A Republic Too Fractured to Be Funny
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner suggests that stand-up joke telling is an art form whose moment has passed, Andrew Ferguson argued this week.
American stand-up is thriving, evolving, fresh, and still quite funny—just not on late-night shows. Most late-night shows—Trevor Noah’s, John Oliver’s, Samantha Bee’s, Stephen Colbert’s—are no longer primarily about comedy. Rather, they are cocoons for a particular section of the population to find reassurance and a sense of kinship that its political and social views are correct. Whether this is therapeutic or overall harmful for the individual is debatable. But the comforting echo chamber the shows provide is certainly fulfilling a strong need in a time marked by violent public discourse and fractured society.
Non-politicized stand-up and observational comedy is very much thriving. Look no further than the stand-up specials of new stars such as Tig Notaro and Nate Bargatze, or comeback stars such as Dave Chappelle.
On a related note, the internet has given rise to new, decentralized forms of comedy that are a whole other ball game—entirely context-based, constantly evolving, completely bizarre to those not in the know, and instantly consumable in five seconds or less. A meme (same image, new caption) is either ouch-my-sides hilarious or utter gibberish, depending on whether you have seen and laughed at the dozen other memes it is referencing.
As a non-American comedy fan, I have enjoyed White House Correspondents’ Dinner comedy routines for years now without really knowing what the WHCD is, and I appreciate your painting a vivid picture of it with a few brushstrokes, as well as your reflections on the decline of prime-time comedy.
P. N. Gour
Bangalore, Karnataka, India
You definitely hit the nail on the head in identifying a huge symptom of a fractured republic. It is so disheartening, especially when you see historical pictures and videos of our leaders sparring with humor. I recently saw a great one of President Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill that made me miss my childhood. I assure you it’s not the comedians’ fault—they and their acts are typically a reflection of society. As you pointed out, right now, it’s pretty bland and boring.
New York, N.Y.
Mr. Ferguson fails to mention the most obvious reason for the death of stand-up comedy: Comedians, like all of us now, fear the loss of their livelihood over ever-smaller and mostly imagined offenses.
Matthew E. Cavanaugh
Long Beach, Calif.
Andrew Ferguson’s article missed the mark by choosing to step away from the times rather than play into the moment. Comedy is not dying. Rather, opportunities are growing. Services such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Amazon are churning out stand-up specials and expanding access to voices in an industry still overwhelmingly white and male.
Humor hasn’t been “privatized.” It hasn’t “died.” The “shared assumptions” Ferguson invokes just don’t apply to our diverse society. We can all learn from embracing these new voices in comedy.
New York, N.Y.
I disagree strenuously with Andrew Ferguson’s conclusion that specific comedians aren’t funny and comedy is dead. Michelle Wolf and Samantha Bee are not only unique and dissenting voices, but very funny. (Yes, Larry Wilmore bombed at the WHCD, although he’s usually very funny. Michelle Wolf did okay. Wilmore is more of an excellent writer than a performer, and it showed.)
Maybe, instead, Trump’s blowing off the WHCD marks the death of a certain kind of narrowly defined, Bob Hope/Johnny Carson “topical” humor. Now politicians don’t grin and bear it, but instead hide and tweet. And political humor uses our 24-hour outrage cycle, which is what’s on the audience’s mind, as a point of departure. I miss Jon Stewart and the old Colbert, but they’d be doing the same kind of joke now too. Why? Because Flint still doesn’t have clean water.
Sherman Oaks, Calif.