Thank you for submitting your questions to the inaugural Humorism Mailbag! I got a lot of really great questions, and one or two thought-provoking trolls. If I don't get to yours below, I'll try either to respond personally or include it in a later edition. Okay, here we go:
A lot of comedians are scared to challenge power structures because comedy is such a hypercompetitive field and alienating the wrong people hardly seems worth the professional and reputational risks. Aside from fighting for structural change and fair labor practices, how would you suggest that comedians think differently about the meaning of success?
With the caveat that everything I’m about to say needs to happen in tandem with those bigger fights, my first thought is that comedy workers need to stop conceiving of themselves and their careers in individualistic terms. The cult of individualism in comedy—in American culture—is a fundamentally conservative philosophy whose chief effect is to prevent labor solidarity. The idea that comedy is a meritocracy, that you'll succeed if you work hard enough, that it’s worth sacrificing your dignity and integrity now for the potential payoffs later—these all hinge on the lie that your fortunes are determined solely by your actions, and the lie in reverse, that your actions determine solely your fortunes. These lies are quite powerful. They’ve atomized the comedy workforce into a sea of individuals primed to do whatever it takes—work for nothing, climb over their peers, keep quiet about abuse in their midst—to win not even the lottery but a lottery ticket. How convenient for the people running things!
A more communitarian outlook would recognize first and foremost that one’s competitor is in fact one’s comrade. No comedy worker exists in an isolated career path where their actions affect only themselves. When you work with an abuser, you give them power to keep abusing your comrades. When you cozy up to a scummy club owner, you give them cover to keep exploiting your comrades. When you accept low or no pay, you accept it on behalf of every comrade who follows you. When you recognize that your comrades are your comrades, suddenly you have a great deal of leverage against the abusers and exploiters. This is basic stuff, but the cult of individualism is so powerful, the promise of meritocracy so intoxicating, that the basics never gained any purchase. The lessons of the Comedy Store strike were forgotten in a matter of years.
I will give a more granular example from my own experience. In arguing that comedians should refuse to work with clubs that platform bigots and abusers, I often encounter the response that it’s actually anti-worker to demand someone sacrifice their own paycheck when they haven’t done anything wrong. They’re the good guys, after all! It’s for the best that they make money which might otherwise go to bad guys, and that they use any platform they can to put good comedy into the world. This, again, is rooted in the lie that one’s actions affect only oneself. In reality, the progressive comic who works at (oh, let’s just say) The Creek gives The Creek authority to keep booking racist comics under the cover of platform neutrality. But there’s nothing neutral about platforming hate speech; the cost it inevitably exacts is neither negated nor justified by one’s own personal advancement. It’s delusional to believe otherwise. Some will say they have no power over a club’s booking decisions and therefore no responsibility. I’m saying they have both. The point of exercising that power is that if you get what you want, you won’t actually have to sacrifice the paycheck. If you don’t, you won’t be sacrificing it alone.
A more communitarian outlook would recognize that it’s to all comedy’s detriment when comedians turn a blind eye toward bigotry and abuse. One thing that happens whenever I write about certain comedians is that I hear from people who worked with or around them. The stories are consistent. They fuck over their employees; they fill clubs with unsavory crowds who get wasted, harass waitstaff, and pick fights. If that weren’t bad enough, many of these comedians are wittingly or unwittingly engaged in a long-term project to legitimize bigotry in the public sphere, a project that makes them ideological foot soldiers in the broader Republican effort to cement permanent right-wing rule. As hard as it is to make good comedy right now, it will be much harder if this effort succeeds.
This brings me to another thing comedy workers need to disabuse themselves of, which is the idea that free speech has anything to do with deplatforming bad actors. So many conversations about bigotry in comedy get bogged down in endless unnecessary meta-conversations about how of course I support free speech and well I think comedians should be able to say whatever they want, BUT that would never happen in other workplaces. “Free speech” means comics should not face prosecution by the state for what they say. It has nothing to do with whether artistic communities and private workplaces should vigorously combat hate speech, which they should. Whenever a gatekeeper cries that they can’t police heinous speech just because they don’t like it, the response should be that their entire job is policing speech they don’t like. When you decline to pass a comic at your club because you don’t think they’re funny, that’s policing speech. When you cut a joke from your TV show because it might offend a sponsor, that’s policing speech. The business of public thought—writing, editing, publishing, distributing, broadcasting—is the business of deciding what speech is worthy of an audience and then making it as worthy as possible.
This obviously doesn’t mean good comedy can’t offend an audience’s sensibilities, just that it’s extremely normal and to everyone’s benefit to draw a line somewhere. Comedians desperately need to stop entertaining arguments to the contrary; they’re rhetorical smokescreens, nothing more, nothing less. I’ve gotten a bit away from your question here, but the thrust is that individualist thinking obscures the bigger picture, which I fear will fuck a lot of people over in the long run.
I, like some of your other readers I imagine, came here after Anthony Jeselnik recommended your newsletter on his podcast. He mentioned that you were friendly, and I was wondering whether you've ever confronted him over any of his jokes or stories in the past.
I’m including this one 50% for the brag, but the truth is—and I don’t remember exactly what he said because I can only listen to praise once—we’re friendly only in the sense that we’ve DMd a couple times and we follow each other’s work. I’m not in a position to discuss his jokes with him, nor am I particularly interested in “confronting” comedians about old problematic jokes, unless they’re still in the business of problematic comedy or they’re engaged in a public project/persona that’s undermined by an un-reckoned with past. (Even then, to be VERY CLEAR, I don’t think people should suffer professional or social ostracism over old fucked up jokes. Relatedly, I encourage everyone to regularly delete their tweets.)
That aside, I think Anthony’s already very open about retiring jokes that don’t sit right with him anymore and/or that he feels people laughed at for the wrong reasons. He’s an interesting counterpoint to the sort of comics I typically write about, both because he does what they all wish they could do—play a heightened character who spins highwire yarns that interrogate The Edge by dancing carefully along and across it—and because he takes the art form seriously enough to think critically about how the work works. All these other chuds believe the “pro-comedy” stance is that words are meaningless and social norms are hostile to challenging work, but they’ve got it backwards. Really they’re just dressing up laziness as integrity.
It’s funny—I still get messages telling me I’m an idiot who didn’t get that Shane Gillis was pLaYiNg A cHaRaCtEr when he said “let the ch–ks live there.” Can’t you tell he was putting an an old-timey voice to make fun of racist landlords?? Yes, I watched the video! That’s how I saw the bits where he complained at length in his own voice about how annoying he finds Chinese people. I’m a big fan of the “this person I’m depicting is awful, aren’t they??” school of comedy, but it requires a certain moral credibility that you can’t possibly possess if you literally are that person. I think it’s generally easy to tell when someone’s doing depiction without endorsement and when someone’s doing depiction as cover for endorsement. If they miss the mark in an attempt at the former, I don’t really care; that’s part of the job. It’s the latter that I think deserves more scrutiny.
What are you most excited for in the next 12 months in comedy (work that's coming out, new revenue models for podcasts, how the industry responds to XYZ, etc.)
I don’t get hype for much but I am very hype for the new season of What We Do in the Shadows. Other than that, I can’t wait to get back to Brooklyn and see some of my favorite comics in what you might call the alt scene there. I won’t name names because I’ll leave out too many people, but let’s just say you’ll be able to find me at Union Hall and the Bell House. Also at this soda factory my friend Sarah’s renting out as an art space.
Any fictionalized depictions of standup you’ve experienced that make you go “yes, that’s it!”?
I’d say Seinfeld’s standup segments accurately convey the experience of watching Jerry Seinfeld. Other than that, no.
Who were the comedians that got you into comedy and what was the moment you felt like you needed to start tackling these big issues in the comedy scene with your writing?
To the first question: web sketch groups like Olde English, Picnic Face, and Derrick; Jack Handey; SCTV; Strangers with Candy; Kate Berlant; Maria Bamford. To the second: it was really a lot of small moments, but a pivotal one was that when UCB announced it was moving from Chelsea to Hell’s Kitchen. I wrote a blog post for Paste Magazine arguing that once it moves, it should start paying its performers. At that point I’d been writing about comedy for a couple years, largely the sort of puff pieces where some comedian has a new show coming out soon, so the network sets you up for a friendly interview. I knew in the back of my head that comedy is a profoundly messed up industry (this takes five minutes interviewing comedians to learn), but I hadn’t yet felt the drive or opportunity to really focus on it. The UCB blog stirred this bizarrely intense backlash—just so many people yelling at me on Twitter that their rich bosses shouldn’t pay them—which made abruptly clear to me how unbelievably thoroughly fucked the system was, in a way I didn’t really see anyone talking about in a sustained manner. At the same time, I started getting a lot of messages to the effect of Hey, it’s not just X that’s fucked up, it’s also Y. I’ve found that publicly saying “this popular institution is bullshit actually” earns you a lot of trust, and my experience has been of one story quickly leading to another.
Oh, here’s another one. I spent from around the summer of 2017 til the beginning of 2019 working on a story about abuse at a midwestern comedy theater. It got killed several times by successively bigger outlets, the last of which dropped it after a painstakingly long fact-check, basically for being too niche. As I reported it, I learned about similar stories happening at comedy theaters all around the country: young, powerless comedy workers getting fucked over again and again in the same handful of ways by charismatic abusers who kept getting away with it, usually because their colleagues closed ranks to protect them.
It was devastating to let down my sources in the story, who’d trusted me with it for a very long time even as it kept falling apart. It was also (for lack of a better word) radicalizing to witness the scale of the problems at hand. This is why I won’t shut up about these things. I don’t think you can solve these problems without hammering home that every comedy community is dealing with them, and then using that awareness to build some sort of collective will to burn the house down.
How are you dealing with the fact that every time you write about some nazi/white supremacist/proud boy sympathisant in comedy (or also just the common edgy slur-using comedian), you are also contributing to increase their visibility and spreading their message? Is that an unsolvable dilemma one just has to live with?
There is no dilemma. You can’t deal with these people by refusing to give them oxygen. They make their own oxygen. The point of reporting on them is to inform the public, which has an obvious interest in their activities. My belief is that you deal with fascists by mocking and deplatforming them. To get to that point—the point where comedy workers and audiences decide to stop tolerating bad actors—you first have to build some level of awareness about who they are, what they’re doing, and what they want. You can do this without granting legitimacy to their message: Block-quoting Dave Smith to expose his beliefs is very different than giving him a platform to argue them on his own terms.
And I promise you, these people do not like bad press. I know for a fact that Anthony Cumia will take pains to avoid it. Dave Smith has political ambitions; he doesn’t want to be labeled as a Nazi sympathizer. Big Jay Oakerson and Luis Gomez don’t want to be called racist even as they insistently claim the divine right to be racist. For all their posturing, what these people really want is mainstream credibility. They want it so badly that they’ll unleash vicious fan hordes on anyone who threatens to keep it from them. See: the time they melted down for months when a comic who has mainstream credibility tweeted a link to my New Republic article. See also: that article, which I hope made plenty clear what happens when nobody minds the right-wing organizing in their backyard.
As a rapidly aging person who’s tried multiple ways to break into New York “alternative comedy”— do you think of comedy as a meritocracy? How do people with specific points of view and esoteric references get attention if they can’t hack open mics?
Not only is comedy not a meritocracy, it can’t possibly be a meritocracy until healthcare, housing, universal income, and various other human rights are codified as such. That said, unless you’re a preternaturally talented screenwriter with existing showbiz connections, in which case you should move to LA now and start shopping your scripts, I don’t see any way around mics.
It’s true, workshopping your jokes for an audience of other (annoyed, jaded, tired) comics is often an unreliable measure of their quality, but mics do offer a few important opportunities. One, they’re a free space to figure out how to be a person onstage. (Except for all the paid mics in NYC right now—don’t do those.) Two, they give you regular writing deadlines. Three, they let you practice the lifelong work of divorcing your sense of self-worth from your audience’s response. Four, and perhaps most importantly, they’ll eventually introduce you to comics you think are funny, and who think you’re funny, and whom you can go off with and make your own stuff and produce your own shows. Comedy may not be a level playing field, but you can make it a little leveler by finding your own community. That way, when one of you gets lucky, everyone else gets lucky too.
You may also need to make your references less esoteric.
So I always see you covering things in the standup community and the improv community, occasionally dabbling into sketch (SNL mostly), but I've rarely if ever seen you cover online satire/comedy writing. Have you ever thought about covering The Onion/ClickHole's struggles with G/O Media, ClickHole's acquisition by Cards Against Humanity (and the CAH drama itself), the collapse of CollegeHumor and Funny Or Die and other publications, and more stuff in that realm?
Honestly I just haven’t gone far down that road because of my own limitations as a freelancer. The slow contraction of the online satire ecosystem is an important part of the erosion of upward mobility in comedy; it’s also a complex media story (private equity hollowing out journalism) and a complex tech story (Facebook lying about video metrics and killing countless profit-generating websites in the process). I’ve spoken to lots of current or former Funny Or Die, ClickHole, and Onion people, and I think there are plenty of pieces waiting to be written about their experiences. The problem is I think those pieces generally need to be features, and I’m loathe to do feature-length reporting on this newsletter. (Partly because I think it would be a mistake without editorial and legal support, partly because I can’t afford to set aside the time they would take.) The last year has severely weakened my aptitude for the part of freelancing where you, you know, pitch stories to media outlets, but I’m hoping to get back into that soon. In the meantime, if you’re interested, here’s a piece I wrote in 2017 about Condé Nast screwing over New Yorker cartoonists.
I'm wondering what you think it would take for some of the major media outlets to take a more adversarial stance against shows like SNL. Obviously much of the entertainment press depends on access to celebrities, movie studios, production companies, and entertainment industry people more generally. But work publications like the NYT and Vulture have done to challenge the status quo can make an impact (like the Weinstein story), even if it happens less often than it should. Do you get the sense that enthusiasm is growing for that kind of coverage, on the part of reporters or even the broader public? Or is the era of shamelessly serving as stenographer for late-night shows and the like going to persist indefinitely?
Great question. I got another one that asks something similar but slightly different. Lemme include that one too so I can address both:
There's not a lot of media outlets that publish writing about comedy that's as critical as you like to be. Not saying NYMag should employ 100 comedy journalists, but there is so much writing about SNL and Late Night and Social Media Comedians without a single negative or critical thought. I obviously don't expect the sites to be shitposting SNL every week, but it's not a completely marginal opinion to think these things often suck. I guess my question is: Is there a possible future where the (non subscription based) publications that cover pop culture/comedy do critical writing about comedy?
I think there's an audience for it or some version of it. Doesn't have to even be takedowns. Just a single site that is brave enough to publish 1 piece about how lame Depressed Horse Comedy is for every 10 about how life affirming it is. Anyone who reads your newsletter already knows how bleak the landscape is for comedy criticism but I'd like to know what an alternative could look like/ if one is possible.
What's the fantasy? Or are there just too few people who want to do this kind of writing? I like when you deconstruct why Late Night jokes are weak but maybe it's just you and Matt Christman in the venn diagram of people who like to analyze comedy and people who aren't themselves comedians (and can professionally afford to take shots).
There’s much I could say about the state of quote-unquote comedy journalism, most of which I shouldn’t. Let’s start with this. It’s often said that the last comedy boom cemented comedy as a serious art form in the public consciousness. Lately I’m not so sure. The boom undeniably made clear to those who stand to profit from comedy that they can profit immensely. In aggregate, I still don’t see too much seriousness about it. Is there any other art form whose audiences and practitioners routinely conflate form with content? One routinely hears comedians and their fans assert that the only thing (or the first thing) they care about is whether a work is funny, and that its message—its animating purpose—comes second to this if at all. How often do you hear a screenwriter say their chief concern is placing a sequence of events in order of exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, and denouement? How often do you hear someone say of their favorite TV show, “Well, a bunch of people certainly had conversations that contained dramatic tension!”
I attribute a lot of this to the dearth of serious writing about the form. One major role of criticism is to provide a critical framework in which to think about art; this doesn’t really exist for comedy, barring academic work about benign violation theory and what have you. Yes, a few publications review high-profile comedy productions (specials, SNL, late night) thoughtfully and probingly, but even these tend toward the naive attitude that comedy exists in a purely aesthetic realm where words have no bearing on reality and the artist has nothing to do with their art. As I wrote about coverage of Louis CK’s new tour last year:
But what of those political and moral questions? Can we dispense with them so easily? Evidently so. In a more recent review of CK’s new material, Zinoman glances past them again: “While I agree with the critics who have rejected the idea that we must separate the art from the artist, I have a high tolerance for enjoying art from morally suspect places. Given that, Louis C.K.’s new show made me laugh very hard.” Like Als, he is unwilling or unable to confront the ugliness of CK’s offenses: where Als flattens them into “difficulties,” Zinoman fashions the man as “morally suspect,” like Don Draper. But CK isn’t suspect. He’s guilty. He admitted it. Then he got away with it, because no one who matters thought it was all that bad. Now each of us is faced with the question of whether to let him have what he’s taken. The desire for CK to address what happened in art—a desire that uncritically invests in him the moral authority to do so—is ultimately a desire for him to answer that question for us, so we don’t have to do the work ourselves. Give me a reason to forgive you; that way I won’t have to admit I want to; that way I won’t have to admit I already have.
It’s frustrating to see these blind spots in critics who are so often deeply incisive. Zinoman’s review descends into classic Times both-sidesism, noting that some old fans will not like CK’s jokes while others will see them as “blows against political correctness.” (Who cares how imaginary third parties will see them; what do they look like?) Als’ review ends in pure fantasy: “As the show went on, I began to want to feed C.K., telepathically, the different forms of storytelling he brought to his work when he was at the top of his game and unafraid of losing out on being loved. What if he were to turn his shame into a story? What if he imagined how his dick looked to a woman he had horrified? Couldn’t he go there, Richard Pryor style, and talk from the vantage point of his disgraced penis?” Maybe he could, but he didn’t, because he chose not to, which seems like a choice worth interrogating, possibly related to the specifics of why he was “unafraid of losing out” for such a long time. Or, I don’t know, maybe he’s no longer concerned with writing comedy that gives New Yorker critics something to chew on. Maybe the community he’s leaning into now isn’t interested in that woman’s point of view.
You can’t separate these attitudes from the vacuum of serious coverage of the industry itself. Louis CK was able to commit his crimes and get away with them thanks to a fawning press that uncritically accepted the narrative sold by CK and his industry backers: that he was a tortured but ultimately benign genius whose confessional work absolved him (and by proxy the rest of us) of what he was confessing, which by the way made his work indispensable. I do not think this would have happened—at least not for so long—in a world where skeptical celebrity coverage were the norm, or at least in a world where comedy’s non-famous workers received as much coverage as its stars.
I don’t think we’ll ever live in that world until bigger media structures change. You cannot run a non-subscription based website today without chasing traffic. You cannot chase traffic without catering to fans. People are googling “best Netflix specials,” so you’d better have a list of the best Netflix specials. People are googling “best SNL sketches,” so you’d better have a list of the best SNL sketches. If it’s Sunday, people are looking up whatever clips are trending from last night’s episode, so you’d best have posts for each of them. If you want a comedian to share your post with their followers, you’d best make it something they’d want to share. If there’s a hot new show out, you’d best have coverage to compete with everyone else covering it, so why not take the network up on that interview with the creators and stars?
That’s not the half of it. Because publications have no money and no staff, odds are there’s one or two people handling everything I just mentioned. Longer-form coverage gets shopped out to freelancers. Not only are the economics of freelancing hostile to serious investigative work, the particular incentives of entertainment coverage—recapping TV shows, interviewing celebrities, watching an artist’s body of work and then writing about it—disproportionately attract people who like what they’re covering.
Then, yes, there’s access. If you write critically about UCB, UCB’s publicist isn’t liable to be forthcoming with her other clients. If you ask unfriendly questions about, say, Keegan-Michael Key ripping off another comedian’s viral Medium post in a Today Show segment, his publicist isn’t liable to be forthcoming with her other clients. If you look too deeply into Chris Kattan’s allegations that Lorne Michaels pressured him to sleep with Amy Heckerling, you’re gonna get some stern off-record denials from SNL’s publicists that carry the unmissable implication you’re pissing people off. If you consistently alienate an NBC property, you’re liable to lose access to other NBC properties. How many comedy properties does NBC have, by the way?
It’s frustrating. It’s demoralizing. Judging purely by my own experiences, I do think there is great enthusiasm for adversarial coverage of shows like SNL. I suspect one could earn as much traffic from “SNL sucks” pieces as from “SNL is great” pieces (or just “SNL exists” pieces, which seem to be the norm). More importantly, I think friendly coverage of shows like SNL is deeply unethical. I don’t understand how Vulture, for instance, whipsaws from a piece like the Jeff Ross exposé back to 20 weekly SNL aggregations and an uncritical interview with Lorne Michaels about his illegal pandemic in-studio season. Why should I trust you to cover any bad actor when you turn a blind eye to one of the biggest? Yes, positive coverage serves fans, but truthful coverage would serve them more. It would also serve the people harmed by Hollywood’s monsters, for whom the press is an essential line of defense. There’s no ethical reason not to do it, only financial ones.
You asked what the fantasy is. Well, the first fantasy is that someone gives me money and editorial support to do this on a bigger platform. The second fantasy is that every major outlet hire a reporter to cover what I’d loosely define as the comedy industry: clubs, theaters, festivals, and the Hollywood institutions that feed off them. If that costs too much money, these outlets could at least follow the Vulture model of having their TV critics turn an exacting eye towards comedy specials and shows, ideally contextualizing them in the broader comedy ecosystem. And they should assign their TV reporters to start talking to Lorne Michaels’ former assistants right now.
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