February 8, 2022

The most exciting stand-up comedy show I’ve ever seen was Bill Hicks in a student union in the autumn of 1992. Being a comedy naïf probably helped. I had seen Hicks’ sensational Channel 4 special Relentless earlier that year but I was unprepared for the rock-star electricity in the room. The 30-year-old Texan could be righteously indignant or disarmingly sweet, hilariously petty or shockingly sincere, flamboyantly profane or deeply moral — and he thrived on the dissonance of these tonal shifts. “Please relax,” he said during a particularly intense riff. “There are dick jokes coming up.”

In the UK, Hicks was acclaimed as the stand-up who might define the Nineties but back in the US he felt stuck. “Today he would be a mad prophet of the airwaves,” comedy manager Jimmy Miller says in Cynthia True’s Hicks biography American Scream. “He’d be on HBO, interviewing people, saying whatever’s on his mind. But back then the comedy business just hadn’t matured. They didn’t know what to do with him.” Miller said that in 2002. Twenty years on, Hicks, who died of cancer in 1994, wouldn’t need an HBO deal; he would be hosting a podcast.

Stand-ups played a foundational role in the podcast industry. In 2009, just as the format was becoming mainstream, Marc Maron launched the interview show WTF and Joe Rogan recorded the first episode of what became The Joe Rogan Experience. Two early podcast networks, Earwolf and Nerdist, were established by comedians; Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick compared podcasting to the comedy LP boom of the Sixties.

The symbiosis of comedy and podcasting isn’t hard to understand. Stand-ups love to hear themselves talk and a rambling chat is a much more congenial vehicle than the intense, time-consuming labour of writing and honing a tight one hour of killer material. With a successful podcast, a comedian can circumvent the usual gatekeepers and build a cultishly loyal fanbase without even having to leave the house or — and this is crucial — worry about being funny. What do you call a comedian who doesn’t make people laugh? A podcaster. Ba dum tss.

While old-fashioned one-liners and wry observations are doing just fine, many of the innovations in comedy are in the realm I call post-funny. Some of the most acclaimed comedian-fronted projects of recent years — including Master of None, Feel Good and Bo Burnham: Inside — see laughter as a secondary concern. The Closer, Dave Chappelle’s final Netflix special, is a prickly monologue about cancel culture and why he’s not actually transphobic, with occasional jokes. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette was a Netflix sensation in 2018 precisely because Gadsby deconstructed her duty to make people laugh: “I must quit comedy. Because the only way I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger.”

Comedians increasingly want to be philosophers. (No philosophers want to be comedians, except perhaps Slavoj Žižek.) This can make them rather pompous. Over the weekend, Whitney Cummings tweeted: “Comedians did not sign up to be your hero. It’s our job to be irreverent and dangerous, to question authority and take you through a spooky mental haunted house so you can arrive at your own conclusions.” To which Marc Maron replied: “Maybe add ‘to be funny’ to the list.”

The first great philosopher-comic was Lenny Bruce. In Comedy at the Edge, Richard Zoglin describes the evolution of stand-up comedy between the Forties and the Seventies as “a long march from joke-telling to truth-telling”, with Lenny Bruce as its gung-ho general. Starting in 1953, he was not alone in reinventing comedy but he established a new template for the stand-up: raw, authentic, discomfitingly honest, ferociously intolerant of hypocrisy and cant and sometimes messy. Comedians in that mould couldn’t just make people laugh; they had to offer a point of view. “With Bruce a smile is not an end in itself, it is invariably a means,” wrote the critic Kenneth Tynan.

As Kliph Nesteroff explains in The Comedians, some critics didn’t consider what Bruce was doing to be comedy at all. Time complained that he “merely shouts angrily and tastelessly at the world”, while the Los Angeles Times deplored his “soaring, if uncertain, egotism rooted in the eroded soil of unlettered knowledge, snippets of cliché liberalism, borrowed erudition, and a conviction he has a Messianic message”. Bruce, who died of a drug overdose in 1966, claimed for comedians the radical freedom not to be funny all the time.

At that time, only three kinds of people enjoyed the privilege of speaking their minds to an audience for an hour: politicians, preachers and comedians. In fact, the priest delivering Bruce’s eulogy said “he was in a sense an evangelist, on a street corner”. After Bruce’s death, the baton of comedian as social critic passed to the likes of Richard Pryor (“the Picasso of our profession,” according to Jerry Seinfeld) and George Carlin, whose aphorisms now circulate, like Orwell’s or Gandhi’s, in the form of earnest Twitter memes.

These pioneers cast a long shadow. A 2017 Rolling Stone list of the best stand-ups of all time was topped by Pryor, Carlin and Bruce, with others in the same tradition — Louis CK, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle — close behind. At number 13 was Bill Hicks. “To me, the comic is the guy who says ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms,” Hicks told the New Yorker in 1993. “He’s the antithesis of the mob mentality.”

The politics of this brand of comedy are, more often than not, libertarian. Comics want the freedom to say whatever they like as long as it’s funny so have often ended up on the frontlines of the battle for free speech. Bruce was twice tried on obscenity charges, while Carlin was arrested for disturbing the peace when he performed his celebrated routine ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television’ in 1972. When an English vicar complained of blasphemy in Bill Hicks’s 1992 show Revelations, he replied: “This is about freedom and freedom of speech and words can’t hurt you.”

The culture has changed somewhat since then. In comedy, at least, there are now more taboos on the Left than on the Right and the spectre of cancel culture is to someone like Chappelle what the NYPD was to Lenny Bruce, minus the court cases. In The Closer, Chappelle expresses the comedian’s licence to say anything in a less noble form than Hicks: “Comedians have a responsibility to speak recklessly. Sometimes the funniest thing to say is mean. Remember, I’m not saying it to be mean: I’m saying it because it’s funny.”

This licence is immensely powerful. Take Jimmy Carr’s Roma Holocaust joke, for example. In the context of his recent Netflix special, it’s still, I think, grotesquely misjudged — but Carr goes on to talk about the forgotten victims of the Nazis and why he made the joke. It clearly didn’t shock the audience in the room, nor the huge number of people who watched the special during its first six weeks. It only became scandalous when a 40-second clip went viral on TikTok and Twitter: the land of no context.

Even in a stand-up environment, though, Chappelle’s disclaimer isn’t enough. I don’t buy the popular binary division between comedy that “punches up” (good) and the kind that “punches down” (bad). Comedy doesn’t cleave so neatly, and nor does society. But I’m equally unconvinced by the “just jokes” defence.

For one thing, it’s not the case that anything goes. No major comedian currently delivers the kind of racist jokes that were commonplace in the Seventies, however deftly constructed they might be. (Carr celebrates Black Lives Matter in his Netflix show before getting laughs out of the Roma.) For another, it’s inconsistently applied. Ricky Gervais has arguably replaced Richard Dawkins as Britain’s most famous atheist and on that issue he wants to be taken seriously. Increasingly, comedians want to say whatever they like even when they’re not being funny.

You can see this double standard at work in Jon Stewart’s famous appearance on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004. I agreed with Stewart that Crossfire was a toxic travesty of debate but notice how he positioned himself. When Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson criticised him for asking politicians soft questions, Stewart replied that he’s on Comedy Central: “The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.” But when Carlson complained, “I thought you were going to be funny, come on, be funny,” Stewart said, “No, I’m not going to be your monkey.” Depending on the moment, he is Schrödinger’s comedian: just a funnyman but also not just a funnyman.

Rogan uses this trick, too. He would not be interviewing politicians, authors and epidemiologists if he were only about the laughs, but he keeps his comedian’s licence in his back pocket in case of emergency. Last April, Dr Anthony Fauci criticised him for advising young, healthy people not to get vaccinated. In his self-deprecating response, Rogan said: “I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron and I’m a cage fighting commentator who’s a dirty stand-up comedian who just told you I’m drunk most of the time and I do testosterone and I smoke a lot of weed. I’m not a respected source of information, even for me.”

This is very convenient. Rogan is half a conspiracy theorist: he has the curiosity but not the commitment. To his credit, he sometimes admits to being wrong. But he has that particular blend of scepticism (towards mainstream expertise) and credulity (towards anybody challenging it), so he becomes a conduit for false information, even when he’s not explicitly endorsing it. In the case of the present Spotify controversy, whether Rogan himself is an anti-vaxxer (he claims he isn’t) is a moot point if he is sympathetically conversing with vaccine sceptics to an audience of millions.

Russell Brand, too, has been described as “a powerful voice for anti-vaxxers”. He’s been on a journey. In 2013, Brand abruptly transformed himself from verbose dandy lothario into revolutionary seer in a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in which he urged people not to vote. His ensuing book, Revolution, was a peculiar mix of rehab memoir, New Age mysticism and solid policy proposals from Left-wing thinkers such as David Graeber and Thomas Piketty, liberally salted with self-deprecation: “I’m not Noam Chomsky, you’ve probably noticed; I’m happy to be Norman Wisdom.”

During the pandemic, Brand’s obsession with political alienation and challenging official narratives has led him a long way from Piketty. The breathlessly clickbaity titles of his YouTube videos are often indistinguishable from those of the conservative guests he gently interviews on a regular basis: “Why The Left Can’t Handle Donald Trump”, “Vaccine Gold Rush: Do You Trust Gates?”,They’re Eliminating FREE THOUGHT!! Billionaires’ Plan To CONTROL The Internet”, the latter bearing the hashtag #GeorgeSoros.

Brand claims that he is “breaking down the news, providing you with information you won’t get in mainstream media”. Is it true? It doesn’t matter. “What do I know?” he says in a recent video defending Rogan. “What could I claim to know? I’ve never been to university or higher education of any kind, except for showing-off school.” To his fans, of course, this makes him all the more reliable: one of them, not one of Them. That video is called “The Truth”.

Comedians should be free to switch lanes, but when Al Franken runs for the US Senate, or David Baddiel writes Jews Don’t Count, they aren’t doing so as comedians and they are making a choice. Comedians who express political opinions through the discipline of stand-up (a discipline which inevitably tests and sharpens those opinions) are also making a choice. Just as a musician has more freedom in a protest song than in an essay, or a film-maker more liberty in a drama based on a true story than in a documentary, the criteria are relatively clear. Rogan and Brand raise an interesting question: does the privilege of comedy apply even when you’re not doing comedy?

I do wonder if Hicks, with his nascent taste for conspiracy theories and spiritual self-discovery, would have wound up in a similar role. 70 years after Lenny Bruce’s comedy revolution, Rogan and Brand represent a very modern, very online mutation which is both post-funny and post-truth-telling. Rather than establishing a point of view and crafting it into a routine, they offer a muddy, non-committal version of “anything goes” in which misinformation is simply another interesting idea for the open-minded to consider and pushback is establishment intolerance of free speech.

By hedging their bets, they have achieved a freedom that Carlin and Hicks could only have dreamt of. If you say they should clarify their own positions, or take responsibility for the opinions they promote, well, they say, they’re comedians, not intellectuals. Why so serious?

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