In a World Where Everyone's Offended by Everything, Can Comedy Exist?

One of the greatest comic minds of the twentieth century, Mel Brooks, said late last year that "stupid political correctness" would be "the death of comedy."

"It's not good for comedy," Brooks said in September 2017.  "Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks.  Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering in the king's ear, always telling the truth about human behavior."

It's safe to say Brooks speaks from a podium of unparalleled wisdom on this matter.  His movie Blazing Saddles remains one of the least politically correct movies Hollywood has ever made.  It's also probably the funniest. 

Brooks has said that that "political correctness would almost certainly have prevented Blazing Saddles ... from being made today."   

Imagine he's right, as I believe he is.  Imagine that Mel Brooks, or Richard Pryor (few know he helped write the screenplay), had first considered whether a joke would be politically correct before first considering the more important question for a comedy: whether or not a joke will land with an audience.  What you'd be left with is a generally unfunny piece of propaganda defending the ideas of the status quo, hardly "the little elves whispering in the king's ear, always telling the truth about human behavior."

As political correctness is driven by prevailing political actors, it and the truth rarely go hand in hand. 

Take this article, for example, written by the New York Times in 1992, discussing demographic trends:

Just a decade ago, gas station ownership usually mirrored the ethnic makeup of the surrounding neighborhood.  But now, about 40 percent of the city's stations are run or owned by South Asians[.] ...

The forces that draw immigrant groups to certain occupations – such as Indians to gas stations ... – are complex and varied.   

"Indians" owning and operating "gas stations" in America at a high rate was a simple observation of truth back then.  It's remained the truth over the years, such that over half of America's convenience stores were owned by members of the Asian-American Convenience Store Association as of 2013.  (A glimpse at the web page shows that we're not talking about East Asian representation, by the way.)

All of that is truth.  And what's more, it's Americans' reality. 

Enter The Simpsons, riffing on that reality, which introduced the character of Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahassapeemapetilon three years before the New York Times observed that reality more formally in 1992.

America's longest running television show came under fire last year when Hari Kondabolu, "a comedian of South Asian descent," made a documentary titled The Problem with Apu.  The documentary asserts that Apu perpetuates a negative and racist stereotype, and as such, his portrayal in the show is offensive and should be addressed.

The show addressed Kondabolu's criticism last week by dismissing it.  Lisa, the progressive voice of the show, sitting in bed with her mother, Marge, discusses how to make a book inoffensive for 2018, quipping, "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect[.] ... What can you do?"

Just as nothing makes a child angrier than ignoring his tantrum, this dismissal of Kondabolu's criticism earned the furor of all of those who've been triggered by Apu's portrayal.

Full disclosure: The Simpsons is my favorite television show of all time, and it is among the smartest and most influential television comedies ever aired, evidenced by the numerous paths it laid for similar prime-time animated comedy shows that followed (think King of the Hill and Family Guy).  Particularly, seasons three through nine are without parallel in the world of television comedy, in my opinion.

This kerfuffle raises a simple question about the stereotypes deemed suitable for comedy these days.  For if one must find a stereotype in the show (and there are certainly many), Homer Simpson is the most obvious.  He's white, fat, lazy, and dumb, seeking only to satisfy his basest desires for beer, food, and television.  He is the show's leftist creators' vision of the American everyman.  But the American everyman can generally overlook all of that because Homer is redeemable and good, and most of all because he is funny.

Apu, on the other hand, is highly intelligent, generally kind, a thriving business owner with a strong work ethic, and a complex individual whom fans know and appreciate.  Yes, he speaks with a thick Indian accent.  Yes, he owns a convenience store.  But his character, most importantly, is well developed and funny, which is why he's beloved by most fans of the show, so much so that the show could simply not be what it is without him.

The left is not interested in any of that.  Leftists are driven by a political narrative within which the humor must fit, rather than humor for the sake of making people laugh – though making people laugh should be the essence of comedy.

The fascistic approach to comedy presented to us today is, indeed, as Mel Brooks relates, a serious problem.

Perhaps you remember that a few years back, Jerry Seinfeld took some flak for saying he would not play colleges because they're so politically correct.  "They just want to use these words," said Seinfeld, like "that's racist," "that's sexist," and "that's prejudice.  They don't know what the hell they're talking about."

There to prove his point (by trying to disprove his point) was Anthony Berteaux at the Huffington Post.  "As a college student that loves and appreciates offensive, provocative comedy," he was disheartened by Seinfeld's comments.

"While I do agree with you that college students are more sensitive to issues of race and gender politics, it's simply because that's our job as learners," he writes, and continues:

It isn't so much that college students are too politically correct (whatever your definition of that concept is), it's that comedy in our progressive society today can no longer afford to be crass, or provocative for the sake of being offensive.  Sexist humor and racist humor can no longer exist in comedy because these concepts are archaic ideals that have perpetrated injustice against minorities in the past.

College students' "job" is to learn to be triggered by things that offend them, he argues, rather than learning skills that provide actual value in the world.  

That's stupid.  Even stupider, he's arguing that comedy must conform to his vision of the culture.  When he says he "likes" offensive comedy, what he means is that he enjoys comedians feigning an offensive posture while, say, riffing on white male privilege, as he references that Louis C.K. does.  Anything offensive to prevailing intersectional political thought simply "can no longer exist in comedy."

In the end, comedy exists not to validate the worldview of overly sensitive audience members.  In fact, comedy should do just the opposite, and expose the delicate sensibilities of audience members who can't take a joke, just as the world around them does. 

That would be reality. 

Comedy, at its core, exists to make people laugh, even at our own expense.  Radical leftists demanding that comedians conform to their P.C. worldview are not arguing about comedy.  They're arguing about conformity.  And conformity and comedy are, and always will be, odd bedfellows.  

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.