Why Journalists Aren’t Funny

We’ve all seen the link: “Comedian completely destroys [political controversy du jour].” You take the bait and click to watch some truncated clip from a Netflix special where a comedian enthusiastically delivers an opinion her entire audience agrees with. This is something we have come to expect from Late Night Talk Shows, which run on the model of building an audience, knowing the audience and feeding that audience. But stand-up is supposed to be different, no? Well, it is different. It still is. It’s not “in crisis.” The problem is the way journalists cover it–and it always has been.

I am going to be so bold as to claim that no comedian, ever, has completely destroyed, debunked, solved, or put-to-rest any idea on any topic. That’s not what a comedian does. Comedians use rhetorical tricks, timing, staging–even lighting–to elicit an immediate response from a live audience. They can spark debate, pique interest or just permit catharsis. In the end, the content of the joke matters very little. This lesson is learned every time a friend tries to repeat some comedian’s joke in casual conversation and ends with the caveat, “Well, you have to hear him say it.” That’s not a small observation. In fact, that gives away the whole game.

Recorded stand up specials attempt to mimic the live experience using filming techniques to replace what isn’t transferable from the live performance. Did she just say something provocative? Cue the the close up shot of her confident smirk. Did he just tie his story together with a call back to a previous joke? Pan the audience as the wave of recognition crosses their faces and breaks them into laughter. Was that last reference a little too esoteric? Catch the reaction shot of the sole audience member “in” on the joke–hopefully she falls out of her chair. Whether it’s filmed or live, comedy is a craft.

But what happens to craft in the age of content? Do you remember all the hope and positivity associated with the term “citizen journalist”? Technology had the power to make us all journalists and this would give voices to the voiceless, ushering in a new era of truth and justice. In reality, “citizen journalists” gave us Alex Jones and the devaluing of actual journalism. Journalists became “multimedia journalists” and job requirements grew while wages stagnated. You’re not just a journalist. You’re a writer, photographer, videographer and radio-host all rolled into one and if you can’t do it remember there are plenty of 14-year-olds that can. Corporations tell stories, personal stories. Products go on journeys, epic journeys. Journalists, however, create content.

Essays, reviews, news reports, weather updates, political commentary…it is all one and the same. It’s all content, competing for the same page-views, the same likes, the same shares. All you need is a provocative title (see above) and that always guarantees a little reaction online. Better yet, analyze the reading habits–reading, of course, meaning sharing and liking habits–of your audience and feed their own rage and preoccupations back to them. Then you don’t need to craft anything. Simply fill your post with suitable content and your audience will be content. Don’t call it an essay or a piece you’re working on. That’s too elitist and exclusionary. The word content grants access to everyone. We are all content creators, but don’t expect anyone to pay for it.

Comedians and journalists have always been at odds–even before stand-up comedy. Comic writers or novelists were being reviewed by journalists who were essentially fellow writers. There’s a competitiveness between fellow writers that has caused many feuds, fights and beating of chests. You’d don’t need to be able to paint to review a painting. You don’t have to be able to box to give boxing commentary. To review writing, you need to be able to write. You need to be funny or at least appear to have a sense of humour in order to review comedy. Unless, of course, you declare it isn’t funny. Then you’re safe to hide your humourlessness behind moral indignation. You’re safe to ignore the craft and method and get down to the content.

I began this content with journalists doing the opposite: when a journalist snips some content from a stand-up performance to shower with superlative laden praise. This is no better than being offended. This is an attempt to cheapen craft and contain it and quantify it. To the audience member in attendance, half-remembered jokes are the bookmarks in their mind that remind them of the pleasurable or meaningful experience they had at the performance. These are not revelatory, life changing experiences.

Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his podcast, Revisionist History, how research shows that satire and comedy don’t change minds and, in fact, what might appear to be mocking one-side still makes that same-side laugh. Think of all the conservative fans of The Colbert Report. They didn’t care Stephen Colbert was mocking them. They liked the character. It was only when Stephen Colbert became Stephen-Colbert-talk-show-host that conservatives started to catch on. Comedian Jim Jefferies has said in interviews that he has to remind audience members after his show that even he doesn’t believe everything he says on stage. It’s the people who take things literally and turn jokes into content that are misunderstanding the purpose of comedy. This literal mindedness is just a form of humourlessness. To really nail down my point, I’ll quote Voltaire, “A witty saying proves nothing.”

If journalists and headlines are to be believed, Hannah Gadsby has changed stand-up comedy forever. This isn’t true and we wouldn’t want it to be. If every stand-up performance was a version of Nanette it would become cynical, mawkish and cheap. Hannah Gadsby did what Bill Hicks did in his own way three decades ago. Hicks’ content gave us a slough of copycats to suffer through at open-mics, but Hicks’ style got some of us talking about existentialism in the way Gadsby has us talking about injustice. They drifted from crafting jokes and worrying about laughs-per-minute to creating a performance that, in its entirety, affected people in unexpected and moving ways. They both managed to be of their time. It doesn’t add anything for a journalist to box it in with hyperbole. There is no such thing as perfect stand-up and no variance in content will change that.

Recently, at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival, the headlining comedian of Variety’s 10 Comics To Watch Showcase was so terrible that audience members, comedians and journalists wondered, “How the hell did he get this gig?”

He had online content. He was watched, clicked-on and shared by enough fellow citizens, which seemed to imply he must be the next big thing. The perfect content-comedian. It’s too bad no one got around to reviewing his content first.

What used to be a way of marketing your live shows has now become the whole game. Comedians get gigs based on their SnapChat or YouTube channels. Comedians who can’t do a decent five minutes have hours of podcast content online. Technology has the power to make us all comedians. Well, not anymore than it can make you a journalist (see above).

Stand-up is a live performance that in the end really means nothing if you are looking for answers. Stand-up has never been about the content. Laughter is laughter–whether you’re laughing about Hot Pockets or the President. The only headline that would mean anything would be “Comedian gives brief moments of joy, intrigue and catharsis to a captive audience.” But as every amateur-journalist and hack-comedian knows instinctively: it’s easier to get a reaction with shocking content than a well crafted piece.