How Comedians Became Public Intellectuals

People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.

Show host Amy Schumer flies over the stage at the 2015 MTV Movie Awards in April 2015. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”

Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”

Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.

The stuff of late-night LOLs used to be quippy monologues, vapid celebrity interviews, Stupid Human Tricks both official, and less so. It still is, to some extent. More often, though, TV comedy that self-consciously defines itself as “comedy”—the stuff that originally airs on Comedy Central and FXX and HBO, the stuff that is firmly rooted in traditions of sketch and standup—is taking on subjects like racism and sexism and inequality and issues including police brutality and trigger warnings and intersectional feminism and helicopter parenting and the end of men. Its jokes double as arguments. “Comedy with a message” may be vaguely ironic; it is also, increasingly, redundant.

So when Schumer, in a set that aired on her show, comments with purposeful nonchalance that “we’ve all been a little bit raped,” she may be making viewers laugh. But she is, much more importantly, making us squirm. She’s daring us to consider the definition of “rape,” and also the definition of another word that can be awkward in comedy and democracy alike: “we.” She’s making a point about inclusion and exclusion, about the individuality of experience, about the often flawed way we think about ourselves as a collective. This is comedy at only the most superficial level; what it is, really, is cultural criticism.

So is the work of Key and Peele, who make productive fun of racial politics. And of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, who make fun of a culture that’s obsessed, at varying levels of ingenuousness, with authenticity. And of Sarah Silverman, who makes fun of religion. And of Patton Oswalt, who makes fun of civilization. And of Louis C.K., who makes fun of himself. And of Nick Kroll, who explored the deep cultural influences of reality TV. And of Stephen Colbert, who satirized the equally deep influences of partisan news networks. And of Jon Stewart and John Oliver and Larry Wilmore, who take the Roonian rant to its apotheosis, blurring whatever line there might be between “comedy” and “commentary.”

Which, on the one hand, puts the current crop of culturally influential comedians in league with pretty much any human who has ever, in the face of an awkward silence, decided to make a joke. The point of comedy has always been, on some level, a kind of productive subversion. Observational comedy, situational comedy, slapstick comedy, comedy that both enlightens and offends—these are forms of creative destruction, at their height and in their depths, and they’ve long allowed us to talk about things that taboos, or at the very least taste, might otherwise preclude. Long before Jon Stewart came along, there was Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers and George Carlin. There were people who used laughter as a lubricant for cultural conversations—to help us to talk about the things that needed to be talked about.

The difference now, though, is that comedians are doing their work not just in sweaty clubs or network variety shows or cable sitcoms, but also on the Internet. Wherever the jokes start—Comedy Central, The Tonight Show, Marc Maron’s garage—they will end up, eventually and probably immediately, living online. They will, at their best, go “really, insanely viral.” The frenzy to post a John Oliver rant after it airs on HBO has become a cliché at this point; its effect, though, is to create a kind of tentacular influence for an otherwise niche comedy show. Some people may watch Oliver’s stuff live, or DVRed; but most watch it while riding the bus, or waiting for a meeting, or eating a sad desk lunch, delivered via Facebook or Twitter or the Huffington Post. Most people watch Schumer’s stuff that way, too. And Wilmore’s. And Stewart’s. Comedy, like so much else in the culture, now exists largely of, by, and for the Internet.

Which is to say that there are two broad things happening right now—comedy with moral messaging, and comedy with mass attention—and their combined effect is this: Comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals. They’re exploring and wrestling with important ideas. They’re sharing their conclusions with the rest of us. They’re providing fodder for discussion, not just of the minutiae of everyday experience, but of the biggest questions of the day. Amy Schumer on misogyny, Key and Peele on terrorism, Louis C.K. on parenting, Sarah Silverman on Rand Paul, John Oliver on FIFA … these are bits intended not just to help us escape from the realities of the world, but also, and more so, to help us understand them. Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers—as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment.

And the public, with the help of the media, are happily taking their lead. See the adulation in headlines like “Louis C.K.'s Explanation of Why He Hates Smartphones Is Sad, Brilliant” (which was followed up, predictably, by “Louis C.K. Is Wrong About Smartphones”) and “Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Feminist Joke About Amal Clooney’s Achievements Was Hilarious and Spot-On” and “9 Moments from Last Night’s Inside Amy Schumer You Can Use to Battle Everyday Sexism.” See also the indignation in blunt announcements like “Amy Schumer Compares Birth Control to Gun Rights.” See also the outrage over the tweets of Trevor Noah, which took for granted a fairly radical idea: that the new host of The Daily Show will have a kind of moral influence over the national soul.

Our comedic intellectuals, just like their counterparts in the academy, regularly debate among themselves (Oswalt on C.K., C.K. on Tracy Morgan, this week’s much-hyped roundtable of lady comics). But their most important function is to stimulate debates among the rest of us. They are adjuncts—to op-ed pages, to TV news programs, to periodicals and journals and book reviews, to the several institutions that have been self-consciously modeled as guardians of the national discourse. And we, for our part—“we,” the cultural and constitutional collective that Amy Schumer provokes us to define—allow them to be. As Mike Sacks, an editor at Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers, told me: There’s a general feeling right now that “comedy can change people's opinions.”

That feeling has been around for a while. In 2009, Foreign Policy published a list of the world’s top 20 public intellectuals, among them Amartya Sen, Noam Chomsky, and Mario Vargas Llosa. It was telling that, when the magazine gave the public the opportunity to suggest a write-in addition to the official list, readers didn’t select an economist or a novelist or a philosopher for the honor. They selected Stephen Colbert.

Which is, all in all, a very good thing. While it’s hard to know why, precisely, comedy has taken an echelonic place in the culture—though it probably has something to do with the creation of YouTube and the invention of Facebook and the popularity of basic cable and the influence of Jon Stewart and the power of Karl Rove and the genius of Tina Fey and auteur theory and Pareto distributions and all those dire predications about the end of the age of irony—the basic explanation is the same as the one that will explain most things when it comes to marketplaces of ideas: There was an unmet need. Recent years have been especially interesting, as “interesting times” go; the microcosmic comedy that was popular in the ‘90s—an observational strain that culminated in a show that proudly claimed to be “about nothing”—quickly became unfit for them. Gradually and then suddenly, the smug nihilism of Larry David and Adam Sandler and Carrot Top and that guy who smashed watermelons with comically oversized mallets came to seem not just out of place, but regressive.

Comedy ceased to be the province of (often) angsty and possibly drug-addled white guys making jokes about their needy girlfriends and airplane food. It became (slightly) less exclusionary to women and minorities. It began to ask, and answer, the questions that newfound inclusion will tend to bring up—questions about power dynamics and privilege and cultural authority.

As comedy began to do a better job of reflecting the world, it began, as well, to take on the responsibilities associated with that reflection. It began to recognize the fact that the long debate about the things comedy owes to its audiences and itself—the old “hey, I’m just making a joke” line of logic—can be partially resolved in the idea that nothing, ultimately, is “just a joke.” Humor has moral purpose. Humor has intellectual heft. Humor can change the world. We may well deserve, as Schumer said this week, to “watch like no one’s raping.” What she didn’t say, but what is clear from her comedy, is that jokes themselves have a way of getting us what we deserve.