I recently read a review of a major international comedian’s latest stand-up show. The review was glowing, praising the comic’s “pitch-perfect” performance and lauding his ability to deliver intelligent material on hot-button topics. As a fan, I was pleased to know that the man was in top form. But when I finished reading I was struck by something strange: at no point had the reviewer mentioned whether the show was funny or not.
Not once. He’d mentioned the comedian’s compassion, his open-mindedness, his capacity for self-examination, his willingness to address his own “MeToo” moment, and his message of positivity and understanding. But never his sense of humour. At one point it was noted that the show was “joke-filled”, but no critical assessment of these jokes was forthcoming. Did the comedian make the reviewer laugh? If he did, the writer didn’t find the fact worth mentioning.
Commentary about the virtues or vices of “woke comedy” – or its sinister mirror image, “politically incorrect comedy” – is rife these days, with battalions lined up either side of the divide to argue in vehement and spittle-flecked terms either that comedy is being ruined either by comedians being offensive or by comedians not being offensive enough. In reality, comedy can only be ruined by one thing: being unfunny. With that in mind, the threat to the comedic arts is not in being woke, per se, or in being anti-woke, per se: it’s in thinking that being woke or otherwise is the main purpose of comedy.
Reviews like the one I read promote this view. From this critic’s perspective, the measure of a comedy show is not the quality of its jokes, but the humanity of the performer and the purity of its moral philosophy. This is a definite trend: Australia’s Hannah Gadsby has become a worldwide superstar on the back of her show Nanette, about which most of the world’s critics went into orgasmic raptures on the basis of its righteous anger, its resonance with the experience of marginalized people and its brutal honesty. The reviews were as glowing as reviews get, yet still managed to sell Gadsby short by neglecting to mention the gags – which were pretty funny, because Gadsby is good at being funny. It’s her job.
Comedy is for making people laugh. That doesn’t mean that laughter is the only thing it can produce. It can also make you think, make you angry, make you despair, make you cry and make you check your watch. But laughter is why it exists. If you create a piece of art without the primary aim of making people laugh, you may have made something very worthwhile, but it ain’t comedy. And if you’re assessing a comedic work without considering whether it made you laugh or not, you’re pushing the idea that laughter is unimportant in an art form created for the express purpose of generating it. Woke, non-woke, offensive, non-offensive: none of those things will ever define whether comedy is good or not. What does is the same thing that has provided instant feedback for comedians since time immemorial: if they’re laughing, you’re doing it right. All else is details.