The Problem of Comedy in the Digital Era

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Chris Rock did an interesting Q&A for the Times in which he discussed comedians making bigoted jokes:

Q. Whether it's your tweet, or Daniel Tosh joking about rape, or Tracy Morgan saying he'd kill his son if he came out to him, does it seem like the Internet is just adding more fuel to these fires? 

A. Are they real fires? Or are people just reacting to something? Just because there's an alarm going doesn't mean it's a fire. And I think that people are confusing the two. It's only a fire when it offends the fans, and the fans turn on you. Tosh has fans, and they get the joke. If you've watched enough Tracy Morgan, you let the worst thing go by. When did Tracy Morgan become Walter Cronkite? You have to mean something to me to offend me. You can't break up with me if we don't date. 

Q. You don't think some kind of threshold has been crossed? 

A. When you're workshopping it, a lot of stuff is bumpy and awkward. Especially when you're working on the edge, you're going to offend. A guy like Tosh, he's at the Laugh Factory. He's making no money. He's essentially in the gym. You're mad at Ray Leonard because he's not in shape, in the gym? That's what the gym's for. The sad thing, with all this taping and stuff, no one's going to do stand-up. And every big stand-up I talk to says: "How do I work out new material? Where can you go, if I have a half an idea and then it's on the Internet next week?" Just look at some of my material. You can't imagine how rough it was and how unfunny and how sexist or racist it might have seemed. "Niggas vs. Black People" probably took me six months to get that thing right. You know how racist that thing was a week in? That's not to be seen by anybody. 

Q. What's the solution? 

A. Honestly, I'm just trying to figure out how I'm going to do it. 'Cause the few times I've gotten onstage and thought about touring, immediately, stuff's on the Internet, I'm getting calls, and I'm like, this isn't worth it. I saw "Dark Knight [Rises]" the other night, and Bruce Wayne's walking into this party, and he presses a button, and no one's camera works. If I find a comedy club where no one's camera works, I'll go. I'll go back to comedy clubs when they get a real no-camera policy, the same way they did with smoking. But hey, they used to be the smokiest places in the world.

I think the last two thirds of this is a little more defensible than the first third. I'd be very interested in Rock's thoughts on comedy in the pre-1960s when racism was just part of the deal. Is Mickey Rooney's yellow-face in Breakfast at Tiffany's really only racist if Rooney's fans are offended? When Jackie Mason calls New York's first black mayor "a fancy schvartze with a mustache," and then refers to the country's first black president by the same term, is that fine as long as Mason's fans think its funny?

More interesting, to me, is Rock's sketch of how comedians work. For them, the act of writing and editing is performative. They have to try it out in order to see if it works or not. I don't think this is mere desire of the right to be wantonly cruel. Chris Rock has always been good at creeping right up to the edge of the line, and then dancing on it. But sometimes, even he isn't sure where the line is. He cites "Niggas vs. Black People," a routine I once hated but now kind of love. Rock himself actually stopped performing because the response from white people made him uncomfortable. I think that balancing act is incredibly difficult, and I could understand why you might need a few tries to get it right. 

I understand Rock's desire for a serious no-camera policy, but it should be paired with something else--honest billing. What Rock is claiming, basically, is that what you see in comedy clubs are works in progress. It might help if the clubs actually said that up front.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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