I’ve been doing standup comedy for 14 years, and at some point, I came to despise it. It made me feel bad about myself, mostly. The thing I find hardest is the bullying nature, the punching down. I’ve heard comics onstage mock women and gay people and black people in a variety of ways that still manage to say nothing new. I’ve sat in grimy green rooms and witnessed the ego bloat that comes with applause and money, the rewards that come from maintaining the status quo. It’s gross. But I stay for the rare and magic flashes of connection.
Sometimes, the funniest thing about comedy is how seriously people take it. I try to avoid the teacup storms that sometimes spill and stain the table around us, but this past week has been messier than usual. A comic named Shane Gillis was hired by “Saturday Night Live,” then fired shortly afterward when footage circulated of him being racist on his podcast, calling Chinese people a racial slur, and when Variety reported that he’d also made anti-gay comments and stereotyped Muslims on his show.
That’s just a slice of classic standup, nothing strange or startling to any of us who are used to being the butt of jokes. The fact that he was fired, the fact that perhaps people are sick of hearing that particular shtick — that’s the interesting part.
Many of my comedy colleagues are up in arms, at least digitally. They are calling Mr. Gillis’s firing “cancel culture” and worrying about what it means for freedom of speech. I’m laughing.
These anxious comedians are worrying about the wrong problem. Here’s where the real silencing happens in the comedy world:So many would-be comics — women, people of color, other marginalized groups — are silenced from the beginnings of their careers. Despite their talent and work ethic, they leave the industry and take their brilliance elsewhere, or perhaps nowhere. Reaching a level in their career where they could even get canceled remains a dream for most.
Comedy, like so many of our cultural institutions, remains dominated by men, usually straight and white men. I’ve seen countless versions of Shane Gillis and his material truly spread all over the world, and I’m not about to wrestle the mic from them. I have no problem with anybody speaking their piece, even when it’s lazy and xenophobic. I’m not going to listen, but please, get that off your chest, son! If the most absorbing and insightful thing Mr. Gillis and his buddies have to sound off on is that they find Chinatown to be ugly, then by all means, go right on ahead.
The problem is when Mr. Gillis — and the others like him — frame their words as bold and boundary pushing and brave. What would really be shocking, what would really be exciting and edgy to watch, would be a person climbing down from their safe height and fighting the powerful in a situation where there’s a chance they will lose more than a role on a show. I’m not saying comics need to get into fistfights. We’re too out of shape and anxiety-ridden for that. But a little real bravery wouldn’t hurt.
When anyone disagrees with something a comic says, or there are repercussions for their behavior, the comic too often seems genuinely shocked. Your words have consequences. Imagine! What these men need to learn is that just because you want a job on “Saturday Night Live” doesn’t mean you deserve one.
Expressing myself through comedy has saved my life. Connecting to others by trying to say what’s happening inside my head — and make them laugh while doing it — is a beautiful thing. But when you do express yourself into a mic to a room full of strangers, or into a camera to a country full of strangers, you might want to consider them, too.
My relationship with standup comedy has improved, especially since it started working on itself and trying to be a better partner. I don’t fully trust it not to revert to being a bully, but when it’s good, it’s amazing. I’m glad I hung on.
I host a show every Monday in Brooklyn with two of my friends. Our producer makes sure the lineup isn’t just straight white people, and that makes the show a lot better than most of the ones I’ve been part of for the past 14 years. I don’t mean that any one type of person is funnier or more insightful than another. What I mean is that when just one voice is heard, that voice quickly becomes boring.
Roy Wood Jr., a correspondent for “The Daily Show” and a hilarious standup, closed the show last night, by workshopping some new stuff, playing with a routine about the civil rights movement and peanut allergies. Backstage he was checking notes, writing on his phone, running lines. His set was just joyful, and his care for the craft made the craft disappear. What happened was simply a funny person talking, telling his best stories, making a couple hundred people rock back with laughter and forget they had to go to work in the morning. A beautiful thing, isn’t it? A privilege to be a part of.
Maeve Higgins (@maevehiggins) is the creator of the audio series “Aliens of Extraordinary Ability” and a contributing opinion writer.
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