Comedy and assholes, an introduction

Comics can be pretty shitty

On Friday, Saturday Night Live co-head writer and “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che took to Instagram to rant against critic Steven Hyden’s recent essay about his colleague, Colin Jost. Seeing as how Hyden described Jost as the “most despised cast member that I can recall from more than 30 years of following SNL” in the first paragraph, it’s safe to assume that Che was not pleased.

Writer Seth Simons, whom Che has also targeted previously, documented the comedian’s tirade on Instagram Stories before the posts were evidently deleted:

If that weren’t enough, Che went so far as to edit Hyden’s Wikipedia entry to include a false statement regarding alleged charges of bestiality (which the comic misspelled, no less, but that’s not the point):

I bring all of this up not to rehash Che’s latest bout of pouting, because Twitter, The Wrap, HuffPost, Fox News and plenty of other outlets (good and bad) already spent most of the weekend doing this. Instead, I’m mentioning it because stand-up comedy and its adjacent endeavors (like sketch and variety programming) have almost always been populated by assholes, and I really want to know how and why this is the case.

Obviously, at face value, this is a somewhat naive line of inquiry to adopt. Assholes are everywhere, regardless of whatever particular industry or social situation they happen to be a part of. What’s more, their being assholes probably has more to do with personal psychology, upbringing, social contexts and a bunch of other factors that have nothing to do with their chosen career paths. I mean, I’m making some pretty general statements here, but there’s plenty of research to back these points up. Aaron James, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Irvine, even wrote a hugely popular book about this subject back in 2012 titled Assholes: A Theory.

So no, I’m not looking to explicitly redo everything James and other professionals of his ilk have done vis-à-vis theorizing “assholes” in human social culture. Instead, I just want to explore Che’s apparently vengeful actions against a critic on social media in terms of the research that James and others have conducted — while also putting it all into a critical context that succinctly traces a comedic lineage of assholery that connects back to the more subversive instances of Louis C.K. and the more blatant platforms adopted by Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks and other (mostly white cis straight male) comics like them.

Obviously, I have no intention of thinking through or writing all of this down right here, right now. This is just a free newsletter and I’ve got lots of deadlines to stop avoiding. That being said, I’ll leave you with James’s basic definition of what makes an asshole an asshole:

“[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.”

Let that sit with you for a beat, because at the top of part one, I’m going to demonstrate how and why what Che did — and not just in this particular instance — is a damn near perfect exemplar of what James had in mind when he set the parameters for assholery.

Random Bits

Remember the 2006 film Man of the Year? No? Well, it was a Barry Levinson satire of contemporary American politics in which Robin Williams played Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-esque comedian and late night host whose presidential campaign gimmick turned into an actual race for the White House.

I mention the film because, over the weekend, Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and comedy actor who played a school teacher-turned-president in a Ukrainian television series, was actually elected to the nation’s presidency. To make matters even weirder, his opponent was a chocolate magnate. Yes, that’s right… a chocolate magnate. Then again, the U.S. elected a coddled real estate tycoon-turned-reality television star back in 2016, so…

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.