrelevant to think about that stuff, observational jokes about bees and stuff, in light of what was going on with me,” she told The New Yorker. Cameron Esposito, whose new show Rape Jokes—free to stream on her site—addresses how she once used her own rape as a punchline in her routine, was triggered by Trump’s election to explore in her comedy her reassessment of her assault. As she told Vulture, “Having had somebody just not care about what I wanted, and then hearing somebody say that’s his whole M.O., and then having that person become president . . . That’s what happened for me with the election. I just couldn’t not talk about it anymore.” The same thing happened to Hannah Gadsby, who described “that sudden feeling of ‘I don’t feel so safe’ when Donald Trump was elected,” also in Vulture. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to learn how to shoot a gun for the apocalypse.’”
These comics made changes they found necessary, the sort of changes that, within a climate that evaluates art on its sociopolitical content first, work in an artist’s favor regardless of the overall quality of their oeuvre. When bad art is still heralded as good—or “necessary” —because it represents the sort of diversity we currently crave and so rarely find, that is cultural tokenism. And cultural tokenism is the enemy of criticism. As Baffler contributor Lauren Oyler recently wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “When applied to bad art with good politics, ‘necessary’ allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult.”
In terms of overall quality, Nanette is mediocre. While other high profile comedians take a break from standup to give TED Talks, Gadsby’s special erodes the separation between the two, down to the oversized, antiseptic set and the comic’s persistently neutral affect, physically restrained, with a voice that often sounds like a soothingly patronizing life coach. Much of her material is equally familiar, presenting near-platitudes covered endlessly in the wake of #MeToo—the myopic male gaze in art, the separation of art from the artist, the limited view of woman as either virgin or whore, the unwelcome, transgressive anger of women, the control exacted over our stories by powerful men like Harvey Weinstein. “Do you know who used to be an easy punch line? Monica Lewinsky,” Gadsby tells the Sydney Opera House audience three months after the former White House intern had deployed the #MeToo hashtag, eliciting a culture-wide reassessment of her treatment post-Clinton.
“Gadsby’s material is almost two years in the making and seems to harness the broader fury of the #MeToo moment,” writes Moira Donegan in The New Yorker. “Gadsby, like many women, is done hiding her anger, and in Nanette she bends the bounds of standup to accommodate it.” Except she doesn’t. Gadsby doesn’t bend the medium, she abandons it. “This is why I must quit comedy, because the only way I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger,” she says. This is not revolution, it is surrender. Unable to subvert the status quo or to reinvent it, Gadsby claims to reject the system in which she continues to operate. Bending the bounds of standup to accommodate your anger is Mo’Nique performing a meta-set called I Coulda Been Your Cellmate within the grounds of an Ohio women’s prison and using the suspension of reality created by her act to break the facility’s rules and summon a group hug.
Nanette validates the mainstream culture’s belief that oppression is not something you can joke about. “You do understand what self-deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins?” Gadsby asks, re-evaluating her prior approach to comedy. “It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” Again, it sounds good, but it’s not entirely true. Maria Bamford is just one counter-example. The frenetic genre-bending comedian uses self-deprecation to destigmatize mental illness by illuminating its absurdity. In 2006’s The Now Show she sings an improvisational tune her therapist prescribes to quell her anxieties. “If I keep the kitchen floor clean, no one will die!” she caws. “As long as I clench my fists at odd intervals, the darkness within me won’t force me to do anything inappropriately violent or sexual at dinner parties!” Margaret Cho, on the other hand, uses self-deprecation to highlight Hollywood’s racism. Discussing her sitcom, All-American Girl, during her show I’m the One That I Want, she says, “Because I wasn’t Asian enough, they decided to hire an Asian Consultant. Because I was fucking it up as an Asian.” On Twitter, writer Peter Moskowitz characterized Gadsby’s dismissal of self-deprecation as “lazy” because it erases a tradition found in both queer and Jewish cultures. “Self-deprecation allows us to find our self-hatred from living under cis/hetero/white supremacy and excise it, laugh it off. It is a liberatory act,” they tweeted, adding, “Why do you think Jews gravitated toward comedy? It’s because of that—because it feels good to laugh at yourself, and make non-Jews feel uncomfortable in the process.”
Nanette validates the mainstream culture’s belief that oppression is not something you can joke about.
Nanette cannot be faulted for addressing the tension inherent in stories of women’s abuse and marginalization, or the fact that comedy—not to mention the broader culture—has not historically made space for this population or their own testimony. But a commentary on discrimination is already built-in to alt comedy, a genre founded and developed by women operating at the margins of their art form. And within this tradition, the set-up-punchline convention has long since been left behind in favor of more fluidity.
It is understandable that Gadsby, as badly treated as she has been by men, would want to reject an industry they continue to dominate and use, no less, to further abuse women. How to operate as a queer woman within such a system? The simplest, most palatable answer is to refuse participation, and Gadsby knows it. She is well aware of the resonance of such a choice in today’s politically charged climate of art consumption, in which a socially “necessary” work needn’t concern itself with any of the standards by which we’ve traditionally judged art—say, by whether your standup routine is funny. As she told Variety, “in order to find this success, I really did need to declare I was quitting comedy and mean it.” The joke is on us for buying a story that has since proven as misleading as a punchline. “I said I was quitting, and if I quit, I’m an idiot now,” Gadsby said on The Tonight Show. “If the show had gone as badly as I’d planned, it would’ve worked, but now I’m left with the choice: I’ll either be an idiot or a hypocrite. I’ll be a hypocrite.”