I’m a fan of Drew Magary. I like reading the mailbag he does on Deadspin, I like his columns and such, The Hike was a pretty good book, etc. What Drew does very, very well, though, is point out when takes are bad and excoriates the taker both accurately and sardonically. He’s fun.
Recently, in response to the news that Louis was a serial sexual abuser, he published this. This is an exceedingly bad take, so in his honor I’ll be going over why it’s bad. Even though I know it is ultimately a meaningless and fruitless endeavor for the internet to bounce a ping pong ball of take evaluation back and forth across every possible interpretative angle, why not? Life is meaningless.
Still worse, I’m already in check, as he’s called the comedy community “very insular and VERY protective”. I’m part of that community and you could interpret this as fulfilling his assessment. Or you could see it as someone compromised and with too much personally invested. Or you could view it as a defensive response to an aggressive action. More likely you’ll never see it, never have an opinion, never know my name, and be utterly confused as to why I would do something like this in the first place. But hey, fuck it.
The central thrust of the piece is that powerful men in comedy are bad and that there’s a generally toxic atmosphere in the comedy scene, one that enables and protects its abusers. To which I respond, Yes! That’s an accurate assessment. Even in the local Chicago comedy scene we’ve had multiple multiple instances of abusers unpunished due to their standing within the scene. The only response to that is that the only reason you’re writing about this issue in comedy is because a comedian was in the news. The only reason people are writing about abuse in Hollywood is because a producer was in the news. Everybody writes about the toxic culture of whatever community surrounds and protects whichever monster du jour, when the reality is that this toxic culture is unique to no clique or community. It is a pervasive toxicity that exists wherever men are given even the slightest modicum of power. It’s dudes all the way down.
If your hero is a man rich or famous or powerful (especially if he’s religious), lowballing, there’s a 40% chance he’s abused his power and a 90% chance that the victim was/is a woman/women. Take down Richard Pryor, Louis CK, Bill Cosby, and all the rest of them who’ve abused women all day, all fucking day. I’m in.
But weirdly, he then deviates from this theme and goes after comedy, and comedians especially, as a whole. I’m not being defensive about my insular and VERY protective community when I say no one in any community likes being told why they think things, especially by people outside that community.
To write that the toxicity within the scene is “borne of the strange and deathly seriousness with which many comedians, including C.K., venerate their craft. No one takes himself more seriously than a comedian,” is wrong, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, but also really, really wrong for reasons I’ll outline below.
First, some of us do, most of us don’t, and most of the comics who do take it that seriously are delusional, irrelevant old dudes being asked the same boring questions they’ve answered a million times. When you hear about a younger comic taking it seriously and reacting to every little thing like an asshole, think about why you’re hearing about it. We don’t hear about every mass shooting anymore, there are too many, but we hear about every fuckface accidentally nearby who uses a gun, maybe, to help. The latter is rare enough to become news. There’s an annoying amount of comics now (to the point where we need to unionize since our pay has stayed the same since the collapse of the comedy boom twenty years ago, probably Reagan’s fault), and when you have that many people, a percentage are going to be completely delusional assholes. The larger scene spends most of its time talking shit and mocking these idiots because they’re bringing us down.
Beyond that, taking comedy seriously is not why Norton leapt to Tosh’s defense, nor Cross being a bitch, nor why Stanhope does whatever Stanhope does (frankly, no one really knows why Stanhope does anything). They did what they did because they’re being left behind and they don’t really understand that. If you’re not a comic, you don’t understand The Road and you’ll never understand it twenty years ago. These guys came up on the road in the 90s when you really could say whatever the fuck you wanted because no one was watching. After the boom, if an audience came out to a comedy show, they were not on your side. Audiences were hostile (they still can be, of course, just not to the same extent). Every comic that’s worked the road has horror stories, and the ones from that era are the most terrifying. These guys leapt to each others defense because they’re used to comedy being US v THEM. The scene is insular for sure, because many of us, ironically, view ourselves as survivors. The closest corollary to a comic is not a musician or a writer, it’s indie wrestlers; it's all silly and stupid and we love it and maybe we make some money, maybe we don't. The road does affect you and the way you view audiences, then people entire, and moreso back then, but, to be clear, we all find it hilarious.
Comedy is moving away from that. People are watching. People are even watching open mics, policing them. That’s awesome! At the lowest level of open mic, we’re starting to see fewer and fewer of the “I should be allowed to say whatever I want, fuck the PC police” assholes. We’re seeing more people do weird, interesting, creative things. There’s so many of us now, it’s the only way to stand out. We’re not close to where we should be, yet, but neither is literally everyone else.
Like so many people from the previous generation, these comics are discovering the world changed much faster than they’re able to. That is not an excuse for their behavior, do not misunderstand, I hate it, and a lot of them, as much or more than everyone else. But don’t tell me you know why comics do what they do, what they did.
The next part made me black out with its staggering wrongness, strawmanniness, self-righteousness, and silly, silly dick-waving.
“Artie Lange once framed comedy as an addiction, one of many he admits he’s had to juggle throughout his adult life. “Ask any comedian, when an audience erupts at something you say, nothing else matters,” he wrote in his second (!) autobiography. “It’s like tossing a bucket of blood into the water when a hungry shark is around: once a comedian gets a taste for laughter, they’ll hunt it down by whatever means necessary.” And that’s telling, because it’s a reminder that laughs are the ONLY goal in comedy, and that everything used in service of getting them is mostly illusory, including the truth. You, the comedy enjoyer, are a mark. Lange, like other comedians, wants you to think that this addiction is some kind of plight, when really it’s just a way of selling their own personal misery to justify whatever jokes they need to make to get their fix.”.
For real, he uses ARTIE FUCKING LANGE’S SECOND(!) AUTOBIOGRAPHY TO GENERALIZE ALL OF FUCKING COMEDY.
Laughs are not the only goal in comedy. Ask most comics and they will tell you that laughs are not even in the top 3 goals of comedy. Ask any comic and they’ll tell you that there are many different types of laugh and the goal isn’t just to get them, it’s to control them. There are a lot of shitty comics that just want laughs and they are shitty because of it. I’ve thrown away a lot of jokes because they elicited the wrong type of laughter, or worse, they were laughed it in the wrong way. That’s the more common point of view on getting laughs. Not to wax poetic, but You, the comedy enjoyer, are not a mark, you are the instrument. Or, to really not wax poetic, any shitty comic can masturbate and cum, but a good comic looks for the best orgasm. We lotion up, do some edging, and then, after an hour, the orgasm is ecstatic and lasts long after you’re done (only difference is that, unlike masturbating, if a comic adds toys, it really doesn’t make things better). In this metaphor, tortured as it is, is that You, the comedy enjoyer, are cumming too. The best shows a comic will ever do are the ones that neither the comic, nor the audience, can forget.
He closes with this bananas paragraph:
“But it’s still way past time for the comedy community to address the pervading mentality that let C.K. thrive for so long. It’s time for comedians to get over themselves, because this job is not some glorious exercise in free speech. It’s just a laugh hunt, and I never wanna hear another goddamn hint about how it’s anything more than that. Because that’s when it becomes a bunch of weak men finding ways to excuse their weakness, failing to realize that it’s 2017 and a lot of their bullshit isn’t funny anymore, and that they aren’t the only people who get to be angry.”
Now, the obvious response to this is an eyeroll and a hearty, damn dude, how bout you get over yourself, too. The aggressive response is who died and made your dick twice as big as mine? But the reasonable response is no comic seriously thinks comedy is a glorious exercise in free speech except for failed comics (who almost always wind up turning into right-wing idiots); comedy isn’t just a laugh hunt, except when it is, except when it’s not; comics don’t actually think they’re martyrs, we think we’re monsters thank you very much; and what Drew wrote was an aggressively bad take.