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I love standup comedy. There’s just something about being in a club, sitting in an audience and hearing a gifted storyteller bring you along during a set, commanding your rapt attention and consistently making you laugh along the way.
To be good, comedy needs to be daring. When it is at its best, it surprises you and treads in uncomfortable waters. Obviously, everyone’s taste in comedy is a little bit different, but nothing really compares to a comedian who leaves you saying to yourself, “I can’t believe he just went there.”
When done right, a comedian can broach subjects and say things that make us think in ways that could never be done in normal conversations. Indeed, much of the best comedy makes the audience the butt of the joke. I know I, for instance, am frequently the subject of ridicule for talented comedians.
Most of my favorite comics — George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Dennis Leary, Jon Stewart, Bill Burr, and yes, Dave Chappelle (back to him in a minute) — have been periodically very hostile to me. I can’t tell you how many times a comedy act has savagely attacked and deconstructed my religion, my political beliefs, or who I am as a person, while I was sitting right there in the audience.
And yet, I laughed.
Explaining why is difficult. But central to humor’s value is its ability to disarm a sensitive subject through laughter, making previous taboos OK to talk about. It also has a way of pointing out absurdities and contradictions that we otherwise may not think about, particularly when they’re about us. It is often difficult to be introspective about our own beliefs, but through laughter we are afforded a way of exploring ourselves.
As a Catholic, for instance, my religiosity is something very personal and important to me. Hearing a comic use my beliefs as a punching bag — as happens regularly — might feel uncomfortable to me, but often has the benefit of pointing out perspectives that I never really considered. Laughing at jokes made at my expense does not mean that I have abandoned my faith or that I even agree with what the comic has to say. But it does allow for a harmless way for me to be exposed to criticism and laugh about it along the way.
Unfortunately, the world no longer seems willing to laugh at itself. Increasingly for Americans, jokes are only funny if they are about other people, and we are unable to laugh at them if they are about us.
Take the “controversy” surrounding Dave Chappelle’s most recent comedy special, “The Closer,” on Netflix.
In the special, Chappelle devotes a significant amount of time to talking about, and yes making jokes aimed at, transgender people. Due to this, there have been calls by activists, including Netflix employees, to remove the special over its supposed transphobia.
There’s no doubt that Chappelle was in rare form, and used transgender issues as the basis of many of his jokes. Yet, for most of the show he was actually using trans activists as a foil to make a point about what he considers to be the uneven and hypocritical application of social consciousness. He was using absurdity in his comedy to engage in social commentary, particularly about race.
More importantly, though, if you saw the special you also heard the significant time he devoted toward the end of the show to tell the story of Daphne Dorman, a trans woman who was a very dear friend of his. His description of the friendship he formed with Dorman, how it happened, how it developed, and what he saw in her was emotional, and touching.
But more powerful than that was the end of his story. As tears welled up in his eyes and with anger in his voice, he told the audience of Dorman’s death by suicide only days after she had been subjected to backlash — by the trans community itself — after she defended Chappelle against similar accusations of transphobia two years ago.
Anyone who actually watched the special and heard that story knows that Chappelle isn’t “transphobic.” If you’ve followed him over the years, as I have, you know that is basically the antithesis of the message he brings to his comedy.
But regardless of his intent, comedy can never be allowed to become so anesthetized and devoid of humanity that we only allow comics to make fun of some things, and not others. Some people and groups, but not others.
Comedy only works when we are mature enough to understand that being the target of a joke is not an act of malice, but is instead a gift we should embrace.