The news that Saturday Night Live had added, and the abruptly subtracted, Detroit comedian Shane Gilles from the cast of the next season has been met with predictable anger from those who argue that comedy is about pushing boundaries, and relief from those that don’t like overt racism.
Gilles, it turns out, had a podcast on which he regularly threw around salty language about the non-white, non-straight and non-male. And this was no secret: it was also the basis of all of his stand up.
SNL have claimed their vetting process was somehow breached (although there are now reports that Gilles was specifically sought out as a “conservative” comic to help counter the perception that the show were left-leaning).
That, it’s fair to say, has not worked.
Now, I did stand up for a little while and was immediately filled with respect for those who can make a go of it. It’s a goddamn hard gig – made harder, admittedly, if you have jokes like “Newtown is Sydney’s most misleadingly named suburb; I’ve lived there for years and not seen a single newt.”
Yeah, my stand up career went great, thanks.
But what I learned by watching and doing and watching and watching was that the best comedy, or at least the comedy I enjoyed most, tended to be brilliantly witty with a bold, original point.
I also learned that for the most part comics didn’t bother with that because it was hard – but they sure liked using racial slurs or misogynistic and homophobic language instead, because it was much, much, much easier.
It’s like a loud noise in a scary film: you can make someone jump, and it requires zero skill.
Also, it makes it remarkably easy to blame an audiences non-reaction on being a bunch of triggered snowflakes rather than because the person on stage is bad at comedy.
So let’s make something clear. Comedy isn’t about being edgy, or pushing the artform, or taking risks. Comedians can choose to do that, and arguably the best comedy comes from doing that, but it’s a decision.
What comedy needs to be is funny. And if it’s not that, it’s nothing.
And that appears to be the problem with Gilles: it’s not that what he said was too fire for them stuffed shirts at NBC, but that saying that [ethnic slur] could go back where they came from was just racism without any comedic or satirical point. Or as W. Kamau Bell elegantly puts it:
It is arguably possible to make a joke about anything and for it to work, but there’s nothing lazier than being offensive and then whining about how you’re a hero who’s comedy is pushing boundaries, in lieu of being entertaining.
Offending people is easy. Being funny is hard. Stop lazily pretending that the former is somehow the same as the latter, dudes.