Grappling with the Netflix monstrosity

The streamer's comedy boom is good and also bad

It’s the second day of August.

A few weeks ago, a new batch of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee dropped on Netflix (during which Eddie Murphy discussed his potential return to stand-up). Next week, Tiffany Haddish’s series showcasing six of her favorite comedians drops on the streamer. There’s also more episodes of Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act and a new comedy special from Simon Amstell. Oh, and later in September, a Between Two Ferns movie from Zach Galifianakis and Scott Aukerman is coming.

Netflix is a comedy monster that’s haunting our dreams and transforming them into content(ed) nightmares.

This isn’t new, of course. The platform has been in the original stand-up (and/or) comedy game since Bill Burr’s You People Are All the Same first premiered in its streaming queue back in 2012. At the time, Netflix was mostly licensing comedy specials from either acts who had produced their own hours, or companies like Comedy Dynamics that were footing the bill then approaching potential distributors like Comedy Central and HBO. Netflix’s entry into the game offered a brand new outlet for such materials, and its relative newness and frugality quickly made it a popular place to be.

Hence the streaming comedy boom that we are still living through right now. No single thing caused all of this, necessarily, but based on the conversations that I’ve had with comics, club owners, producers and other industry professionals whose careers are steeped in, or adjacent to, the comedy world, Netfix’s arrival has played a big part in all of this. And as you can see by its August listings alone, it still is — and will be for a bit longer.

At least, before this bubble inevitable bursts. And it definitely will, and it will assuredly result in a mixture of profound losses for the industry and unique opportunities for extreme creativity. Until then, though, we’re stuck with the fact that Netflix is still churning out special after special, series after series, and movie after movie that explicitly stick to (and break from) the standard stand-up model.

This is happening across the board of genres, obviously, as the clarion calls of “peak TV” and “too much TV” are as strong as they’ve ever been. Plus, with Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox, WarnerMedia’s arrival as a new entertainment conglomerate and NBCUniversal’s renewed efforts to enter the streaming wars, it’s all about to get even more “peakier.”

Yes, that’s right. In addition to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, which have remained the three dominant (and surviving) streaming services, Disney — which now owns a majority stake in Hulu — is set to launch its own platform with Disney+. WarnerMedia is also making a move with its forthcoming HBO Max service. And NBC? Well, despite the fact that they created (then shuttered) the comedy-centric Seeso, they’re gearing up to launch yet another streaming attempt.

Toss in Comedy Dynamics’ own Comedy Dynamics Network (and its massive presence on Amazon Prime), the short-form Quibi service that’s looking to bank on our ever-decreasing attention spans, and other eventual players, the competition for our eyeballs is about to get even more cutthroat than it already is.

And, yes, that’s the big picture. Netflix still is the dominant force in stand-up right now, though Comedy Central, HBO and Showtime are still doing what they can in terms of producing and distributing new specials. Amazon Prime also maintains a sizable back catalog, with the occasional new releases here and there, but later this month, Comedy Dynamics will be making a major push into Netflix’s territory with the help of their significant audience base. We’re talking new specials from Jim Gaffigan, Alice Wetterlund and many others, as well as a new hour from Broad City co-creator Ilana Glazer.

To be honest, I consider myself a comedy critic but there is just no way in hell that I can possibly watch all of these in a timely manner. I’m still slowly but surely making my way through a backlog of specials and shows from the past year. And this is just stand-up. I also try to make the time to watch other shows and films that I enjoy as a lay viewer or, when the opportunity arises, that I’ve been tasked with writing about.

The beauty of all of these options is that more and more kinds of people and viewpoints are being catered to. There’s a much larger diversity of content out there than there ever has been before. But it’s also becoming very niche.

So… good luck? At least we got Tim Robinson’s phenomenal (and thankfully renewed) I Think You Should Leave out of this deal. Then again, we’re also losing equally fantastic original comedies like Lisa Hanawalt’s Tuca & Bertie.

Random Bits

For no reason whatsoever, here’s a short video that the 92nd Street Y put together of John Mulaney making Bill Hader laugh uncontrollably during the pair’s recent appearance there to discuss HBO’s Barry. Hader’s giggles (and Mulaney’s purposefully causing them) made his tenure on Saturday Night Live what it was, especially whenever the “Weekend Update” character Stefan was involved. There are plenty of unofficial collections of such clips on YouTube, but it’s nice to see an official outlet catching on and doing the same.

Crowd Work

Don’t forget, I actually want you to respond. Send me whatever questions, comments are snide remarks that you may have about my thoughts on stand-up comedy, or comedy-related matters I didn’t cover, but are nonetheless on your mind. To get in touch, simply email me and we’ll go from there.

Aziz Ansari is here right now

He's reexamining pop culture and himself, but is it enough?

Last week, comedian Aziz Ansari surprised everyone with a special announcement: Right Now, his first comedy special since 2015’s Live at Madison Square Garden, was coming to Netflix. Not only that, but the Spike Jonze-directed new hour would begin streaming just over a week later on Tuesday, July 9th.

Well, today is Tuesday, July 9th, and Right Now is streaming… right now… on Netflix.

So, aside from the fact that Ansari is a well-known comic whose television bona fides includes Parks and Recreation and Master of None, why does the fact that he just dropped a surprise comedy special even matter? Because in January 2018, the 36-year-old performer was accused of sexual misconduct in a controversial article published by, a since-shuttered youth-oriented news and gossip website. The woman who made the accusation, “Grace,” claimed that the pair went on a date that ended with Ansari repeatedly ignoring her verbal and nonverbal cues regarding non-consensual sex.

The article arrived in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K.-fueled #MeToo movement, which had already seen those two entertainment titans finally taken down a peg or two after years (if not decades) of repeated (and oft-ignored) rumors. As a result, both Ansari and the article were discussed and debated ad nauseam. The latter spurred vigorous and nasty back-and-forths in numerous media circles. The former, meanwhile, removed himself from the spotlight soon after he addressed the accusations in a statement.

So, yeah, Ansari is back on television a year and a half later, and judging by all of the press that Right Now’s announcement and premiere has already generated, it seems both his comedy and his baggage has rejoined the zeitgeist as well. From headlines as monotone as CNN’s “Aziz Ansari returns to Netflix with comedy special,” to titles with more direction and argument behind them — like HuffPost’s “Aziz Ansari Is Returning To Netflix After Me Too Scandal” and Refinery29’s “Netflix Announces A Surprise Aziz Ansari Special & The Timing Is Interesting” — reactions have been across the board. (The latter is especially intriguing, though, as the Refinery29 article connects Right Now’s reveal with the recent closure of

Not to mention social media and comments sections, where Ansari’s fans and detractors have already engaged with Right Now’s release.

Regardless of the media controversies the article sparked, I believe that we should listen to all victims of sexual assault. It’s the least we, as a culture, can do, since more often than not, the structures inherent in our society tend to ignore (or lessen the claims of) victims of rape, sexual assault and other forms of abuse. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have called more attention to these disparities in recent years, but the disparities are still ever-present.

I also believe that you cannot separate the artist from his, her or their art. To claim otherwise is to make a bullshit argument based on bullshit philosophy that I’m not going to dig into right now. (But, I’ll happily do just that if asked by enough people. Fair warning: you’ll be bored out of your mind.) So, in that sense, it’s impossible to talk about Ansari’s new comedy special without mentioning the article and how it has affected the comedian’s career — and our perceptions of him as a person and an artist.

(Though the “separate the artist from the art” topic makes for an easy entryway into all of this, as Ansari explicitly discusses and plays with the idea in relation to the recent documentaries about R. Kelly, Michael Jackson and the sexual assault allegations against them.)

As a stand-up comedy critic, however, I also believe that, despite all of these things, Right Now is worth watching. (Netflix obviously does, too, or they wouldn’t have given Ansari and Jonze the chance to film the comedian’s Road to Nowhere tour and a place to show it to a global audience.) I try to keep track of what the industry’s big movers and shakers are up to, and Ansari definitely remains one of these. Otherwise, why are we even still talking about him?

Some of Right Now’s beats hit hard and fast, like the routines about woke white people, hot take culture and separating artists from their artistry. Others… not so much. Though this is generally the case with most new comedy specials, but with the highly-focused microscope the Ansari now finds himself under, what’s good is really great and what’s not is even worse.

More than anything, however, I’m intrigued by Ansari’s decision to reorganize and reframe what I saw of his early Road to Nowhere tour. Back in February, when the tour officially started just north of Boston, his combined bits addressing the article and being mistaken for Hasan Minhaj came at the end of the performance. In Right Now, however, the comic puts these beats front and center. It’s the first thing he talks about after walking across the Brooklyn Academy of Music stage.

“I felt so many things over the last year,” he says. “There’s times I felt scared. There’s time I felt humiliated. There’s times I felt embarrassed. But ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. And after a year or so, I just hope that it was a step forward. It moved things forward for me. Made me think about a lot of things.”

It was a poignant moment in the live show, and it’s just as poignant in Right Now — if not more so, thanks to its new place at the beginning and Jonze’s decision to film Ansari up close and off to the side while on stage.

It’s also a stark departure from the one other major instance of a comeback that stand-up comedy has seen since the initial #MeToo spark in late 2017: Louis C.K. Last August, after keeping to himself for about nine months, the Louie star returned to New York’s famous Comedy Cellar for an unannounced performance that rocked the comedy world. It sparked multiple rounds of takes about whether or not Louis had done enough penance or said the right things after he’d admitted that multiple claims of sexual misconduct levied against him were true.

Since then, Louis has gone on the offensive. He’s poked fun at the Parkland shooting survivors, issued severe legal threats against would-be bootleggers and reporters (?) covering his live gigs across the country, and more. He is, as the comedian Hannah Gadsby put it in a Los Angeles Times interview, “angry and bitter.”

“He is a joke now. And I think it’s important to keep making that joke. This is dangerous to talk about, but I’ll give it a go. What the issue is, for a long time Louis C.K.’s comedy platform was that he was this hopeless guy bumbling through the world. And at some stage, he was no longer that, but that was still his voice. And I think he still believes that. He has not reassessed his position of power, and that is why he was able to abuse it. It’s difficult to see a shift in your own power and privilege. It’s not something we’re trained to do. He still honestly thinks he’s the victim in all of this.”

At least in terms of how each comes across during their stage performances, it seems that Ansari’s approach to reentering the spotlight and addressing the claims made against him has been far more mature and productive than what Louis has done. So, there’s that.

To be honest, I haven’t watched a Louis C.K. comedy special or listen to one of his albums since November 2017. I hadn’t watched or listened to any of Ansari’s comedy since January 2018, either, until I attended his Road to Nowhere stop in Boston last February. I was skeptical then, and even after watching Right Now, I remain skeptical about it all. But from my perspective — that of a white cis straight male who has never been sexually assaulted in his life — my initial feeling is that Ansari is going about this in a far more open and productive way that Louis.

Of course, seeing has how I did not experience what “Grace” allegedly did on her date with Ansari, or what the many women who were confronted by Louis’ abuses of power experienced, I defer to them.

Random Bits

In September, Bill Burr and Al Madrigal signed a new deal with Comedy Central that, among other things, would see the former “present” new specials from lesser-known comedians on the cable network. The first of these, Paul Virzi: I’ll Say This, premiered in November. The latest, Bill Burr Presents IanTalk: Ideas Not Worth Spreading, debuts this Friday, July 12th at Midnight. Remember when Hannah Gadsby’s critics all said that Nanette was more of a Ted Talk than a comedy special? Well, Ian Edwards’ latest is a comedy special in the form of a Ted Talk.

Crowd Work

Don’t forget, I actually want you to respond. Send me whatever questions, comments are snide remarks that you may have about my thoughts on stand-up comedy, or comedy-related matters I didn’t cover, but are nonetheless on your mind. To get in touch, simply email me and we’ll go from there.

Comedy is not going to save you

Too many comedians have tried... and failed

About midway through the trailer for the upcoming documentary It’s Not That Funny, Upright Citizens Brigade alum and former talk show host Chris Gethard utters the title of this newsletter entry. “Comedy is not going to save you,” he says as footage from his early days at the UCB plays. “And if you are thinking about doing comedy as a substitute for therapy, it doesn’t work. I tried. I tried for a long time.”

Modern popular culture has long held that genius, in most of its forms, is often accompanied by mental instability. The stories we repeatedly tell ourselves about this notion regularly reinforce it. Hell, even the movies we make about these individuals do just about everything they can to make sure the audience knows. “Yeah, this person was really smart and good at what they did, but they suffered greatly and, at some points, even went a little crazy.” It all makes for a great bit of mythologizing, obviously, but it’s also mostly bullshit. Crazy does not a smart person make, nor vice versa.

There are many, many problems with this longstanding notion, but one of the most severe is the literal toll it takes on the people who are saddled with it as a label. That, or the people who are constantly trying to live up to the expectations these myths seemingly demand of them. “If you want to be as funny as Robin Williams, then you have to work, play and die as hard as Robin Williams.” Again, this is false.

That’s why, as both a comedy critic and a comedy fan, I am excited to see SoulPancake and Funny Or Die’s new documentary It’s Not That Funny. The trailer, which dropped on Tuesday, features a who’s who of working comics who, like Gethard, strive to undo the idea that to be good and making people laugh can justify the mental anguish. That, as well as the assumption that humor, whether one practices it or enjoys it, can be a perfectly viable alternative to seeking actual, bona fide help.

Here’s the film’s official blurb:

Sometimes the business of making people laugh is no laughing matter. With more reported instances of substance abuse, depression, loneliness, and suicide, the line between comedy and tragedy is getting thinner and the need for open conversation about mental health is more important than ever before. Developed in partnership with Funny Or Die, It’s Not That Funny, is a documentary that brings comedians together for an honest look and real conversations about comedy + mental health. When the cost of bringing others joy is your own joy, the cost is too high.

Aside from Gethard, the trailer previews the documentary’s interview with Sarah Silverman, Baron Vaughn, Wayne Brady, Sara Benincasa, Aparna Nancherla, Anna Akana and Rainn Wilson. The film also features sit-downs with Neal Brennan, Rachel Bloom, Rikki Lindholm and more. No word on an official release date yet, but It’s Not That Funny is coming soon.

Thankfully, despite the dire need for more people (and especially comedians themselves) to be able and willing to acknowledge and talk about matters of mental health, SoulPancake and Funny Or Die’s efforts here aren’t entirely novel. Last year, Los Angeles’ iconic Comedy Store venue started the Comedians Assistance Fund in order to offer working comics help with financial and health-related matters. Others, like Steven Alan Green’s The Laughter Foundation, which operates the Heckler Fund, have also been fighting the good fight for mental health awareness and treatment.

Random Bits

Off and on since 2008, Funny or Die’s Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis has simultaneously delighted and confused viewers who just so happened to find it. The oddball anti-talk show has bagged plenty of big guests, like Brad Pitt, Jerry Seinfeld, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and now it’s getting a movie — yes, movie — on Netflix. This is something I’ll be talking about in a future newsletter, but until then, I’m writing about Between Two Ferns here to introduce Funny Or Die’s replacement.

On Tuesday, the digital comedy outlet released the first episode of Under A Rock with Tig Notaro, yet another anti-talk show of sorts. Instead of emphasizing the theatrics of Galifianakis’ comedy stylings, however, Under A Rock displays Notaro’s apparent total lack of pop cultural knowledge. Per Funny Or Die:

Although she’s a famous comedian herself, Tig Notaro has a very special and unique ability: she doesn’t recognize celebrities. Whether they’re a Grammy Award-winning musician, a world-famous chef, or one of the most iconic actors in television, for Tig... well... it’s just not ringing a bell.

Dawson’s Creek star James Van Der Beek stars in the first episode above, and yeah, it’s exactly what Funny Or Die says it is. Notaro evidently has no idea who the former teen heartthrob is, and the results are actually pretty damn funny. Even Van Der Beek can’t help bursting out into laughter as the bit continues for the entirety of the episode’s seven minutes.

Crowd Work

Don’t forget, I actually want you to respond. Send me whatever questions, comments are snide remarks that you may have about my thoughts on stand-up comedy, or comedy-related matters I didn’t cover, but are nonetheless on your mind. To get in touch, simply email me and we’ll go from there.

Taylor Swift and stand-up genre(s)

Rain doesn't just inform great pop music careers

Last month, I interviewed Bobcat Goldthwait and Dana Gould ahead of their summer co-headlining tour The Show with Two Heads (which ends this weekend with dates in Oregon, California and Colorado). Seeing as how these two have been around in the business for some time, we talked about a lot, but something that Gould brought up hasn’t left my mind.

“Comedians don’t get shuffled into categories the way music does, even though they should be,” he said. For context, here’s the whole bit from the Forbes article:

“Bob and I are guys who like weird, old, culty movies, and our acts are, well, we’re sort of weird,” he laughs. “The kind of people who like The Thing with Two Heads and still listen to the Ramones are going to want to come and see me and Bob. This is our crowd. This is our tribe. This is the stuff that we like and I’m very happy about that. I never wanted to be the biggest star on the bill, but I did always want to be the most interesting. That’s my goal. We do the stuff that we like, and people are welcome to enjoy it with us as well.”

In conclusion, Gould notes that “comedians don’t get shuffled into categories the way music does, even though they should be.”

“You wouldn’t book a hip hop act and a country singer together, but with comedians, they’ll do that. People that are of completely different audience appeals will be lumped together. Bob and I definitely have a specific appeal to a particular demographic, and hopefully, that's who will show up on the tour.”

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Gould’s comments on stand-up comedy’s categorization (or lack thereof) because it’s something that has bothered me ever since I first became a fan of the genre many years ago. What Ali Wong does on stage is nothing like what Robin Williams did in his heyday. Meanwhile, Gallagher and Mike Birbiglia are worlds apart. And while George Carlin and Emma Arnold are both known for their political (or politicized) comedy, that doesn’t mean they’re doing the same kind of stand-up.

Stand-up contains multitudes. You’ve got elements (or outright uses of) improv and sketch and drama and documentary and monologue and speechifying and more — and those are just the forms. Content, though it varies quite often in the realm of the stand-up comedy special, can be just as genre-specific and, therefore, amicable to further categorization.

We already do with with movies and television shows and documentaries and, as Gould specifically noted, music. Why aren’t we doing it with stand-up?

I mean, we are — technically. Stand-up comedy subgenres do exist. From alternative and anecdotal forms of performative humor, to cringe, deadpan and insult-driven comedy, the stand-up genre is rife with forms and types. The problem is, nobody seems to be using them regularly — let alone in a generally agreed upon manner.

This brings me, finally, to Taylor Swift (who’s in the headline) and Hannah Gadsby (who’s in the header). I’m invoking both because of the latter’s recent appearance on Conan O’Brien’s podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. The Australian comic has been touring her new show “Douglas,” which is set to become her Nanette followup on Netflix, across the globe. While the pair did discuss what’s new, however, O’Brien unsurprisingly — and thoughtfully — pondered his own response to Nanette and asked Gadsby about her thoughts on the comedy world’s reactions to it. They specifically dug into the notion of comedy as genre, what makes comedy comedy, and how it may need to be broken up.

“I had a very strong reaction to anybody… who thought, ‘Well, wait a minute, is this stand-up? It starts out as stand-up and then it becomes this,” the host says while referencing the massive think piece and social media-fueled argument that critics, comedians and trolls engaged in following Nanette’s Netflix debut last summer. “First of all, where is the rule? It’s an hour and 10 minutes of you and a microphone. It is going to be what you want it to be, and it is powerful. At no moment did you lose me and I laughed a lot. You also did, what I think, great art, great theater, great works of writing are supposed to do.”

As for the mythic “rule” that O’Brien was referring to, Gadsby quips, “It’s made up.”

All of this is true, more or less. There is no one “rule” that defines what stand-up comedy is or is not. Rather, what passes for it today is the result of nearly a century of artistic development that traces its immediate lineage to American vaudeville and, before that the vaudevillian theaters, cabaret cafes and music halls of 18th and 19th-century Europe. It’s not a static form of entertainment that has remain unchanged all this time, but a highly dynamic craft that, for the moment, concerns a lone performer standing on stage with a microphone.

I’m able to state this with confidence because I’ve been researching the history of comedy, a time-consuming act that’s only happening because, aside from my personal interest in the subject, I’m working on a number of related book projects. Lay comedy fans, on the other hand, have neither the time nor the inclination to inspect what’s come before and discern how and why it informs what their favorite comedians are doing now. So it’s completely understandable, at least generally, that most people would have questions or concerns when something as dramatically genre-altering as Nanette comes along. (Unless, of course, it’s the complaints of misogynist assholes who still hold comics like Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison in high esteem. They’re idiots.) It’s also understandable in the sense that, without the existence of easily identifiable subgenres a la Gould’s comments about music, they’re left to sift through the Netflix-fueled onslaught of new comedy specials to figure out what comedy is out there.

The fault lies with many actors. Major comedy outlets like Netflix, Comedy Central and HBO do little to identify and categorize the various subgenres that any given piece of stand-up might boast. Larger entertainment catalogs, like the iMDB, do even less. (If you’re lucky, a special might get both the comedy and the documentary genre identifiers, but that’s usually it.) Critics, too, don’t always refer to these established norms when writing about a given comic or comedy special. I’ll admit I’m guilty of this! But, so too are the majority of writers working this beat today.

To make matters worse, there’s the increasingly meaningless nature of the catch-all genre identity that stand-up comedy has come to occupy. Gadsby pinpoints this problem with precision while discussing Donald Trump and, yes, Taylor Swift on Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend:

“Two interesting people that I thought about when I wrote the show [are] Donald Trump and Taylor Swift… I was kind of watching, with horror, Donald Trump and his rallies. This was before he was nominated. It’s like, he’s not saying anything. Just watching that group mob mentality. [With] Taylor Swift, I went through a brief obsession because I wanted to understand. I still don’t, but I really studied it hard… During her 1989 world tour, I think it’s called the “Clean Speech”? … She just sort of, in her concerts, went up on this platform. She stood there like a messiah. Just talked to this huge crowd and they were crying. This is profound [for them]. So I got some transcripts and just studied them. She has said nothing. She’s genuinely not saying anything. She meant it, whatever she didn’t say. She really meant it. I think it was that sort of vagueness of speech that people were just like, “I want this.” They fill in the blanks. It’s preaching to the converted, quite literally.”

The similarities Gadsby found in the ambiguous speechifying of Trump and Swift are not unlike the oftentimes vague, or at least increasingly similar, types of comedy that many are using to identify (and defend) the genre. This isn’t a rigid-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness performance art that must always adhere to certain ways of being or thinking. It’s far more than that.

“I don’t think that’s healthy,” Gadsby adds. “That’s now how you open a closed mind. So that’s why I started to go, ‘I need to shatter that illusion and break the audience up.’ So that people are like, ‘I don’t know how to react.’ That consensus is being broken so that people are left as individuals in the room.”

I think this is a far greater, healthier and more productive attitude to have about art and entertainment in general, and figuring out what is and isn’t stand-up comedy more specifically. And while Gadsby’s rather precise efforts to deconstruct these bad habits is one aspect of such informed behavior, simply referring to the tools we already have on hand can be just as successful. We already have these stand-up subgenres at our disposal. Let’s use them!

Random Bits

If you haven’t watched Ali Wong and Randall Park’s Always Be My Maybe on Netflix, you should. You’re missing out on a fake-glasses-wearing Keanu Reeves comedic performance that is perfection.

Crowd Work

Don’t forget, I actually want you to respond. Send me whatever questions, comments are snide remarks that you may have about my thoughts on stand-up comedy, or comedy-related matters I didn’t cover, but are nonetheless on your mind. To get in touch, simply email me and we’ll go from there.

Comedy and assholes, continued

The bigger the ego, the shittier they are

I’ve been saying I would continue my “Comedy and assholes” bit so here goes.

In that first (and only) post), I discussed Saturday Night Live co-head writer and “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che’s then-recent decision to harass a critic who’d written about his comedy partner, Colin Jost, in an article. Specifically, Che decided (and not for the first time) to weaponize his rather significant platform (414,000 Instagram followers and, you know, being partly in charge of SNL) against the writer. He even went so far as to edit the critic’s Wikipedia page to suggest that he had been accused of abusing animals and charged with bestiality.

On the one hand, all of this is pretty excessive for a response(s) to an article that pondered why so many people seem to dislike Jost’s comedy but, I shit you not, largely defended him. On the other hand, some of you might still be giggling about Che’s trying to claim that the critic had been charged with bestiality (or “beastiality,” as he initially misspelled it). “It’s just a joke, Andrew,” you might be thinking. “Relax!”

At the moment, I have neither the time nor the motive to explain to you why the “it’s just a joke” or “just kidding” excuses for otherwise awful behavior are as stupid as they are ignorant. So let’s just take it as a given that these statements and the sentiments behind them are bad.

Which propels me to what I was basically saying and thinking through in that introductory post: Michael Che is an asshole. Or, that is to say, his most recent example of targeting a critic with harassment is yet another instance of his being an asshole. At the same time, he is by no means the only asshole who has also happened to be a prominent stand-up comedian. I also mentioned Louis C.K., a more obvious illustration of this, and aside from his sexual misconduct scandal, his recently leaked material about the Parkland shooting survivors and his subsequent efforts to squash such leaks have only reinforced this observation.

But it’s not enough to simply identify behaviors one finds (or the majority of people would find) reprehensible enough to categorize the person behaving accordingly as an “asshole.” Otherwise, it’s just one of many negative descriptors that can be applied to such misdeeds.

Hence why I brought in Aaron James’ 2012 book Assholes: A Theory, a playful book of philosophy that, via moral philosophy and other more academic means of reflection, tries to clarify what an “asshole” is and what makes or qualifies them as one. This was the basic definition I pulled from the book’s first chapter:

“[A] person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”

James’ definition can be broken into three parts: (1) the allowance to “enjoy special advantages,” (2) doing so “out of an entrenched sense of entitlement,” and (3) being “immunized against the complaints of other people.” So, technically, if any given case hits all three of these pieces, then taken together, it’s fair to say that whoever is being analyzed is, by definition, an asshole.

It sounds simple, but it’s not. Using the three basic components of James’ otherwise general definition of what makes an “asshole” isn’t enough. Per the author’s own example, one could easily use these metrics to toss the random entitled asshole who regularly cuts in line at the local coffee shop into the same group as, say, Adolf Hitler. Obviously, these two people are not the same kind of “asshole”:

“[We] should not think first of extreme cases such as Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini. There are not enough harsh names for these figures, and it is fine to add ‘asshole’ to the list. But it would be deeply offensive to only call Hitler or Stalin an asshole; there are much more important ways to describe them morally.”

So, what gives? James goes on to suggest that his book, and in particular, his theory, is more concerned with the “mere asshole.” Someone whose assholery is defined by a person with a “stable trait of character” who is “not morally beyond the pale” but, nonetheless is still a “repugnant” person.

For review, an asshole is an individual who regularly allows themselves access to special advantages out of a sense of entitlement that makes them (or, more specifically, their livelihoods) impervious to criticism. Their character is also chiefly identified by these qualities, and while this doesn’t necessarily make them morally evil (like, for example, a murderer’s acts of violence do), they’re still unpleasant as a result.

Yeah, this kind of sounds like Che, as well as Louis and a host of other comedians-cum-douchebags who have managed to maintain, or have once boasted, an acceptable (to them, at least) level of success in their respective comedy spheres of influence.

Che may not be “immunized” against criticism, as his many lash outs have proven, but his career and professional standing are. He made false accusations of bestiality and related crimes against someone and, as far as I can tell, has faced no repercussions for his actions.

As for Louis, he’s in the middle of a “comeback” tour that might not have him playing in the same storied venues he used to sell out, but he’s still out there. What’s more, the gatekeepers (comedy club owners, bookers, etc.) are, for the most part, totally fine with putting him onstage — his past misgivings and present routines notwithstanding.

Defining and analyzing assholery among comedians notwithstanding, this is also about power and its ease of abuse. The history of stand-up comedy, as well as pretty much any other facet of the entertainment industry (or politics, or business, or XYZ) if rife with examples of powerful assholes who demand a lot, give very little back, and assume that their lives will always be this way, regardless of whoever they step on.

Random Bits

Ken Jennings is a monster. I’m currently reading his 2018 book Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture, in which the celebrity Jeopardy! contestant turned author tries to discern precisely why the comedy genre has permeated so much of the modern world. It’s actually a great read, albeit one that makes a lot of assumptions about a lot of things that are stand-up adjacent, but that’s okay. Jennings isn’t a journalist by training. He is, however, as I’ve already mentioned, a monster.

In the book’s second chapter, Jennings recalls a viral video from 2013 in which, after releasing a small rabbit back into the wild, a family watches in horror as a hawk swoops in and takes it away to almost certain death. The father in the video instantly laughs when it happens, and let’s be honest, the majority of people who’ve watched this video (over 22 million and counting) probably did, too.

In bringing up this example of “The Laugh Reflex,” Jennings says the following:

“I laughed despite having said many a toilet-side eulogy for dead fish, and in one case having helped my teary-eyed daughter set up an incredibly elaborate backyard monument to a beloved golden retriever.”

What a goddamn monster.

Crowd Work

Don’t forget, I actually want you to respond. Send me whatever questions, comments are snide remarks that you may have about my thoughts on stand-up comedy, or comedy-related matters I didn’t cover, but are nonetheless on your mind. To get in touch, simply email me and we’ll go from there.

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