I Was a Misogynist Comedian

There’s a great opinion piece by Michael J. Dolan over at The Skinny. Motivated by a mixed review of his recently released stand-up record and by some candid words from a friend, he re-examines his material only to discover in it — and in stand-up more generally — misogyny of which he was previously unaware. Dolan’s piece is smart, engaging and bracingly honest. Here’s a taste:

The defence so often used is that they’re only jokes. They’re not to be taken at face value, we obviously don’t mean it. But you’ll rarely hear a contemporary act try to justify racism that way. We know that in a culture of racism every racist joke contributes to that culture and that none of them are acceptable. This is no different. In our culture of misogyny, of violence against women, every misogynistic joke contributes.

(Thanks for sharing, SP.)

16 thoughts on “I Was a Misogynist Comedian

  1. It;s time for all comedians to reflect on their attitudes’ towards women. Sadly, British comedians are no different, their routines are imbuded with misogyny. What infuriates me is that they have an audience who consider their misogyny as funny.

  2. On a serious note, “racism” in comedy is routinely justified by the “they’re only jokes defense.” Don Rickles is, to this day, considered a comedic legend, and rightly so, though his act was and is filled with “racist” humor (i use “racist” in scare quotes because i don’t think his act is actually racist). The acts of Sarah Silverman, Anthony Jeselnik, Patton Oswalt, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Bonnie Macfarlane, David Cross, and Louis CK, to name just a few, are filled with bits that, if taken at face value, are extremely racist, sexist, and/or homophobic. sometimes a cigar is really just a cigar, and sometimes a joke is really just a joke. it’s’ often claimed that jokes about sensitive racial or sexual topics are acceptable only if they serve to undermine oppressive power structures, rather than reinforce them (and, implicitily, that anything that does not undermine a power structure necessarily reinforces it), but i think this is to narrow a criteria. it’s certainly fine if a comic wants to use humor to that effect, and many do, but he/she has no overwhelming responsibility to do so. Not everyone has the responsibility, or capability, to be George Carlin or Richard Pryor. I’ll admit it’s sometimes a fine line, but I don’t think it’s never legitimate to tell an “offensive” joke in a tongue-in-cheek way.

  3. “But you’ll rarely hear a contemporary act try to justify racism that way.”

    Unfortunately, this is just false.

    “The racist comedians of old were left behind as the rest of the world moved on…”

    How I wish this was true!

    While I applaud Dolan for his courage and self-evaluation, I worry that these side-comments about racist comedy contribute to the problem of people not realizing (or taking seriously) that it’s actually still a very live problem. Racist comedy has simply changed its form. It is still alive, well, exceedingly popular, and constantly defended as “only jokes.” The comparisons that people try to make between gender and race problems are often harmful to either cause. I wish we could learn to address one without unwittingly causing further harm to (or belittling) the other!

  4. James, there is good evidence from social psychology that repetition of claims increases the propensity of people to act as if they were true and the actual tendency to accept them as true. That does not settle the question whether telling these jokes is acceptable all by itself, but it does entail that a joke is never just a joke (if by that is meant without realworld consequences).

  5. The (genuine) art of “stand-up comedian” is a complex art. We don’t want to close the mouths of this cultural critics. To silence them and their irony would be a disservice to all of us. I am a Gay man. I am very careful when listening to “jokes” about LGBTQ people. We may want to note “jokes” about physically or intellectually challenged people. We must ask in what spirit and context they occur. Are they hateful? Are they being critical of society’s hatred? The institutionalization of any oppression becomes invisible to the oppressor, to the majority of society (in this case, women). This phenomenon of “invisibility” is interesting and important. Stand-ups can help us to regain visibility of each other, our oppressive relationships to one another. It wouldn’t be wise for us to throw the baby out with the bath water. I seems important to me that we try to understand what made the difference in this man’s awareness of his oppressive beliefs and actions. We can learn from this. (Yes, it may have been a mere career move.)

  6. “James, there is good evidence from social psychology that repetition of claims increases the propensity of people to act as if they were true and the actual tendency to accept them as true.”

    Does that pattern hold even when it’s clear from context that the person repeating the claims doesn’t actually believe them? Have there been studies that looked at jokes in particular?

  7. As far as I know, no one has looked at jokes specifically. In some experiments, though, subjects are told that the claims are not true, either beforehand or at the time. I would be amazed if the results did not apply to jokes. Insofar as jokes probably constitute cognitive load, I would expect to be stronger not weaker.

  8. Leaving aside the very empirical question whether people are inclined to accept jokes as true, Film, music, and television have real world consequences as well. Charles Manson listened to “Helter Skelter” and tried to ignite a race war. James Holmes shot up a theater where The Dark Knight Rises was playing. I don’t think it’s fair, though, to hold the Beatles or Christopher Nolan responsible for these crimes. Invariably, in any audience, there are going to be people laughing for the wrong reasons. That doesn’t make it the comic’s fault, necessarily.

  9. From what I can tell, the study doesn’t show that taken-at-face-value sexist humor creates sexism, but only that it reinforces it in in men in whom it is already present.

    Sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry are vices (sure, they are more than that too). Every humorist knows that vices are funnier than virtues. Daffy Duck and George Costanza aren’t very nice people (well, Daffy’s not exactly a person), but they sure are funny. On the other hand, Mother Theresa isn’t very funny at all. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the humorous depiction of any character flaw reinforces that flaw in those in whom it is already present. I’m sure many people felt vindicated when they watched the characters on Seinfeld act like assholes. But the fact is that those people weren’t getting the joke.

    Sometimes people don’t get the joke, and sometimes that has bad consequences. But you need to do a lot more work to show that humorists are responsible for those consequences, and that the jokes should cease because of those consequences.

  10. The problem with the line you’re taking here, james, is that it assumes a premise without argument, which is to say that UNLESS the humorist can be shown to be responsible for bad consequences, the “jokes” in question can go on unchecked. Let’s examine that.

    I take it we have a plausible prima facie case that sexist/racist/homophobic/etc. language is bad and should be curtailed. There are defeaters to this assumption, however. We excuse the racial epithets in “Huckleberry Finn” because the book has literary merit, language is appropriate to the era and characters portrayed, AND the use of that language tells us something about the characters. But the defeater in play here is not purely aesthetic in character – I think it’s significant to the case that Huck Finn is ultimately an anti-racist book. If it were ultimately neutral on the question or even pro-racism, we would be less likely to excuse the language. We might, or we might grudgingly bear it at least, if there was sufficient aesthetic merit; then again, maybe not. But in any case, the work would still be called out for its language, and with reason.

    That a joke has aesthetic merit – that it’s funny, in other words – is not the question. A joke can be funny AND still be neutral or even regressive on the charged issue at hand. In such cases, I think we can criticize the joke in question. There’s no need for any work to be done to show that humorists are responsible for bad behavior, as the general presumption that such negative language is in some way connected to negative effects is not automatically dismissed by the fact that the language is embedded in a joke.

  11. First of all, I should say that a significant number of people disagree with you, Landon, about “Huckleberry Finn.” It’s been banned from school libraries countless times all across the country, on much the same grounds that people criticize comedians for using face-value bigoted language.

    Let’s take a look at your third condition: “the use of that language tells us something about the characters.” But what does it tell us about the characters? It tells us that they are bigots. It points to a vice in the characters, and invites us to judge them for it. In other words, what the use of the language by the characters tells us about those characters is part of the anti-racist message of the book.

    When Don Rickles goes on stage, he plays a character (sort of; I’ll get to this later); that isn’t what he’s like in real life, or so I’m told. This character is a rude, nasty, and yes, racist person. By portraying this character, Rickles invites us to judge and laugh at (not with) this character. We’re not meant to take this character as a role model. If some people do, that isn’t Rickles’ fault, anymore than an actor portraying a racist character on screen (in a film where the character is supposed to be portrayed negatively) is responsible for people who admire that character. The same could be said for Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters.

    We could run your argument for other kinds of language as well. In general, there is a strong prima facie case against rude or insulting language and behavior.We excuse the depiction of this language and behavior in all kinds of humor (Seinfeld, Loony Tunes, Rickles, etc.), though, both because of the aesthetic merits of this work, and because the depiction of this language and behavior isn’t meant as endorsement.

    By “the general presumption that negative language is in some way connected to negative behavior” I assume you mean “in some way morally connected”, not merely causally connected. In that case, I think this presumption applies only when the use of such language is meant as endorsement of negative attitudes and behavior, not merely as depiction of them. Indeed, in the mere act of depicting them, the audience is usually meant to laugh at (not with) the character displaying them. Again, plenty of people laugh with the character, but this isn’t necessarily the fault of the person portraying the character.

    (Maybe one could say something about the use-mention distinction here. Mentioning racist language is necessarily wrong, certainly not as wrong as using it. Mark Twain clearly is mentioning racial epithets, not using them, when he writes dialogue for his characters, and an actor playing one of Twain’s characters would be likewise mentioning this language. Is someone like Rickles using or mentioning bigoted language? This seems vague, and I think that is because it’s vague whether Rickles is playing a character or not. He seems to be playing a caricatured version of himself).

  12. James –

    Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comments. There are a few things I’d like to address.

    Let me start with the last thing you said. You assert that “Mark Twain clearly is mentioning racial epithets, not using them, when he writes dialogue for his characters…” in explicating your claim that mentioning racist language isn’t (I take it you meant “isn’t,” anyway) “necessarily wrong.” Unfortunately, you seem to treat “isn’t necessarily wrong” as “isn’t wrong.” One could easily champion one’s own racist views by writing a book or producing a movie wherein certain characters express racist views; the fact that one is only ‘mentioning’ the epithets provides a shield of ‘plausible deniability’, perhaps, but one would still be accountable for the overall effect if the characters in question are meant to be regarded favorably. Comedy does confuse the picture, but not as much as you seem to imply. Yes, perhaps Rickles is playing a caricatured version of himself, but if we’re intended to merely shake our heads at this racist caricature and laugh, saying, “oh, that scamp!” then there’s still a problem.

    Second, by “the general presumption that negative language is in some way connected to negative behavior” I did NOT mean to exclude the possibility of causal connections. Yes, it is often the case that we’re meant to laugh at characters who use such negative language, but it’s not always clear that this is the case, that we are meant to laugh AT them rather than WITH them. The signaling is blurry at best. I submit by way of example that Rickles’ act was meant to be laughed WITH, originally, and further suggest that with many racist/homophobic/sexist characters in various media, the signalling regarding whether they are supposed to be sympathetic or not isn’t NEARLY clear enough. Maybe it’s the case that in ambiguous cases, such ambiguously presented characters genuinely DO help perpetuate harmful patterns of behavior. I’m not an expert on such matters, but I’m not willing to assume the contrary.

    Third, following on that, you mention that Rickles’ character is not meant to be a role model. Well, no, but very few people are consciously singled out to be ‘role models’ for us, so that doesn’t set the bar very high. The fact is, however, that if Rickles or anyone else says something objectionable and it gets approbation rather than condemnation, that has a psychological impact on the people watching him. If the context does not clearly establish this as wrong, why not think there’s a real possibility that people will take the substance of what he’s saying seriously, even if subconsciously? Racists often tell racist jokes in order to signal their racism, which they find funny BECAUSE of their racist sensibilities. When they do, if there’s no pushback, if there’s no attempt to establish a context that signals what the racist said as unacceptable, it has an impact on the people present, the people listening, even if they didn’t laugh. It tells them something about what the OTHER people in the vicinity think. Comedians subvert this process because they have (more or less) total control over the context, but the human brain isn’t necessarily subtle enough to distinguish such circumstances, at least at the subconscious level. If the comedian doesn’t establish a context that situates such remarks properly, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t also have a negative impact. See my comments above for why the “he’s just playing a character” remark is not itself enough to deflect blame, as well.

    Finally, I am aware of the attempts to ban Huck Finn – I chose it as an example advisedly. I was referring to the overall critical consensus among informed people, rather than the knee-jerk reactions of ignoramuses. I don’t particularly think that the opinions of scare-mongers is of epistemic value in this matter, but by the same token, just because the hoi polloi finds a certain comedian funny is not reason to assume his or her act is harmless.

  13. Landon Schurtz:

    Thanks for replying.

    I took it for granted that there could be, and probably is, a causal connection between the depiction of negative language and behavior on a comedy stage or other media, and negative language and behavior in real life. However, the relevance this causal relation has to the moral responsibility of the artist for such consequences is what is at issue. Certainly, if the artist intends the depiction as endorsement, she is responsible. If she doesn’t, she might still be if she hasn’t made a reasonable effort to establish her intentions. However, different people are going to disagree about what constitutes “reasonable effort” here. I suspect that’s at least partially where our disagreement lies. I’m inclined to be more forgiving of the artist, and to place the majority of blame on those who misinterpret the artist’s work (full disclosure: I’ve done some stand-up before. Being funny is harder than most people think, and it’s even harder to be funny and simultaneously make sure nobody gets the wrong message. That’s no excuse for not trying, of course). You seem more willing to hold the artist to a higher moral standard.

    What bothers me about your position is that I’m not sure how far it could be taken. There are many instances of humorous depictions of immoral language and behavior. This is because, as I said above, vices are funnier than virtues. Certainly many people are inclined to take those depictions as validation of their own behavior. The characters on “Seinfeld” were seen by many as sympathetic, even though they were supposed to be depicted as narcissists and sociopaths. “Seinfeld” probably causally contributed to narcissistic and sociopathic behavior in the real world. Is it fair to hold the creators of the show responsible? That’s not a rhetorical question.

    Certainly we don’t want to get rid of all comedic depictions of immoral behavior, because then there wouldn’t be very much comedy left. So I guess I’m wondering what is involved in “establishing a context” where such depictions are clearly not meant as endorsement. When does the blame cease to rest solely on the audience that misinterprets the work, and begin to rest partially on the artist?

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