There is a sentiment going around at the moment, often expressed by critics of conservative persuasion, that comedy is not what it used to be and our PC-obsessed world is full of righteous goody-goodies who can’t take a joke. Many conversations have been had, and countless words written, arguing that humour today is more watered down than ever, and that our comedians – the poor dears! – are constantly treading on eggshells.
We certainly live in times of heightened sensitivity. The other week I read articles about how a new family movie with talking animals supposedly grooms children for sexual abuse. A decade ago a story like that would have smacked our gobs; these days one barely bats an eyelid. Acknowledging that we live in sensitive and outrage-prone times, however, is not the same as saying popular humour has lost its sting or comedians have lost their nerve.
There are a growing number of productions that suggest the opposite: that the kind of comedy that truly cuts through in these noisy times is more pointed and ideological than ever. If comedians used to be criticised for making jokes ‘too political’ – souring the appeal of a good old-fashioned belly laugh by pursuing an agenda – nowadays the reverse is true.
From Cohen’s point of view, it is not straight white males that are the problem, but rather certain kinds of men and certain kinds of behaviour. Hannah Gadsby offers no such distinction.
Take, for example, the characteristically outrageous new television series (available to stream on Stan) from the high-energy chameleon Sacha Baron Cohen, a comedian so talented he managed to turn a creation of outrageous racism (his most famous character: Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev) into a magnet for countless plaudits and accolades. In Who is America? the rabble rouser is back with his trademark pranksterism, hoodwinking a range of subjects into sitting/squirming through interviews conducted by characters portrayed by himself, slathered in makeup.
At first blush, Cohen and the much-maligned Australian comedian Chris Lilley have a similar approach, both best-known for playing characters far removed from themselves. But the same people who champion Cohen tend to condemn Lilley. Borat was howlingly racist but morally OK; a Lilley character such as Jonah Takalua, on the other hand, is just howlingly racist.
The reason one is acceptable and the other is not largely comes down to ideological agenda. Lilley has none; Cohen has plenty. When we laugh at Lilley we laugh purely at how a character behaves – including, and especially, how they look and sound (which taps into issues relating to class, race and gender stereotypes) – and nothing else. But we laugh with Cohen, participating in an intellectual process that often brutally hangs the comedian’s political opponents out to dry.
The first interview in Who is America? takes place between citizen journalist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr (Cohen) and Bernie Sanders. Ruddick Jr is a wheelchair user, a Republican, a cynic and an idiot. He likes Trump and is the sort of person we naturally assume is a birther. It is clear the real target is not Sanders but the dangerous ideologues the far-right conspiracy theorist represents. Incorporating Sanders is just a way to get the audience thinking about the cretin sitting next to him.
This is not comedy with a blunt edge. Gadsby’s show, like Cohen’s, bends in certain ideological directions, but that is worlds apart from saying their humour is ‘safe’ or streamlined.
The suggestion that Cohen might just be another lefty white guy making a point is cleverly countered in the show’s next segment, about a lefty white guy – gender studies lecturer Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello – who likes to make a point. Before an amusing dinner conversation with two staunch Republicans, in which the disguised comedian deadpans about a new age parenting style involving girls being forced to stand up to pee and boys being forced to sit, Cain-N’Degeocello declares himself “a cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologise”.
Is Cohen suggesting that straight white males are not the problem per se, but rather certain kinds of men and certain kinds of behavior? In her popular and outstanding Netflix special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby is less equivocal. In one section she throws Woody Allen under the same bus as the criminally charged Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. The fact many believe a question mark hangs over the filmmaker’s guilt/innocence, while the other men are indisputably monsters, matters not a jot. Allen is a man; he is part of the patriarchy; he is rich; he is white; he is fair game.
Throughout the show, Gadsby articulates a dangerous idea with dazzling eloquence: that it is morally permissible to criticise people on the basis of their gender, skin colour and sexuality, so long as they belong to the dominant power structure. If that power structure changes, what does that do to the comedy? Is Gadsby in effect arguing that one set of taboos should be replaced with another?
This is not comedy with a blunt edge. Gadsby’s show, like Cohen’s, bends in certain ideological directions, but that is worlds apart from saying the humour is ‘safe’ or streamlined. Both shows (particularly Gadsby’s) provide interesting social commentary, designed to provoke, enrage and enlighten. These productions are intended – at least it seems to me – to create a dialogue, and to encourage society towards a more sophisticated progressive mindset.
This article is yet to even mention the acerbic style of performers such as John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Shaun Micallef, whose tooled-for-viral approach reaches an enormously wide audience and embraces satire as a viable form of political journalism. There is no need to mourn the death of edgy comedy; it is alive and well.
READ LUKE BUCKMASTER ON HANNAH GADSBY’S NANETTE HERE
THINK ABOUT SUPPORTING DAILY REVIEW PUBLISH MORE ARTS COMMENTARY HERE
AND CHECK OUT OUR NATIONAL WHAT’S ON LISTINGS HERE