When Does Comedy Stop Being Comedy?

Has anyone seen Chris Rock’s new Netflix special where he makes fun of Will and Jada Smith? How funny was it?  What was the craziest joke?  These were some of the questions that flooded Twitter when Rock’s special dropped, before I stopped bothering to read.  However, there were a few snippets from Rock’s special that started making the rounds over Twitter that I found to be real headscratchers, and I started wondering why Netflix was platforming the dispute that culminated in the physical altercation seen around the world.  It had me thinking, “What the heck is really going on?”

Let us go back to the future to study comedy.

Comedy has a long and rich history that we can look back on and laugh at, but which is just as troubling as the situations of which fun is being made.  But that might be why people love it, or at least, why some do.  Nevertheless, I believe that the trajectory of comedy changed in the early 2000s, starting with the Ali G Show as well as the Borat segments, after which other comedians tried replicating with their own spinoffs including the Amazing Racist, also around the time of the infamous Bum Fights videos, and later Chapelle’s Show and the sitcom Summer Heights High.

By the time we entered into the 2010s, societies desire for ignorance and disrespect entertainment remained the same, and it would be fair to chalk it up to a non-existent values system.  I would go as far as saying that the gap between the peak and the valley, between society’s capacity for intelligence and society’s desire for shameless entertainment, it was the greatest deviation between where we should be heading and how far off trajectory we were going – a modern day version of venatio and gladiatorial entertainment.

This brief look into the troubling years of “comedy” may come across as a “better than you”-type shaming, but it is far from that.  Everyone that I grew up with and was friends with, myself included, during that transition into adulthood, also acted ignorantly and used words that should have always been regarded as misogynistic, racist, or homophobic, and which should have been beneath all of us.  But they were not, since it was reflective of society’s values at that time.  Everyone’s actions were influenced by what they were seeing on TV, over the internet and elsewhere.  It was reflective of the times people were living in, and we should be careful of judging people too harshly for how we acted then, so long as we are not still behaving in that manner now.

Social media the great saviour.

During this era of troubling comedy, the only thing that remained constant was social media.  The early days of social media were just as lawless as society’s values, meaning you could post whatever you wanted and all of it was reflective of just how detached we all were from one another prior to the arrival of platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  To be fair, comedians and everyday people were not the only ones who were participating in ignorance and disrespect-entertainment, since there was a Twitter account that tracked all the crazy tweets that politicians from around the world had tweeted at one point.  That Twitter account was suspended shortly after we entered into the 2010s, and its treasure trove of tweets sank with it, but it was reflective of just how similar elected figures and regular people really were during that period of time.

These days there seems to be a belief that social media has become more toxic, but I feel that is wrong because I do not think social media has changed, people have.  Although I could try to explain some of that anger by discussing the connection between trauma and adversity in childhood and how that contributes to angrier adults, the overarching theme is people are tired of being the butt of other peoples’ jokes.  Perhaps this is how people have always felt, but they lacked a platform to express their feelings, a platform in the vein of a Facebook or Twitter.

Voices worth listening to.

One of the most popular stand-up comedians of all-time, a fellow Canadian, Russell Peters, was recently interviewed on W5 by Sandie Rinaldo.  It is worth the watch.  Although the episode begins with a notice that viewers are likely to be offended, it does the opposite, and even attempts to address the challenges around comedy.

Russell Peters’ segment is the best part of the episode.  Intentional or not, even Peters recognizes, “Wow.  I can not believe I said that in complete clear consciousness.  Wow.  I guess I thought it was funny at the time, but at the time it was funny.  It was daring.  It was ‘Wow.  Did he just say that?’.” After that, Peters mentions how during this time period, comedians where constantly trying to push the envelope and how people were chasing the line and trying to cross by saying, “It was perfectly normal back then.  It was perfectly acceptable.” When Rinaldo asked Peters if he regretted anything, he responded by saying, “No.  The words are irrelevant, everything is about intent.” In other words, Peters acknowledged that his past comedy and even behavior was reflective of the times, a period I would describe as being absent of a values system and which blinded many people.

All of the “Rock versus Smith” beef reminds me of another interview, a 50 Cent interview that I remember watching in the early 2000s, on DJ Whoo Kid’s Rewind DVD, where 50 Cent talked about a “beef” between two musicians that he thought would turn deadly because of what they were saying to one another.  Perhaps if Rock and Smith were two hardened street kids, instead of a comedian and an actor, Netflix amplifying the situation might have already resulted it in turning deadly.  Nonetheless, Mike Tyson’s comments on the “Rock versus Smith” situation were my favorite, not just because I like Tyson, but because he is real about the situation, and he never tries to make himself come across as a tough guy.

When the topic of “the slap” came up during a HotBoxin’ With Mike Tyson episode, Tyson joked, “Rocks getting ready to turn into marble.  He is getting ready to turn into marble.  He has got some lawsuits coming up.” In a subsequent episode, Tyson was asked by one of the guests whether he thought that Will Smith would have slapped him if he said the joke.  Without missing a beat, Tyson responded by saying, “Well, I would not be talking about his wife, so he would not hit me.  No.”

And that is how it should be.

Was that not funny?

So, when does comedy stop being comedy?  Is it when we go from generalizing and stereotyping to poking fun at specific people’s personal lives, especially when they may be falling apart, for things that are out of their control or are situations that we would not want to find ourselves in?  Or is it making fun of the specific things that are most important to them and that may be a significant part of their lives, but that we could care less about? Your life, your problem, not mine, right? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves once we start trying to figure out when comedy stops being comedy.