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Turtles All the Way Down

Warning: this newsletter is about bad tweets.

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Seth Simons

Jan 26 2022

7 mins read

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I will never stop saying this: the most important thing you can understand about comedy is that virtually everything you know about it, all its rules and history and culture, has been filtered down to you through morons, charlatans, and run-of-the-mill cranks. Comedy’s legends are legends because idiots said so. Its commandments are commandments because some of the least imaginative motherfuckers on earth deemed them thus. All its endless unbearable controversies over simple ethical questions—whether hate speech is bad, whether sex creeps should face rudimentary professional repercussions—are the product of an industrywide Dunning-Kruger effect afflicting everyone from venue owners to bookers to veteran joke-tellers, who, almost to a tee, believe their own success validates the system that gave it to them, rendering illegitimate any challenge to that system. As I’ve written before, comedy is a club. Whatever happens inside the club is right and good by virtue of happening inside the club. There’s no more reason to it than that.

Here’s today’s case study. You may remember Mike Binder from the documentary series on The Comedy Store he directed for Showtime, with express permission from the club’s owners, in 2020. You may specifically remember the part of that documentary where he tells Louis CK that the star’s fall from grace—for reasons Binder politely does not specify—will make him a better comic, to which Louis CK responds by comparing himself to Jesus Christ. Or you may remember the segment about cancel culture where Jay Leno said, unchallenged: “Louis CK did some shows in New York and they sold out. And one person complained, and suddenly that becomes, that’s the headline… There was nobody worse than Picasso, but people are not tearing up his paintings. He did horrible things to women.” Or you may remember the interview Binder did with Vulture to promote the documentary, where he said Louis CK, Chris D’Elia, and Jeff Ross are “Comedy Store people—people that have done a lot for the Comedy Store,” and they shouldn’t be ostracized from the club just because “a bunch of people on Twitter are mad” at them.

Or you may remember other, better parts of the documentary. There were a few! What I am trying to convey is how despite those parts, the series very clearly served an agenda: the perpetuation of a culture where comics like Louis CK get to hurt people, because their art is more important than the people they hurt—if those people are even telling the truth. Now, this culture is obviously bad for comedy, but it’s also very bad for the world outside comedy, the world comedy is a part of. Let us explore one reason why. 

A few days ago Robert F. Kennedy Jr. gave a speech at an anti-vaccine rally in Washington, DC. Among other things, he used this speech to describe vaccine mandates as somehow worse than Hitler because even Anne Frank could hide from the Nazis in an attic. Everyone from the Auschwitz Museum to actress Cheryl Hines, Kennedy’s wife, condemned his remarks, the Museum tweeting that his invocation of the Holocaust was “a sad symptom of moral & intellectual decay.”

Mike Binder, however, applauded his old friend: 

‎‎“Courage is contagious,” Binder said of the guy decrying vaccines for a disease still killing thousands of people every day. Then he called upon his friends in comedy to boost Kennedy on their own platforms. Two of them, Whitney Cummings and Bert Kreischer, were happy to oblige, inviting Kennedy to appear on their podcasts. In response to a user pushing back on his enthusiasm, Binder said history will prove Kennedy right. (Not to be overlooked: the news network in the screenshot he posted, “Real America’s Voice,” is an avowedly pro-Trump propaganda network that gave a home to Steve Bannon after his removal from YouTube and other platforms.)

‎‎This is all just bonkers. What Kennedy said, Binder’s public endorsement, two very famous comedians readily agreeing to platform a crank—bonkers! It’s bonkers! How does this happen? Why is it not an instant black mark? What the fuck?!

If you’ll indulge just a little more drive-by anthropology, I’ll tell you why: because this is how the club functions. Its members are not bound by the petty moral strictures of the rest of the universe. If bigotry and abuse aren’t disqualifying, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories certainly wouldn’t be either. Outside the club, you might get laughed at for suggesting respectable people lend their credibility to the widely discredited thought leader of a reactionary movement determined to take over American politics (in addition to keeping the pandemic raging indefinitely). Inside the club, the very idea of respectability is what’s laughable, even as you’re obliged to treat everyone around you with the utmost respect. Really the only surefire way to get yourself expelled is by trying to enforce the outside rules on the inside. Thou shalt not not be able to take a joke, which inevitably means taking more than just jokes. 

Here’s my “to be sure” paragraph: to be sure, this is not the worst thing in the world. In theory, it’s better for Kennedy to be invited on comedy podcasts than on MSNBC or CNN. But it’s even better for him to be kept far away from mass audiences entirely, and there is no earthly reason comedians should get a pass from the duty we all have to treat dangerous charlatans as dangerous charlatans. (Indeed, Binder’s very request speaks to a belief in comedy’s power to legitimize fringe ideas.) It’s possible—plausible, even—that Cummings and Kreischer don’t even know RFK Jr. is a noted crock of shit, which is kind of the whole problem. There’s no norm in comedy that says you should make sure you’re not exposing your audience to crocks of shit. There’s no norm that even says it’s bad to expose your audience to crocks of shit. What we have instead are norms encouraging celebrity worship, self-promotion at all costs, victimhood in the face of criticism, and a Libertarian apathy toward the actions of others—unless, of course, they’re coming for you and your friends. 

Do you see why everything is so relentlessly bad? Because comedy was designed to be a world where there’s no such thing as bad. This is why it matters that comics like Mike Binder, a favorite of Mitzi Shore’s who crossed the picket line in 1979, are the ones who write comedy’s history, codifying the culture that people like Whitney Cummings and Bert Kreischer come up in. Where rugged individualists make the rules, rugged individualists thrive. Through this lens we can finally see comedy’s controversies—Dave Chappelle’s transphobia, Joe Rogan’s transphobia, Joe Rogan’s embrace of misinformation, Louis CK’s sexual abuses, [insert one of 50 different comedians here]’s racist jokes, the list goes on—not only as a reaction to changing social norms, but a reaction against the very idea that social norms apply to comedians. Unfortunately, this is what makes the art form such a potent tool for reactionaries. 


Header image via Anthony Crider/Flickr.

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