O Comedy, Where Art Thou?

Whether described as “politically correct” or “woke,” the left-wing attack on culture has had particularly devastating effects on art. Comedy especially has been a favorite target of ideological gatekeepers, and it’s not a mystery why—more than any art form or even philosophy, humor exposes lies, be they political or social. It gets to the heart of what we may call truth.

This past Saturday, comedian Shane Gillis performed an opening monologue for NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Gillis was fired by the same show in 2019 for pushing the limits designated by the ideologues du jour. NBC deemed Gillis’ jokes to be “racist,” and the comedian was fired after a mere four days. Gillis apologized but even his apology had a tinge of humor. “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said,” Gillis said. “Of course, I wanted an opportunity to prove myself at SNL … I am honestly grateful for the opportunity.” But then, Gillis delivered a zinger: “I was always a MADtv guy anyway,” making a dig at SNL’s lack of imagination.

Fast forward to 2024, and Gillis’s opening for SNL this past Saturday. He offered plenty of politically incorrect jokes. Reflecting on his childhood, Gillis asked the audience whether they remember when they were their mother’s best friend. “Do you remember that? When you were a little boy and you loved your mom and thought she was the coolest—you remember when you were gay? You remember when you were just a gay little boy?”

Gillis continued with a few jokes about family members with Down Syndrome, using the out of fashion colloquialism “retarded,” as well as delivering some jokes about race relations. There was also a skit about Donald Trump’s sneakers. It was presented as a trailer for a movie: a guy who has no self-confidence gets a pair of Trump sneakers, and although he still has no talents the mere act of putting on the sneakers gives him the confidence to convince people that he’s talented. Gillis’s impersonation of Trump is quite good, but perhaps the reason the skit was approved was because it implied that Trump is delusional about his abilities and importance.

Yet Gillis also tossed in a Biden joke in that skit—another man gets a pair of bland, white “Joe Biden sneakers” and the only thing he’s able to do is fall. The jokes and the skits were only somewhat funny, yet more conservative-minded media seemed to think that because Gillis said the words “retarded” and “cracker,” he must be funny because he is fighting the system. Not really.

Comedy used to be evaluated based on an its actual level of humor but today, comedy is considered funny if the comedian is simply uttering words that are meant to be banned by the “Ministry of  Comedic Affairs Ban.” In other words, today, for the most part, humor is simply a commentary on comedy itself—call it “meta-comedy.” The air is stifling, and the ratchet is tightening. The censorship we see today is not the sort we usually understand to be typical of totalitarian systems. It’s a group that is attempting to “cancel” an individual because he or she is challenging the ideologically accepted set of beliefs, which frequently change.

This is not to say that comedians were never censored in the past. Recall George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” bit about the words which you were not allowed to say on television or radio. Love him or hate him, Carlin had a gift for dismantling the censorship machine in a way that made us laugh, especially when it came to his grammatical and metaphysical exegesis of the words too dirty to say on television.

But now, standards have fallen and a stand-up comedian doesn’t have to work too hard. It used to take great skill. Comedians would work to deconstruct an ideology while remaining superior, or at the very least, distant from the subject in question. Things changed when those on the extreme left who dare to call themselves comedians, took to just ranting about the people on the other side of the political spectrum. That does not take any skill at all.

At its heart, comedy is not just about laughter but about truth. An excellent comedian can bring out the truth about being human just as much, if not more, than a philosopher. He holds the mirror for us to either see ourselves or the society in which we live so we may come to better understand who we are. Yes, much of humor is also about being subjective. What’s funny for one person may be utterly boring or offensive for another. But we have long since strayed from that basic path in our experience as a people with humor. Maybe comedians should just go back to talking about the things that bind us together in frustration, like how did those socks get lost in the dryer again?

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