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.
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.
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.