Insensitive Comedy

Neil Gaiman once said that Terry Pratchett is angry.  And, if you think about his books—books that rail against injustice, oppression, superstition, and stupidity (to name but a few topics), you will realize this is true.  But Terry Pratchett was also funny.  Because while he was angry, he was not aggressive.  In that, he had much in common with some of the best comedians.  The best of them tend to be angry but not aggressive.

Think of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, or Colbert Report and you’ll see what I mean.  Yes, those shows are funny (at least I think so) but they are funny precisely because they rage against the world; the “system”.  And yet the angry men at the center of those shows remain relatable.  They rage against the world but at the same time they try to change it; to make it more human.

And that is why it makes little sense to tell a comedian to be sensitive to people’s feelings.  Do you tell a loved one with whom you are having an argument to please be sensitive to your feelings?  Of course not.  Because they are angry.  It doesn’t do much good to tell angry people to be sensitive.  Far from accomplishing its goal, it tends to make them even angrier.  And so it is with comics.  Which, at the end of the day is why after Jerry Seinfeld expressed his frustration with political correctness on college campuses, the response urging him to be a sensitive social commentator backfired.

Of course it backfired.  Not because comedians aren’t social commentators; they are.  It’s because they are not sensitive.  That’s what makes them funny to begin with.  Think back to Terry Pratchett.  Remember his The Truth (to take but one example)?  What is that but one huge rail against the stupidity of people who, when confronted with the big issues of the day, shrug and say “they’re all the same”?  (Calling people idiots is not, last I checked very sensitive.)  Or consider Last Week Tonight’s episode on predatory lending.  Could anyone except a very, very angry man have done that episode?  Not a sensitive man.  An angry one.

So of course the comics angrily (and insensitively) responded to that letter.  Or as Bill Maher (whose response is, in my opinion, classic) put it “I’m sure you’re busy with your brave new letter explaining astrophysics to Stephen Hawkins… but try to get a clue.”  Not very sensitive, is it?

But funny as heck.

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