Can I laugh at this? Shifting Norms presents stand-up comics with challenges and new opportunities
“I’m anti-covid, I’m going to say it right now,” Eric Bransteen, a New York-based stand-up comedian, announces to an unmasked crowd during his set at the New York Comedy Club in Greenwich Village.
“I say risky things here. You want to cancel me, go ahead.
Although mocking cancel culture in taking a stand against the existence of COVID-19, Bransteen’s quip represents a new era in comedy: one of heightened sensitivity. Saturated with a global pandemic, accounts of racial justice, political polarization and the #MeToo movement, the past few years have provided comedians with new, often awkward material.
Some comics, like Bransteen, adapt to cultural change and soften the edgy moments of their settings, while others have delved into thorny subjects, trying to provide a safe space for intense conversation. Dave Chappelle’s Infamous Insensitive 2021 transgender identity processing on Netflix proves that the boundaries of comedy are pushed to one end of an extreme – one that disregards negative implications in the name of shock value. But its boundaries are also pushed the other way, as many comedians push to develop what the art form can and should become.
Bransteen noticed a palpable shift in the boundaries of comedy after clubs began to open as the pandemic subsided.
“The audience just seemed very sensitive, which is good because comedy is always evolving,” he says on Zoom, weeks after his COVID banter. “Some comedians want to put their head in the sand and ignore the changes. As a comedian, to be successful, you want to be able to work with that a bit.
Comedian, writer and producer Abby Washuta agrees audiences have become more sensitive, adding that demographics can alter a crowd’s receptivity to material. She cites a 2018 comedy shot by alumni Saturday Night Live writer Nimesh Patel as evidence of this movement. Midway through his set, the comedian sarcastically suggested — in front of an audience of Columbia University students — that, if faced with a choice, a black man would never choose to be gay. The event was quickly cut short by the event hosts and Patel was booaccording to a Vulture report.
“I think it depends on who you play,” Washuta says. “A lot of people say shit about performance to college-aged people. If a room is full of college kids, we sweat.
Patel was removed from the show This Week at the Comedy Cellar later the same week; a comedy center an insider told Page Six that he didn’t want to invite conversation about censorship on college campuses.
While it’s rare for audience members, regardless of demographic, to get up and leave, or for the mics to be muted halfway through, comedians can hear clearly when a joke doesn’t land. Bransteen says one reaction in particular can be frustrating for comics: when audiences groan. Comedian and actor Lee O. Valentin isn’t bothered by these reactions, however, and says he uses them to inform his work.
“That’s the kind of feedback, as a comedian, that you want,” he explains.
While some are hyper-aware of this – sometimes audible – cultural shift towards political correctness, others believe that “cancel culture” is just a continuation of what comedy has always faced as a whole. what an art form.
“Even when you think of old-school court jesters, the court jester was the guy who laughed at the king and hoped he didn’t get killed,” said New York-based HBO comedian Alex Babbitt. York, emphasizing the nature of the industry. “I don’t see him as any different than he’s ever been. You may need to switch languages, but it happens every two years, it doesn’t matter. I can’t do stand-up like they did in the 80s. It’s just a different thing.
In 1972, for example, revered stand-up comic George Carlin pushed the envelope in his track “Seven words you can never say on TV.“Before Carlin’s skit, no one broke the unspoken rule that certain swear words couldn’t be uttered on screen. But now they’re accepted by most audiences as normal, demonstrating how the comedians pushed back against the boundaries – and broke them – for decades.
Whether “cancel culture” has existed invariably over time or is a new feature of audience-sponsored comedy, crowd members, without fail, feed off the energy of the other. Some seem to censor themselves, waiting to see if the collective agrees that a joke is politically acceptable before allowing themselves to laugh. Creator and producer of baby shower comedy Tobin Miller explains that if a comedian tells a homophobic, racist or otherwise offensive joke, the audience is less likely to laugh for fear that those around them will think they share those beliefs.
“There’s like a contract that an audience, throughout a show, starts to make with each other,” Miller says. “They don’t just see it in a silo. They also think about what the rest of the audience thinks.
While many comics eschew politically charged or controversial subject matter that may offend audiences, others lean into it, using their comedy to provoke meaningful and needed conversations.
“I had an abortion two years ago, thank you,” Alison Leiby announces to a packed house at the Caveat, an entertainment venue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I’m still trying to lose weight without a baby.”
In the rest of his set, titled Oh my God, an hour on abortion, Leiby provides a candid account of his experience with the procedure. She thinks stand-up has changed, in her opinion, for the better. Instead of men joking about hypothetical abortion, she is happy to see women on stage, sharing their lived experiences.
“People who have different experiences that fall outside of our general understanding of what it’s like to live in America have the space to start talking about it personally, and perhaps in more vulnerable ways,” she says. “Ultimately, I think it leads to better comedy anyway.”
Leiby believes that tackling controversial issues like abortion through comedy can reduce the stigma surrounding them. She repeatedly quoted audience members who opened up to her post-show, sharing their experience with the proceedings.
“If we can laugh about it, we can also start talking about it,” she says. “It’s like your guard is going down a bit. The whole point of how I want to talk about this heavy topic is to lighten it up as much as possible. This is not the crisis that many people imagine.
Whether or not the comedy helps deepen an important conversation, and whether the jokes offend the audience or effectively push boundaries back and forth, political scientist, comedian and circus performer Andrea Jones-Rooy says it doesn’t matter if an audience thinks that whether or not he should laugh at a joke. They quote the famous quote from the late musician Tom Lehrer: “Laughter is involuntary. If it’s funny, you laugh.
“For the most part, it’s like having the hiccups,” Jones-Rooy says. “You just did. You don’t even think about it. So I think that’s a really useful lens when you’re thinking “should I laugh at this?” Because in a way, you’re going to laugh or not, whether or not you think you should.