Generally, I have very high respect for good comedians as I think it’s one of the most difficult art forms. In addition, various forms of identity, ranging from gender to race to sexual orientation, are often the subject of comedy, which I think can be very difficult to approach. For my part, I think this is okay in certain circumstances. It depends on how it is done.
I recently learned of the concept of “punching up.” The general idea of punching up is that as a comedian, jokes about certain populations are frowned upon if those populations are less privileged than yours, which would be “punching down.” For example, making fun of homeless people generally doesn’t go over well, since most comedians themselves are not homeless. As such, if you’re going to make those jokes, you should punch up – make jokes about people with more privilege.
There are some comics from relatively privileged backgrounds who punch down, and while I go back and forth about whether it’s okay, the joke is often clearly meant to be a caricature of people who are racist/sexist/etc. The joke is meant to highlight the absurdity of the bigotry that does exist. In this post, I don’t want to make any claims about the general quality of any specific comedian as much I want to provide examples of this comedy. Daniel Tosh, as I interpret it, does this fairly frequently and is often allowed to do so because this kind of comedy is a part of his track record.
While again, I’m ambivalent about whether I think this is okay for Daniel Tosh to do, I recognize that part of what makes me uncomfortable is much less about what he is saying and much more about what others might be hearing.
I think something similar can be said about comedians who poke fun at people who are like them. Iliza Shlesinger does this fairly frequently, poking fun at women (of a certain social class).
In a similar vein, Russell Peters also has a fairly famous/infamous bit about immigrant parents. (At this point, my post is just me posting YouTube videos.)
To a certain extent, I think people are allowed to poke fun at themselves and the social groups with which they identify. I think there’s something humbling about taking a look at cultural and social traditions within identity groups and discussing the ways in which we often take them for granted. And of course, there are times when those jokes edge on being reflective of some sort of internalized bigotry, but in general, I don’t think many comedians are doing that.
What worries me about this type of humor is the rest of the audience. In many ways, it’s similar to the way I felt about Sheryll Cashin’s talk at Vanderbilt. Broadly, I can trust black people to watch a Todrick Hall sketch and not take the video as some source of information about what black people are like.
What about white people, watching this video? What about men watching Schlesinger’s work? This problem was particularly apparent to me during the Antoine Dodson craze back in 2010, with the remixed “Bed Intruder” song.
Creative, yes. But I was around a lot of white people at that point in my life, and it became apparent to me during this period that we were all laughing, but for very different reasons. I got a lot of comments from people that indicated that the foundation of their reaction was embedded in their own stereotypes about black people. This video, to them, was just confirmation of what they already believed about black people as a lesser group.
I re-evaluate my position on this pretty much once a week, but overall, I think it’s somewhat unfair that people who wish to make comedy about their own historically marginalized populations have to worry about this. Gay people, in my mind, should be allowed to poke fun at certain things about the gay communities of which they are a part. Of course, there are other problems with the intersections of these identities (saved for another day), but in general, I think this issue is really unfortunate.
Should we, then, ask people to stop this kind of humor? I honestly don’t know the answer. I lean towards no, but I also empathize with the anger expressed by many people in the black community towards black comics poking fun at black people. I get it. My question is whether we should not be allowed to make this kind of humor because of what those in a privileged social class might think. I don’t have an answer. I just hope that we can be more critical of what it means to laugh at identity-specific observational humor. Who is laughing? What are they laughing at? And why?