My favorite escapes in life are short internet videos and podcasts. Back in August, it seemed a number of videos and a podcast in my world converged on the topic of comedy. Add to this convergence that I shared a funny skit video critiquing “woke” politically correct culture and some people took offense at its humor, then you will begin understanding why this topic jumped at me. We have now moved into a society where offensive speech is seen as acts of violence in themselves, which means opponents must be forced into silence by whatever means deemed acceptable.
There are fundamentally only two end goals in public speaking: speaking to convince others or speaking to entertain others. Politicians are living embodiments of the first goal. They observe the realities of society, listen to people’s struggles, and then seek to encourage or critique the way things are in the world by attempting to convince their hearers to agree with them about a particular solution. Artists are primarily dedicated to the second option. Art, particularly theater, seeks to encapsulate a type of understanding about the world and project it in such a way as to move their audience. That effect on the audience may or may not feel positive or negative in the end, but it isn’t there to convince you of a way out of the situation it is simply provided to give some sense of enjoyment or pleasure (even at times the opposite!).
Comedians use the same material as politicians to create their entertaining speeches. They watch the world as it is and provide commentary on the way things are. The key difference between the comedian and the politician is that the comedian does not try to convince their hearers of a solution. On their podcast, Elliott Morgan, a comedian, and Peter Rollins, a philosopher, mused over how those dedicated to either political conservatism or progressivism cannot find humor because they are dedicated a particular outcome. The political activist would have comedy simply become a form of propaganda, and no doubt for some comedians their art becomes such a tool during election seasons.
But why should Christians care about this? Because comedy is currently at war. A handful of years ago there were a number of comedians who sought to sound the alarm that society, not simply those with governmental power, was moving in a direction that sought to limit comedians. Jerry Seinfeld was one of the most prominent to push against a socially imposed politically correct control of comedy pointing out that it isn’t his job to have a political goal, he is only in the business of entertainment. As comedians began publicly refusing to work on college campuses it began to be recognized by popular media. Bill Maher dedicated both a monologue to criticize progressivist censorship and brought on an author to explain why progressive college students don’t understand comedy.
Yet, this author’s answers, that college kids are simply whiny children suffering from thirty years of identity politics-based education, and the comedian demands that society’s politically correct censorship come to end became little more than a whisper in 2016. Why did comedians cool down their public opposition to politically correct censorship? I think it has everything to do with Trump in the 2016 presidential election. In the same episode Bill Maher came out against political correctness in the video above was the same fateful night that Ann Coulter on his show publicly declared Trump to be the most likely candidate to win the Republican nomination. If you watch the rest of that video the assumption was that there was a wide social coalition which would never allow any Republican, especially Trump to win the presidential election.
Once Trump did win the election, as more and more disturbing statements about minorities and his relationship towards women became revealed throughout the process, many on the Left of American society did not know how to respond. For half of America, particularly in the urban centers where comedians make a majority of their money and, more importantly, their reputation, there were massive protests and marches for increased sensitivity for women and minorities to be protected. The Black Lives Matters movement came into full maturity. Then came the #MeToo movement. Had comedians continued to fight against politically correct censorship in America it would seem they would be supporting the flagrant speech of someone like Trump. Comedians struggled throughout 2016 and 2017 to find the acceptable social lines to follow when bringing in edgy material into their standup routines, and the controversies were endless.
But in the first half of 2017 a shift began to take place. After two years of struggling with censorship, comedians began to intentionally demand society recognize the importance of comedy. The summer of 2017 was the breaking point, and Leslie Jones is the perfect example of comedians’ fight against the politically correct culture of offense. Finally, we come to the clip that started this entire thought by Bill Burr on Conan O’Brian where he states society has swung the pendulum too far. In reference to the sexual assault sensitivity brought up by the #MeToo movement compared to the 1970s, he says, “I miss tougher parenting and evidence.” It was a heart stopping moment. It was the moment you could feel the comedian class shift publicly against the sacrosanct attitude of politically correct censorship in American society. It was uncomfortable to watch.
So why should Christian care about this? First, because comedians can teach Christians how to understand American culture in a variety of ways. Comedy is an entertaining mirror of the woes or silliness in this world, but being a reactive art there is no road to the future there. Comedy as an art of entertainment is more a form of escapism than problem solving. People love comedy, but its lack of answers creates an intense feeling of emptiness and hopelessness, even in the midst of its cathartic pleasure. This is exactly where Christians can learn. Comedians help a society recognize its moralistic boundaries, challenge the emptiness or silliness of contemporary norms, and think through issues no one easily or enjoyably notices. Learning from comedic public speech, Christians can understand the norms and mores of American culture, teaching us how to address topics with both sensitivity and boldness.
Second, but most importantly, Christians must learn to defend comedians, even the ones who offend Christian sensibilities, because to protect comedians’ entertaining public speech today is to protect Christians’ religious public speech tomorrow. If today comedians’ public speech can be censored by society for saying things for entertainment, then the tomorrow is not far off for when Christian public speech will be censored for attempting to cultivate conviction and change in the hearts, minds, and bodies of people who disagree with Christianity. A society that is so defensive that it cannot handle the mirror comedians hold up before them will hate the Christian faith’s call to transformation. If entertainment can be quieted for offensiveness, then Christian convictions deemed offensive will be silenced for their perceived hatefulness.
Bill Burr’s comments on Conan came out just a few weeks before the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. As situations like Trump, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Kavanaugh will continue to shake the social fabric of the United States, I’m interested to see how comedians continue to press forward. Many have, and will continue, to simply use their speeches as political propaganda seeking to convince of their audiences, but I’m much more interested in the comedians I would title ‘the secular prophets’ who say what needs to be said to overthrow the ever-changing sacrosanct values of an ever increasingly rigid American society.