The Joy of Context
The other day I was poking through Twitter, a wise thing to do always, and I came across a reply that comedian Nathan Macintosh sent to another comic. The original tweet was sent by comedian Collie Tyrrell:
“All I ever wanted to do was tell jokes about my soft dick. I never wanted to know about microphones and computers or any of this dumb shit. I’m quitting comedy and moving back to Ireland. Fuck you all.”
Nathan replied to this with:
“Made me laugh”.
It was all I could do to not reply to this with:
I didn’t. Why not? Collie’s post was both funny and heartfelt. It told a truth which anchors the joke. Nathan’s reply reads as a statement to a friend stating that he got the subtext of the joke. It’s also a lovely set-up for a punchline of “Finally.” which makes it seem like Collie’s got bigger issues with his comedy than his technophobic leanings. Sure, it’d be funny.
The problem is, I don’t know Collie. I don’t know his comedy. I know Nathan, and a reply to him would be funny to us, but it’s at the expense of Collie who I don’t know. To Collie, I’m just some prick on the internet sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong. Which I am at this point.
Is the “Finally.” joke funny? Sure, if I knew both Nathan and Collie. But I’m an outsider and this joke is out of context, and context is the thing that every joke needs. There’s a lot of jokes being made out there without the necessary context being provided. You need the context as a foundation to lay your joke on. If you don’t have the context, you don’t have a joke. And what makes life even more hellish for comics, is there’s several contexts that you need to consider before pushing a joke out of your mouth.
Here’s a few to consider.
Context of the Situation
Quick stupid joke:
“Seems Tony Hinchcliffe and I have some things in common. We’re both white males, we’re both comics and we both hate Asians.”
This joke could be funny. It could also propel an audience to chuck empty Budweiser bottles at me. The situational context is that Tony Hinchcliffe took the stage last week following Asian comic Peng Dang. A video surfaced of him opening his set with a barrage of racial slurs aimed at Peng specifically, and Asians generally. Twitter leaps into action. Outrage ensues. Tony loses bookings.
Peng has come out since and talked about the night and what happened. He didn’t see Tony’s opening in real time, he was out of the room when Tony started. An audience member sent the video to him. Given that this was also in the midst of Asian Heritage Month, the video seems even more hurtful. He did it not to cancel but to educate about the experience that Asians are having right now. In the same way that Tony faced consequences for his decision to start his set that way, Peng has also had to suffer consequences of posting the video. There are no real winners here.
Let’s go back to my stupid joke for a second. If you first watch the video of Tony’s opener, and then immediately read my joke, you may be offended. You could very well think that I hate Asians. I don’t. But that’s in the context of seeing that joke immediately after watching the video. If instead, that joke was in the middle of my set, following joke after joke after joke about my desire to be anti-racist, to be supportive of diverse communities, to be an ally of BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, the joke works. After I’ve laid the ground of being supportive, the context of me stating “I hate Asians” is ludicrous and audacious. The audience knows that there’s a very good possibility that I don’t hate Asians and see the statement for what it is: a joke. When Tony opens his set, there’s no context created, so initially it is harsh, hateful and, I’ll say it, not really funny. More audacious than humourous. Since then, the whole video of both Peng and Tony’s sets has emerged.
In the video that follows the original clip of Tom, he continues to create the context for the outburst: “I can’t say anything anymore”, which is fairly silly since he’s pretty much saying everything right now. Yes, the context is created but the damage is already done. Bill Burr does this as well. Create tension, explain, relieve tension. With Tony, the tension is immediately created, and the initial outrage is tempered somewhat afterwards. “I’m making fun of Asians and I’m making fun of the audience not wanting to laugh at me making fun of Asians and it’s all because we’re too uptight, people.”
But read the room. Cases of anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise and in that context, this joke just piles on. Every comic wants the ability to say what they want, but it comes with responsibility. The use of a racial slur does nothing to aid this.
He opened with this material without creating any safety net for the audience, so the words have no other way to be taken than at face value. They have no way to process the anti-Asian slur. Yes, the follow-up context helps things, but that might not be where we need to be right now. Perhaps the plight of a white male comic tragically not being able to say the c-word is outweighed by the type of violence that Peng could possibly face. In Texas.
Context of the Show
Because of the saturation of availability, comedy has become fetishized. I don’t mean that in the ‘ball-gag’ sense, but in the “I want what I want” sense. You can Google any type of stand-up and you’ll get it. That said, if you did type into Google “Stand-Up Comedy Ball Gag Fetish”, up on your screen comes a guy in a gimp costume with his opening line “MmmhmmMmmmMmmmMph!”
Tony’s done work performing roasts, which is a very aggressive off-shoot of stand-up where it pays to be hurtful and vicious. The more the better, because that’s what a roast is. Don’t be timid and don’t hold back. In that context, jokes are thrown like a knife-throwing act, but with the intent of hitting the target. Having written for roasts, it does get in your head where every single joke opportunity becomes a moment to hurtfully belittle someone. But that’s the context of the event. You don’t show up to a black-tie reception dressed like The Undertaker from the WWE. You could make it in if you showed up dressed as Paul Bearer.
I run a monthly show, Write Em Up, where comics get roasted by writers and I read out the roasts. The jokes made about the comics are hurtful because they’re supposed to be. But the writers come from the same community as the comics. In most cases, all the writers are friends of the comics. The punches are muted. I tell comics doing the show, the worst thing you’re going to hear is “Quit comedy”. If you can handle that, you’re good.
In a roast battle, Tony’s initial jokes would probably pass. In a regular stand-up showcase like this, more context building has to be done. If the audience is expecting Coldplay, don’t show up with Gwar.
Context of the Performer
I got a deserved amount of flack on the ol’ Tweetbox last week. My friend Jamillah Ross retweeted a post of a Sandra Bernhard performance where she makes fun of Mariah Carey and drops the n-word. I don’t need to go very far out of my way to shit on Sandra Bernhard. I have never found her funny. Every time I saw her on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ I’d hope that there’d be a stand-up at the end of the show to bring something funny. To me, she is crass, obnoxiously self-centered and just not funny. Her fans love her, and you should like what you like. To me, she’s as funny as running your toe into furniture. Which I said in my reply of the video:
"Admittedly a clip out of context but a horrible word choice nonetheless. That said, I’ve always found Sandra Bernhard to be as funny as running your toe into furniture."
A few people agreed. I got a couple of likes. A few retweets. And then the questions came:
“Are you saying there’s a context for a white woman to say the N-Word?” “Why are you defending her?” “Out of context? What context is that okay for?”
And this is entirely my fault. As one poster stated, I could have simply stated “I don’t like her. Here’s another reason.”, take my likes and retweets and have gone about my day. But I didn’t. I decided to get all haughty about the nature of comedy before having a cup of coffee on a Monday morning and rightfully paid for it. I wasn’t clear. The context I was talking about was not her performance, not her use of the word, but her as a performer. I don’t follow Sandra’s career, so I have no idea what weight she carries in the community that she’s talking about.
Kathy Griffin makes jokes about the LGBTQ community because she has cachet in the community. The community accepts and expects it of her. I thought perhaps Sandra had the same type of treatment in the Black community. She does not but believes she does. The poster of the original tweet Chris Evans provided further details on how Sandra believed she had that power because “Paul Mooney gave her ‘permission’ to use the n-word”. Good for him. Just look at the replies to my tweet to see how the community at large felt about that.
I messed up. So stupidly, my want for context was without the proper context. People assumed that I was rushing to Sandra’s defense and saying, “This was taken out of context. Please take pity on this poor, misunderstood white woman who has been talking down to people for ages thinking she’s above everyone’s reproach yet still considers herself punching down! Someone think of the children!” No. The context I was looking for was where she fit in the community. Was her butt able to cover the cheques she was writing? I thought she was able to. She was not. People were rightly calling me out. In the follow-up thread I clarified my point:
There is no context for that word to be used by white performers. Ever. Those that are doing so, are trying it out because they’re not supposed to. They’re trying to get away with it because they think they can. They can’t. As proved here.
I am not apologizing for Sandra. I cannot stand her. I find her crass, arrogant and above all not funny. I don’t track her career. Her use of the word is at best ignorant, at worst, hateful. She shouldn’t have done it.
The context I was talking about is her place in the community. Because I don’t follow her career, I don’t know what sort of credence she has in the Black community. I have no idea what sort of weight her ideas carry.
That’s the context I was talking about. Based on the article you cited, it appears she *thought* she had a larger say than she does. The article makes this move even more damning.
She thought she could pass it off and she can’t because the community isn’t buying it, which they shouldn’t and is one of the reasons I don’t like her. She feels she’s bigger than she is, and this proves it.
I was in no way condoning the context of the word choice, but her place in the community. So, I apologize for that confusion. That’s on me. Her use of that word, that’s on her.
It was also brought up to me by others that there’s not just an issue with her use of “the word” but the question of what gives Sandra the right to question Mariah Carey’s blackness. Her entire language choice and joke premise was a train wreck. Glad I don’t get to see her often.
My phone blew up for a few days. Rightly so.
Context of the Audience
You can try all you want to build your context and hope the audience has enough groundwork for a joke to work, but it still may not be enough. There are times when something in the audience happens that makes the whole thing break.
Years ago, I was doing a show after I did the “Run for the Cure” with some fellow Toronto comics. The run is to support breast cancer research, of which my mother is a survivor. My mom’s journey (she’s fine, by the way and doing great) gave me just the right amount of trauma to write jokes about it.
I did the run with my friends, had the word “Mom” written on the “I’m Running For…” badge pinned to my chest, the whole magilla. So, on the night of the actual run, where Toronto streets were closed off so we could gasp our way to the finish line, what better time to bust out these joke dandies? That night, I took the stage, still wearing the Run for the Cure t-shirt with my run time Sharpied on the back and told jokes. I let people in the audience know I did the run and that my mom was a survivor. Clap trap applause out of the way, an indication that they knew what I was talking about, I went into the breast cancer jokes. They worked. I had built up the context enough for success.
After the show, I was at the back of the room and a woman at a table of her friends turned around and asked me if I was the comic that told the breast cancer jokes. “Yes, I am”, I replied, expecting to get a new follower on MySpace (kids, ask your parents), a new fan wanting to know where they could see me perform more, yay for me! She then, in a drunken slurry rage, proceeded to tell me that I was the worst human being on the planet, that she hoped I got testicular cancer and hoped I would die. So, not the reaction I was hoping for. Still, might get that MySpace follower.
As I attempted to take her through my joke to find the pain point, she had with it, it became abundantly clear that she did not hear any of my set-up to the joke. She was talking to someone else, or was not paying attention, just heard the words “breast cancer” and decided I was trash. This was all at a time before we knew what “triggering” was. We just knew them as words that you could say that would make you lose the room: “Cancer”, “Rape”, “George W. Bush”. There was nothing I could do to persuade her that I wasn’t an asshole. Stumbling out of her chair, she blurted a demand that I be removed from the premises to the manager, who was actually the bus boy. She screamed at the bartender that she should eject me. The bartender replied, “You’re the drunk asshole, lady. Get out.” While they removed her, her friends at her table tried to put me at ease.
“Come along, lets get you out of here, let’s not make a further scene…you were great by the way…okay let’s get down the stairs.”
I firmly believe that there’s nothing that you can’t make jokes about. But the consequence of that is the work that’s needed to be put into it. You can say what you want, and make the jokes you need, but it’s your responsibility as a performer to make sure the audience is with you. “Woke culture” is not killing comedy. Comics with no desire to be aware of their changing surroundings, and build perspective around their jokes to accommodate that, are killing themselves.