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Why Can Comedians Be So Irritating?

I am bored by comedians. Everywhere you turn, people are telling jokes on talk shows, panel shows, sketch shows, stand up specials, sitcoms, podcasts and films. Most of them are worthless. There is “biting” comedy that nibbles; “searing” satire that is tepid; “laugh out loud” humour that is met with weary silence.

I am being unfair, of course. One could say with at least as much justice that is one is bored by political commentators and if we can have fresh insights, they can have fresh jokes. Still, I wonder why so many comedians are so unfunny. There are Dave Chappelles and Bill Burrs but these are the exceptions. Some ramble about their sex lives like drunk men in boring pubs. Some drop cultural references, mistaking them for punchlines. Some steal jokes from Twitter about Donald Trump’s hairdo.

Some, worst of all, forget they are comedians, posing as authorities on religion, politics and science. So, we are treated to Ricky Gervais on God; Amy Schumer on sexism; Russell Brand on everything. The problem is not so much that they give opinions – what am I doing now? – but that in giving their opinions they lose any sense of irony and wit they might have had and become pious, patronising and smug. Brand, asked in an interview for his opinion on Brexit, said his “emotional connection to politics [is] beyond those parameters”. That is funny, of course, but quite by accident.

Comedians poke fun at the absurd, unreasonable aspects of our thought, our behaviour and our societies so it is tempting to assume that they are rational themselves. When Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert mocked the Bush administration, and when Ian Hislop and Paul Merton derided British governments, people thought they were sanest guys in the room. This was nonsense, not only as one is sensible and foolish about different things but as symptoms are often recognised by fellow sufferers.

Perhaps I am biased. Most comedians are leftists or liberals. All too often it feels as if audiences are not surprised or enlightened by satirists but offered ideological affirmation. “Trump is dumb!” comedians cry, to howls of laughter. Jack Dee, the English stand-up comedian, feels the same. It reminds him of alternative comedy in the 1980s, when, “You only needed to mention Margaret Thatcher and you’d get a round of applause.”

Many liberals and leftists think conservatives are by their very nature unfunny (an idea swiftly refuted by reading Evelyn Waugh). The reasoning, offered by Erin Gloria Ryan on the left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House, is that humour is about “challenging and undermining” the status quo while conservatism is about “reinforcing and maintaining” it.

This is absurd for two reasons. One is that powerful institutions – be they supranational, governmental, cultural or academic – can be liberal and left-wing. Jack Dee also lamented, for example, the radicalisation of political correctness, saying, “There’s nothing you can say that won’t upset someone.” Rich seams of humour lurk beneath our fragile sensitivities.

Perhaps the most extreme example is Islam. Veteran comedian Rory Bremner said in 2015 that he was too frightened to satirise the faith. Ben Elton, who created The Young Ones and Blackaddersaid the BBC were “scared” to broadcast jokes about Islam. Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine, has been almost alone in doing this, even after several of its employees were massacred. Who could doubt that English ironists would have better jokes than unsubtle continental cartoons if they had the courage?

Yet this is just one reason why Gloria Ryan was wrong. The other is more significant. The popular idea, found on the left and right, that the essence of comedy is challenging the powerful and subverting convention is bunk. It can do this, naturally, and sometimes it should, but that is not its essential purpose. Its essential purpose is in fact to be funny.

Take, for example, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s classic sketch “One Leg Too Few”, in which a casting agent struggles to explain to a one-legged man why he is not suitable for the role of Tarzan. What power is being challenged? What convention is being subverted? Casting agents? The disabled? Tarzan? No, humour arises from all the absurdities and ironies of our existence. It is in the lives of the powerful and the powerless; the richest presidents and the poorest alcoholics.

One of the problems with the elevated status we have granted comics is that humour is subordinated to their opinions when it should be the other way around. Conservatives have been as guilty as anyone. The Half Hour News Hour was an infamour right-wing response to The Daily Show that sank beneath the weight of “Michael Moore is fat”-style jokes.

A similar problem plagues “offensive” comedians who like being provocational more than being funny. In most cases they are neither and one’s lasting impression is smugness; that of provocateur and that of the audience members who laugh to flaunt their pride at not being offended. Once again, this is a problem of the right and of the left. Conservatives who disagree are welcome to explain why Milo Yiannopoulos’ jokes about his sex life are hilarious and Amy Schumer’s are unfunny and disgusting.

There are exceptions. I have laughed at few things more in 2017 than James Adomian’s impression, on Chapo Trap House, of Donald’s Trump’s Bond villainesque adviser Sebastian Gorka, who, channelled by comic, is awaiting the moment at which, “THE DRAGON OF BUDAPEST SHALL RISE!” Adomian is a leftist but he told Business Insider that his act was inspired by Gorka’s “hilarious” personality more than his politics.

Critique can be no less powerful for that. Chris Morris’ sublime The Day Today – a satire of self-important and alarmist news programmes – was inspired less by specific sociological opinions than how comically strange Morris found the media. It is more incisive for being so vividly, lovingly crafted than had it been lumbered with propaganda.

Yet, again, not all comedy exists to change the world. If it did that would imply that Heaven is humourless. It enriches our language and our perspectives with the play of observation, contrast and fantasy. This can make us think, and talk, and act, but first it should make us laugh.


  1. Not sure why you’ve illustrated this with a pic of Jimmy Carr, who is one of the few British comedians who has made jokes about Islam and who is neither a right wing ranter nor politically correct.

    I’ve largely given up on satire, mainly because of Brexit. I voted Remain but almost 100% of comedians did so too and their comments on the subject are all of the ‘Brexit voters are old and racist and deserve to die’ variety. Franky Boyle did a whole programme about how Britain is worse than Nazi Germans now.

    I make an exception for The Last Leg. Alex Brooker is neither PC nor unfunny. Having a disability or two seems to have given him licence to push some boundaries. Presenter Adam Hills also seems to have too much humility to lecture the British on their inherent wickedness.

  2. DiscoveredJoys says

    I’ll be provocative and say that the levers of humour production have been seized by the luvvy class. In the UK ‘Spitting Image’ was biting satire aimed at (mostly) the Conservative Government and other establishment icons. Come the election of a New Labour government ‘Spitting Image’ ended, despite there being as much to be bitingly satirical about. They can dish it out but can’t take it.

    In addition ‘giving offence’ has become evidence of ‘thought crime’ by those who consider themselves to be arbiters of public behaviour (again luvvies and other leftist indoctrinated elites) and a lot of humour is mildly offensive because it discriminates between particular stereotypes. Think about ‘dumb blonde’ and mother-in-law jokes, let alone different races, nationalities or faiths walking into a bar…

  3. C_Miner says

    A delightful commentary. Laura Ingram’s book out of the US, Shut Up and Sing is based on the same premise: if you are a singer (or comedian) who wants to be a professional then actually sing (or make funny material) rather than imposing your views upon the audience. The audience are the means by which you make your living and you’re likely to exclude half of the population from your potential audience when you chose a side on the major issues of the day.

    Like Speaker to Animals I find satire odious because it is so rarely done properly (let alone right). If only one side of any issue can be lampooned then it grates on me as much as news that conveniently leave out facts that are inconvenient to the reporter’s (editor’s? news manager’s?) views. Those who cannot be professional in this way deserve the low ratings, and eventual canning, that should follow.

    Please, if you want to change the world, go to where you think it needs changing and work with your hands to make it better. Don’t try to lie, badger, and guilt the rest of us into doing what you think needs doing because there’s good odds that we know about it already but disagree with you about what would be a solution.

    Delightful site. I shall return.

  4. Finally! I found something to disagree with. Not the overall theme, which I totally agreed with, but with the claim that we conservatives hypocritically laugh at Milo’s sex jokes.
    Those of us “conservatives” (for desperate need of a better word) who like (tolerate, put up with, consider a necessary evil) Milo Yonupawhatever do not like his sex jokes. They are the price we pay for the good stuff.
    When Milo mentions – for like the gajillionth time – that he had black (nickname for Richard) last night, we don’t laugh and cheer. Trust me on this.

  5. Another Right Winger who is bored by Left wing comedian. You probably nicked this from Michael Gove whining on Twitter. A Right winger complaining about Left wing comedians “is” boring.

      • “Mate”, you clearly didn’t. As in the whole point of your rant was having a pop at left wingers. Alright, fair enough. Real problem is the insincerity and the unoriginality of the piece. Head over to Brendan O’Neill’s site and you will find the exact same topic covered in the exact same way. Oh, the fetishising of “Dave Chappelle” by white male right wingers…

        • I didn’t? Then what about:

          The popular idea, found on the left and right, that the essence of comedy is challenging the powerful and subverting convention is bunk…Conservatives have been as guilty as anyone. The Half Hour News Hour was an infamour [sic – my bad] right-wing response to The Daily Show that sank beneath the weight of “Michael Moore is fat”-style jokes…Once again, this is a problem of the right and of the left. Conservatives who disagree are welcome to explain why Milo Yiannopoulos’ jokes about his sex life are hilarious and Amy Schumer’s are unfunny and disgusting.

          Then I finished by praising a left-wing comedian on a socialist podcast. If the whole point was to have a pop at left-wingers I messed up. But, please, carry on mind-reading. I’m fascinating to hear why saying Dave Chappelle is good involves “fetishising” him. Was I fetishising Bill Burr as well?

          • Also, you’re right that “dude” was condescending but implying that I would follow, let alone plagiarise, Michael Gove on Twitter was far more egregious. And suggesting that I’d rip off Brendan O’Neill is worse. My point that “offence” has no inherent value was inspired by some of his ramblings suggesting otherwise.

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      … but the panellists would all be scrunched up around the chairman in an attempt to occupy ‘the middle ground’. Apart from those left or right ‘purists’ who would only video link in from separate locations to avoid contamination.

  6. Santoculto says

    Rightist/conservative humor sense tend to be very offensive and very directed to their [christian]-enemies. Yes, ”they” can be funny but ”they” tend to laugh about people who already have their own/personal challenges, invariably speaking. Traditionally speaking, humor has been a conservative basis, as most everything we have, AND strongly directed to target groups, that rightists tend to disgust.

    I don’t know if ”leftist” humor sense is better either, ”they” just startet to laugh about conservative-refferences, for example, the inbred ”stupid” appalachians and specially about christianism recently.

    A good example of so-called ”leftist” or less-conservative-humor is the 90’s classical movie ”Problem Child”, when american culture & way of life is totally exposed on its ridiculous aspects, a very ”unpatriot” style.

  7. Most humor that was popular when I was growing up would be considered offensive to various ethnic, gender, and disabled groups today. Most standup humor today consists of black and feminist comedians posturing anger of the “I am not going to put up with it” and “Aren’t they stupid” variety. The former was funny when George Carlin did it and the latter when Richard Pryor did it, but hardly anyone today does it well. Being petulant is not a substitute for being funny.
    For a while, middle-aged people having trouble with logical but quirky technology was funny, but now it is acknowledged that the tech companies need to make things easy to use and that people simply need to be able to use them. Also, the threat to our privacy is no longer funny.
    Most late night humor is word association humor of a grade school variety, and is frequently met with applause (for trying?) rather than laughter. Stephen Colbert is having trouble being funny now because the government is no longer even trying to be logically coherent, so he is reduced to being outraged rather than poking holes in their logic. And, like, you know, people can hardly talk anyway.

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