Is comedy dying or have audiences got smarter?

Were you aware that the PC brigade have spoiled comedy forever? Did you know that these days, with all those precious petals and goodie-goodies out there, the very concept of humour has been compromised? Pardon the capital letters, but did you know that THE VERY ABILITY TO TELL A JOKE HAS GONE DOWN THE GURGLER? I do, because a group of iconic veteran Australian comedians told me so, kvetching to The Daily Telegraph this week about the supposedly grave state of modern comedy.

“I can’t go on TV anymore, it’s so bloody PC,” says Kevin ‘Bloody’ Wilson. Rodney Rude reckons the “soft” generation has taken over comedy. Austen Tayshus, best-known for this comedy single released in 1983, concurs, saying: “The soft new generation of PC-wary comedians need to grow some balls and not worry about pleasing the audience. I get physically and verbally abused all the time and banned from pubs and bars around the country.”

When comedians such as these blokes pine for the good old days, lamenting a world that has moved beyond laughing at their old, and possibly offensive jokes, what they are actually saying is that they object to being held accountable. The line “I was just joking!” no longer explains contentious material. In recent years, partly due to the rise of social media, audiences have been given a voice – and are talking back. Older comedians remember when all they had to put up with was a heckler at a live show, or maybe a disgruntled handwritten letter.

There is, unquestionably, a higher standard placed on comedians these days. We now expect comics to not just be funny, but also intelligent.

The comedians who make these sorts of complaints – that the world is worse for no longer allowing them to get away with the things they did – usually belong to the dominant power structure. In other words, people who have the most to lose from a realignment of social values. They usually (though this is not always the case) do not know what it is like to be discriminated against on a daily basis, let alone to have that discrimination paraded on stage for the solicitation of a few cheap laughs. They are used to punching down.

There is, unquestionably, a higher standard placed on comedians these days. We now expect comics to not just be funny, but also intelligent and ideologically sound (which is not the same as saying they should always reinforce traditional notions or right or wrong, or be ‘politically correct’). That is a mark of progress, not an indication of a reduced capacity to laugh at ourselves or each other.

Recently, Ricky Gervais (pictured above) dedicated a substantial part of his Netflix special to American television personality Caitlyn Jenner in particular, and transgender people in general. The influential comic began his bit by saying: “If I say I’m a chimp, I am a chimp.” A range of outraged pieces were published in response, such as this, this, this, this and this. That is surely a good thing. Anybody who compares transgender people to monkeys deserves, at the very least, to have their motivations questioned.

Good comedy however stands the test of time.

In this week’s Daily Telegraph article, Nazeem Hussain was quoted as saying: “It’s 2018. The rule is punch up, not down.” That’s a good rule of thumb, but gifted comedians don’t necessarily abide by it – or they do, but not in simplistic ways. When Sacha Baron Cohen sang his parody song Throw the Jew Down the Well, in an bar deep in the south of America, the joke wasn’t on Jewish people but his audience of cowboys and yokels, for embracing the perverse lyrics and singing along so enthusiastically. Antisemitism came so naturally they didn’t even realise they were being inappropriate.

The core of Cohen’s classic comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan works in a similar way. It was not, however, unanimously well-received. The people of Kazakhstan were understandably insulted. It was generally accepted that the level of ridicule they experienced was morally justified, because it served a greater purpose by exposing the ignorant views of Americans. You might argue for or against this logic, but it is a legitimate ethical and intellectual argument.

Not so for a routine from Rodney Rude’s ‘Frog Sack Album’, which I stumbled upon on YouTube while writing this piece, contained in a video titled “japs and stuff.” The comedian speaks in a thick, cartoon accent, impersonating a Japanese businessman, which continues with occasional breaks for over six minutes. It ends with the Japanese man receiving a ‘real Australian arse kicking’. If this is the kind of comedy the old vanguard says is dying, great. Let us dance on its ashes.

In the defense of comedians, it is true that ‘edgy’ material is often misinterpreted, even intelligent audiences not necessarily au fait or comfortable with concepts such as characterisation and satire. I was gobsmacked by the outraged response to Seth MacFarlane’s ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ segment at the Academy Awards five years ago. The one-time Oscars host clearly contextualised the sketch as something completely inappropriate (with William Shatner beaming in from the future to warn him about how the night went wrong). In the sketch he poked fun at the childish heterosexual male obsession towards on-screen nudity (without resorting to showing any) and an entertainment industry that happily caters for it, under the pretense of ‘art’ and ‘sophistication’.

This is not a bold or adventurous reading; MacFarlane’s sketch was about as plain as day as satire gets. And yet publications that should have known better obsessed over the apparent sexism and misogyny of it, without grasping the obvious counter message. Satire is difficult; comedy is difficult. I don’t envy comedians and I have great respect for them. Good comedy however stands the test of time. If it was good back in the ’80s, it’s almost certainly still good now. And if it was crap back then, it probably looks even worse these days. That, once again, is a sign of progress.

27 responses to “Is comedy dying or have audiences got smarter?

  1. I, too am the son of a European Jewish Holocaust survivor and I did a stint in comedy in the so-called “gentrified” thong-wearing neighborhood of Saint Kilda and read one of my poems(on the stage) and was BOOOOED off the stage and called a “f***ng Jew” and usually I’m the one usually that’s accused of being a “self hating Jew”!!(especially by this particular Jewish shrink, and he knows who he is) and the so called “cultural” (really petty bourgeois provincial rich kids from Brighton, trying to be hip) elite in St Kilda of being a “racist” and a “f***en Jew”,isn’t that hypocrisy there, readers??? Even little Alex (a Polish Gipsy, whose Polish uncles also survived the Nazi Holocaust) eye-witnessed my audience “reaction” in so called “cultured” St Kilda and was appalled by the hypocrisy of it all!

  2. Okay, let’s broaden the field a little. After all, all of the comedians named here are here because their work (and it is work. A comedian needs to make a living, too) reflect their time in some way. So not sorry if the the zeitgeist has moved on for some of them. One of the behaviours that has annoyed the living shit out of me for decades is part of what we used to call a’passive aggression”. God knows what it is called now . I mean, how passive is Kevin “Bloody” Wilson? Anyway, back to the task at hand. What I am talking about is a very popular behaviour of insulting people (insert here racist, homophobic, ageist, sexist, etc, etc) with a smile on one’s face, and then if that abused person should have the temerity to object in any way, to place the problem on to them of” not having a sense of humour”. After all, if you smile, then you can’t have meant any harm. This forum exists here because these behaviours are less acceptable in our less monocultural times, but they are dying hard and bitterly.

  3. Years ago in the UK I was asked by a portly restaurant chef:Q”What’s the difference b/t an Australian and a kangaroo?” A: “The intelligent look on the kangaroos’s face.” I laughed so hard I almost pissed myself. Such a joke could be applied to a New Zealander and a sheep, or a Canadian and a Moose etc but whenever I ask (particularly a younger person) “What’s the difference b/t an Iraqi and a camel?” I’m labelled a racist. Work that one out.

    1. Have you tested this theory or have you just lived out the scenario in your head to draw this conclusion?

      1. Not sure what you’re getting at. I’ve told that joke (all three versions) and HAVE been labelled a racist when applying it to Iraqis and camels – but never with the others.

  4. We expect our comedians to be ideologically sound.

    That may not be the same as saying we expect our comedians to be politically correct, but it is tantamount to saying you expect comics not to confront you with anything you disagree with.

    Who says progressives are getting a bit censorious these days?

  5. ‘We now expect comics to not just be funny, but also intelligent and ideologically sound’! Jesus, Luke, you sound like Zhdanov! And by the way, ‘ideologically sound’ IS pretty much the same as ‘politically correct’. It’s just older.

    1. Anyone who is offended by a joke should never go to a comedy club. Today’s crowds are more conservative, more narrow minded. That does not add up to being more intelligent. Comics of yester year like bill hicks would be deemed offensive these days . Comedy is about different perspectives be those perspectives be dark, cynical or otherwise, political correctness is a cancer eating into the all arts that require free expression without judgement. Inoffensive comedy is not necessarily intelligent . Think clowns or humour you hear in a nursing home.

  6. The massive success and high quality of the just completed Melbourne International Comedy Festival proves that comedy is far from dead. Yes it is certainly more sophisticated and socially topical, and less tolerant of intolerance! Melbourne is Australia’s undisputed comedy capital and will remain so.

      1. So Jeff, you watched the Melbourne Comedy festival on You Tube? and you are judging it based on that!! That’s like looking at a photo of a steak then reviewing the entire menu at a restaurant. You need to get and clue and go see some live comedy.

  7. It’s sadly a bit of a hack job. Doesn’t address at all the fact that many contemporary comedians no longer play universities due to authoriatian behaviour of the new pseudo left.
    Rodney Rude, really? When was he ever highly considered. Austen Tasheus was completely of and his time.
    You say nothing of Mr Hussein Nazeem’s former comedic partner and his blatant antisemitism- no wonder Nazeem no longer performs with him.

  8. Comedy, like everything else, is now just a vehicle for polemic from which ever side of the fence you happen to find yourself. The right is offended by Wolf, the left is offended by Rude. Everyone stands for free speech, and whines about PC this, or virtue signalling that, until someone says something they can”t tolerate. Everyone is a hypocrite. This article demonstrates that rather succinctly.

    1. And no actual discussion is going on. We are all just haranguers. We can’t laugh at each other but we can shriek. Everyone is offended and no one is tough. Yes, tough. Humans are not all sweet and cuddly but some contortion of christian ethics reimagined as a secular code expects them to act like a happy gang of chortling paraqueets. None of us, absolutely none of us, survived this long because we were sweet. Yesterday’s moral standard, that was seen as unassailable, is now compromised for the new unassailable morality, which I am sorry to say, will seem quite quaint in a few precious years. We will all wonder what the hell we were thinking. A little care. A little humility. A little flexibility would go a long way. Other people aren’t actually all the resurrection of Satan. Let all the other people be heard. If you don’t like them, boo. You do not shut people down. You do not.

  9. Genius article Luke. I come from an immigrant background and I am the son of a holocaust survivor. Despite what you infer,my routines have never been homophobic or racist or misogynistic. What I have always done is satire and irony. Grossly misunderstood by dumb people and embraced by the intelligencia. Don’t generalise. I was smart and funny then and can blow any contemporary act off the fucking stage. Austen Tayshus

    1. Luke needs a good dose of Jordan Peterson and Bill Maher, too generalising nitpickyness. Since when was Caitlyn Jenner oppressed and being punched down upon. She’s a right wing republican nutter that deserves a bit of push back for her lifetime of hypocrisy. Its only when something personally effects them that their views ‘evolve’.

    2. I have been to a few of your shows AT and I think you are fucking funny. I just fucking wish you wouldn’t say fuck so much

  10. So much virtue signalling in this article the page might explode. Well done Luke we all think you’re a compassionate, respectful guy now

    1. Note to self: being a decent human being is nothing more than “virtue signaling”, retain knowledge for future use.

  11. Thank you! You are spot on with this article. I am so sick of comedians complaining that comedy is dying because of this soft generation bladdy, bladdy, blah…

    Comedy isn’t dying, it’s evolving, and people no longer want cheap laughs at the expense of women and minorities…because it ISN’T FUNNY!

    In fact, practically every time a comedian complains about comedy becoming more PC, the comedian in question is a white, heterosexual male, thus highlighting the very point they fail to grasp; that it is their ignorance that isn’t funny, not the fact that they can no longer get away with telling ‘un-PC’ jokes.

    1. Nice stereotyping of white males – a seamless, hypocritical and glib slide into racism and sexism. Probably didn’t even occur to you because it’s such an on-trend thing to do.

  12. It might have been worth including comments from people like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld among others on the subject of comedy these days (won’t even mention Michelle Wolfe and the kerfuffle over the WHCD) but why spoil a good half-arsed polemic ?

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