There’s Always a Minefield
Heeeeeeeeere we go.
In a recent New York Post article, Billy Crystal was promoting his latest film co-starring Tiffany Haddish called “Here Today” about a man suffering from dementia. In the article he talks about the film, how he himself was touched by caring with someone with dementia and how heartbreaking it is. He talked about his career and the characters that he played and how he attempted to imbue them all with a sense of redeeming humanity. It’s an albeit short article about a man whose comedy career spans six decades. I would have loved there to be more, but this is the New York Post, where memes are too wordy. But the focus has been about this one quote:
“It’s becoming a minefield and I get it,” the comedian told The Post. “I don’t like it, I understand it … I just keep doing what I’m doing and that’s all you can do right now.
“It’s a totally different world [now] and it doesn’t mean you have to like it,” he added, with a laugh.
Cue the maelstrom. Another woke-online-social-justice-warrior-cancel-culture attempt to take an old white man down. Billy Crystal’s stand-up (And yes, he was a stand-up. Kid’s ask your parents…to ask your parents) was one of the defining works that steered me towards comedy. His comedy was like his acting: energetic, topical, and funny. The man is undeniably talented.
But now he provides another inflammatory talking point that will circulate for weeks before fizzling out like a sparkler on grandpa’s birthday cake. PC culture is killing comedy. A quick google of the words “comedian”, “PC” and “Culture” brings back a haystack of articles, some dating back as far as 1997 (Thank you Bill Maher). “Why can’t we take a joke?” “We’re too sensitive!” “How come I can’t say the n-word?” Sure, we’ve been dealing with PC Culture for a while. Not quite as long as the marginalized communities that were made fun of loooooong before that, mind, but yeah, PC Culture has been here for a bit. So, Crystal’s film junket blurb interview is now overtaken by a quote stating he doesn’t like what he sees in comedy today. He says this while co-starring with a woman who is making great comedy today. So, good. “[Comedy] is becoming a minefield”. He’s not right, but he’s also not wrong. Here’s why.
Not to blow anyone’s mind here but my parents are older than me. Not having a DeLorean nor 1.21 gigawatts, I was not able to father myself. Eww. But when I talk to my parents, they often complain that society changes fast and it’s hard to keep up. Yes. It does. Their parents experienced it. Their parents before them. Everyone that has a long and prosperous life at the end becomes as confused with the world they’re leaving as the one in which they showed up. Watch a baby try to figure out how a mobile in their crib works. It’s the same as watching your mom browse TikTok. I’m sure if you go back far enough, someone has said, “I hope the Lord takes me soon. I just don’t get this society with their love of “fire”. I’m going back to my cave.”
It’s totally within Crystal’s rights not to like something. There are tons of things I don’t like. COVID-19, for example. Having to pick up my dog’s morning poop before I’ve had coffee. “The Real Housewives of Anyplace”.
I can have an opinion on things that come into my cultural viewing window. Every year is more progressive than the one before it and more antiquated by the year in front of it. It should not be lost on Crystal that one of his most important roles was playing the first openly gay character on TV in 1977. As rightly commonplace as it is today, having a gay character in the 70s was ground-breaking at a time when the Stonewall riots happened a mere eight years before.
Comedy in every era speaks to the zeitgeist. It is necessary that comedy moves with the evolutionary societal change and be reflective of it. I understand hitting a point when you just want to stop learning new things. But doing comedy means you can’t. If you’re an older comic and still want to be relevant, you better be reading newspapers and figuring out how your phone works. And get some non-white, non-straight friends for crissake.
One of the grand contentions about PC culture run amok is the “Blazing Saddles” argument. “Oh, you’d never be able to make that movie today.” When Mel Brooks, the creator of said film, was asked that very question, if he could make that movie today, his reply was “I could barely make it then!”
Comedy is great when it has a degree of audaciousness to it, a coy naughtiness, a measure of “You can’t say that!” “Blazing Saddles” is the Mandarin buffet of that. There is so much of mid-70s culture held up to a mirror in that movie. It’s shocking because it needs to be. It’s poignant and juvenile. It’s racy and racist. But that was comedy at the time.
The 80s were no better, a time I describe as, “Welcome to 80s comedy! Where racism is A-OK, and gays are weird!” It’s what that comedy was. If you watch early episodes of “Evening at the Improv” there are many stand-up comics doing sets early in their careers that stand the test of time, Billy Crystal among them. In those old episodes, you see early performances by Jerry Seinfeld, Dana Gould, Paula Poundstone, Wendy Liebman, Richard Lewis, people who are still funny and working today. Also on those episodes, you can see a lot of performances by comedians you’ve never heard of, and you see why. Not all wine ages well in the bottle. Sometimes it turns to vinegar.
What makes the “good” comedy stand out in those old episodes is the timeless aspect of the material. Sadly, in many cases, the comedy is grown too intertwined with the time and unable to be pried from it. The multi-screen experience of watching “Evening at the Improv” now would be just googling “What’s a Clapper?”. Comedians at the time of “Evening at the Improv” were also anchored in 80s road comedy where the key was getting as many jokes-per-minute as possible. Hammer an audience’s heads with jokes and forget the nuance. There is no silence, just Tag! Tag! Calback! Tag! Tag! I’m sure in the desire to get the JPMs up, there may have not been as much care about whether the subject of the jokes was taking an unnecessary hit.
Generally, today’s comedy is more anecdotal and honest. Still funny, still tons of jokes, but there’s a thread of vulnerability to it. People talk about the things that are important to them: isolation, mental illness, not being able to get a haircut during COVID. Billy Crystal may not like comedy today, and that’s his opinion that he is entitled to. I don’t like a lot of comedy from the 70s. There are great exceptions that stand out but for the most part I find 70s stand-up meandering, bereft of punchline or construct. The greats like Carlin, Pryor, Rivers were obvious in their talent. But if you came across a comedian back then that you’ve never heard of today, you’ll understand why you’ve never heard of them today. At some point during the set, you’ll utter “Some jokes would be nice.” The first season of SNL was groundbreaking. No question. It was also pretty not funny. And if you’re one of the people who hold this particular moment in comedy history as sacrosanct, I have three words for you: Father Guido Sarducci. That character is as funny as polyps.
You Have to Change
Years ago, when The Watchmen movie pushed the graphic novel into public view, I did a piece where I performed stand-up as Rorschach, one of the more problematic characters in the novel. The jokes were current for the time but anchored in the novel and the character. The video of my performance got a decent run-on YouTube. Happy days. When the TV series for The Watchmen came out, I immediately thought, “Here we go! Round two! Now there’s TikTok and Instagram! I’m getting a Netflix series!” Before I reposted the video, I re-watched it, just in case. Thankfully, that happened. Because even just a dozen years ago, there’s language and word choices that were made that would be hurtful today. Even though the character I was playing could justify it, it wasn’t necessary for what I was doing. The bulk of the bit is still funny and decent, but some edits would need to be made.
In comedy as in life, evolution favours not the strongest but the adaptable. Just because you’ve been doing something for years, doesn’t mean you can’t do the work. You still need to do the work. In the same way that Crystal’s comedy was of the moment when he started, the same holds true now. Experience doesn’t excuse you from updating your work. It should provide additional perspective for the work. When I go to open mics, virtual or otherwise, I see BIPOC and LGBTQ comedians. I listen. And I learn.
On my latest album “Butterflies” I have a joke about racism that I wasn’t sure was worded properly. Keep in mind, this joke was less than a year old before it hit the album. In the wake of George Floyd and BLM, I wanted to bring attention to the cause, but I wanted to make sure that my trip through the landmines would be successful. Because I truly didn’t know. I’m a middle-aged white man. The George Floyd riots occurred a few months before the release of the album and I didn’t know which way to go with this one joke. I vacillated between “This is some Bill-Hicks level satire here! I’m naming the album after this!” and “This joke will get me arrested!”
So, I talked to friends of mine in BIPOC community and gave them the joke. And then I listened. I listened to their perspective of talking about race from the mouth of a middle-aged white man. The feedback was mostly positive, but I got some notes. I took the notes, I incorporated them, and the track made the album.
In the end, it’s okay to be done with comedy. It’s okay to wave to the crowd one last time and noodle around in the garden for your remaining years. I don’t picture Billy Crystal popping up into a virtual open mic to try out some new hot takes on “The Masked Singer”. But comedy like any game changes and favours the youth. There’s nothing stopping you from playing at any age, but you’re going to feel the pains of your labour. Comedy takes awareness, empathy, and the ability to listen. It always has, though sometimes the voices in the past weren’t loud enough. They are now. Any recording of any comedian at any time has that comedian walking through minefields. Lenny Bruce was dragged off stage by the police in the 60s for the words he used and the ideas he shared. That’s a minefield. And many would say, “Yeah, but if Lenny Bruce said that stuff today, he’d be arrested again by the Woke Police.” If he did that, probably yes. But he wouldn’t do that. Because Lenny was talking to power back then. He pointed the finger at the authorities that wanted to silence him for free speech. He was jailed by those same authorities. If Lenny Bruce were alive today, his material would also be of the time and speak to the plight of the underdogs and underprivileged and tell tales seldom heard by polite society. Because that’s what he did back then. He would see how his non-white, non-straight friends were treated, and speak to that. That’s something I’d love to see.
There are no-fly zones for every era. This one is no different. Billy Crystal does not have to like it, but in the world of Netflix, don’t get mad that you can’t sell your VCRs.