By Matt Hanson
If, like me, you tend to see laughter as a form of catharsis then a serious question is raised: is laughing at nihilistic humor all that healthy?
It’s useful to remember that comedy is not necessarily supposed to be taken seriously. Of course, comedians makes use of pointed insights and observations about the world to generate laughs, but the yuks are protected by irony: if people are offended, the response is usually the same: lighten up, kid, it’s a joke. In literature it’s called the intentional fallacy — just because we interpret a novel or a poem in a particular way doesn’t mean we know exactly what the author intended. It’s good to keep this mental distance in mind when taking in any art — just because someone writes (or jokes) about something horrifying doesn’t necessarily mean they are recommending (or going to act out) the real-life equivalent of their dark imaginings.
But it doesn’t mean you should disregard the suspicious clench in your gut that comes when you see someone laughing a bit too hard at a joke that isn’t really all that funny. Or enjoying something especially violent or pornographic. Plenty of disturbingly maladjusted people think some things are funny simply because they stoke their baser instincts — not because of clever wordplay or an inventive observation. Lately we’ve seen how this plays out in the political arena — lots of people are evidently getting off on the transgressive quality of the performative crassness exercised by powerful people. These fans of cheap laughs mistake naked pandering for acts of fearless truth telling — nods to the new ‘normal.’
Which is why Anthony Jeselnik’s new Netflix special is so provocative — it walks the knife-edge between humor and outrage. Its title, Fire in the Maternity Ward, is the immediate tip off to what you’re getting yourself into. Jeselnik is a very successful, highly respected comedian who has appeared on many Comedy Central shows and has been in the comedy game for a long time. He made his breakthrough, not surprisingly, at a Comedy Central roast in 2011, but there was no way of knowing at the time that his target that night was eventually going to become the President of the United States. Probably his most memorable line of the evening (and the one that seemed to make its subject particularly squirm) was when he compared Trump to Michael Douglas in Wall Street, except for the fact that “no one is going to be sad when you get cancer.” And, just like that, people wanted to hear more from this brash young comic.
A few years later, Jeselnik has had his share of ups and downs (his Comedy Central show was abruptly canceled after a certain bit hit a strange nerve — don’t ask). But he’s created a comedic persona that is uniquely his own: it combines Stephen Wright’s imaginative one-liners with Don Rickles’s vigorous ball busting along with a strong undercurrent of misanthropy, a la late period Carlin. On stage, Jeselnik presents himself as an arrogant prick who would name his comedy records Caligula and Shakespeare. His previous special was entitled Thoughts and Prayers and took perfectly calibrated aim at the vapid, self-important gesture inherent in offering that utterly cliched phrase as a response to tragedy.
Fire in the Maternity Ward throws all caution to the wind and pushes straight ahead with his ironically evil self-presentation. Here’s a sampling of some of the material, slightly edited for length:
“My sister is very sentimental. She recently had a baby in order to save the relationship. But she made a huge mistake. I still don’t talk to her.”
“I have a neighbor, he’s an old man with Alzheimer’s. He always stands in his doorway all night looking for his ex-wife. I hate having to remind him every day that she’s dead, but the big smile that comes across his face is totally worth it.”
“My sister just had a baby, a little newborn. The kid is adorable, so cute. She wouldn’t let me hold him. She says, ‘No way, I’m afraid you’re gonna drop him.’ I’m 32 years old. Like I’m some kind of idiot. Like I don’t have a million other ways to hurt that baby.”
You get the picture.
What’s interesting about Jeselnik’s comedy is how he manages to generate laughs via his nihilistic style. I laughed pretty consistently, though I noticed that the person who was watching the special with me immediately groaned and sloughed off after about ten minutes. This abrupt departure wasn’t out of boredom — it was more like disgust. And Jeselnik has caught his share of flak from all sides, for jabbing, hard, on sensitive buttons with his jokes. He isn’t out to shock because he wants to enlighten people, or because he aims to expose lies and hypocrisy; it’s because he wants to write the best joke possible in his own morbid style. Other comics have remarked how hardworking and dedicated he is to his craft. Part of the reason he’s so respected in the comedy community is because he’s willing to proudly deliver jokes about hurting babies and subtly insist that the audience should laugh at it.
One reason Jeselnik refuses to court audience approval is that this hostility is necessary to getting his sardonic comedy across. If he shows vulnerability or sensitivity to what the audience thinks, then the artifice he’s carefully created quickly falls apart. When he offhandedly remarks that he lives in L.A., he adds “like you wish you could.” Interviews make it clear that, in real life, he is not the person he presents on stage (it would be kind of disturbing if he was). Still, he is adamant about his not owing the audience anything. His responsibility is to be funny, period, and that’s where he draws the line. At one point in the special, he not-so-offhandedly remarks “holy shit, do people overreact.”
But that begs the question: is this a fair charge?
There is something a bit worrying about an audience being provoked towards a certain kind of laughter. Martin Amis, who can write funny, has commented on how all laughs are not created equal; getting people laughing too easily or too brazenly is a problem. The issue is knowing what’s legitimately funny. If you laugh at something, in some ways you’re accepting it, at least as an abstract proposition. It’s only the very dull and the very dense (in a word, the humorless) who will laugh at anything, who need to work extra hard to pretend to understand the joke in order to appear witty and sophisticated. And if, like me, you tend to see laughter as a form of catharsis then a serious question is raised: is laughing at nihilistic humor all that healthy?
I truly don’t mean to be a buzzkill — I think Jeselnik is funny, and I say this because I laughed throughout the special. The proof is in the pudding. But then again, maybe I’m an asshole. There are certainly jokes I’ve laughed at and made myself that I have felt bad about afterwards. At the same time, though, there is usually a little more going on in edgy humor. Plenty of satire has been dark as coal, calculated to be disturbing to laugh at. (Jonathan Swift could offer plenty of modest proposals to that effect, to choose only one obvious example). But there is usually a moral impulse behind the satire, a response to a social crimes that requires the use of that kind of extreme rhetoric. I’ve taught “A Modest Proposal” a few times to college students, and they usually get the point pretty quickly. But I’ve also seen the squeamish looks on their faces when the really grisly parts come along and I’ve caught myself wondering if the grotesquerie of the language ends up overshadowing the subtle social message. Sure, going over the top is an effective way of ringing the social alarm bell, but there’s always the danger that all people will react to is the noise.
I hate it when everything you read ends up coming back to the President, but there’s no way to ignore how these issues apply to the way the POTUS acts, speaks, and Tweets. Plenty has been written about his clearly intentional outrageousness and how his sleazy rhetoric and his ADD way of musing out loud has dire real-world consequences. There will always be imbalanced people among us, some of them more potentially dangerous than others. But when a person of real influence puts out that much raw anger, spite, and resentment out into the airwaves, especially in a country that seethes with so many different kinds of anxiety, it can’t help but normalize and inspire certain kinds of people to act out. It isn’t funny at all.
As I write, the latest series of mass shootings is being discussed all over the news and, once again, it seems like those responsible were picking up on the not-so-subtle rhetoric (an “infestation” of illegal immigrants coming over the border, etc.) coming from the POTUS and his enablers in the media. But there’s the usual excuse from the President’s supporters after an uproar over some crass comment or another: he’s just kidding, all you P.C. libtards need to lighten up, it’s just a joke. Hardy har har.
Jeselnik confesses he’s “as liberal as they come,” and that he’s removed jokes about hate crimes from his act. And that some jokes for him hit too close to home; for example, his dad has psoriasis and if someone makes a joke about it he wouldn’t laugh. But Jeselnik wouldn’t be upset, either. He insists there are a million different lines that comedy can cross, but he is only concerned about his own. Interestingly, Jeselnik also explains that he wants “to ruin a generation of comics who try to do what I do and fuckin’ fail. I love other comedians, but for what I do, the way I do it, I’m the fuckin’ best of all time, and I hope I fuckin’ destroy people. I hope people try to be like me and fuck their whole lives up.” This Muhammad Ali-esque braggadocio isn’t just promotional banter; he’s admitting the competitive impulse that drives his approach. He is determined to take his comedy into dark, uncomfortable places that demand a high level of skill to pull off properly. He says that he will not release another special until he is confident he can top the one he’s just made. For him, it’s ultimately a question of craft — and going where others don’t dare.
This opens up how to consider Jeselnik’s humor in the context of our current national malaise around the limits and ramifications of free speech. Merely going “over the line” is child’s play; anyone can do it. Taunting people via the safe distance of social media is a coward’s idea of strength — whether you’re just a random schmuck or the President of the United States. Weaseling out from legit criticism by accusing the accusers, or suddenly pretending that you were joking all along, is just as pathetic. Talking transgressive has become a conspicuous brag in parts of contemporary culture: ‘I know you’re not supposed to say this, but…’ But being blatantly obvious about one’s attempt at subversion quickly becomes self-contradictory and pointless. When people feel the need to advertise their ballsy rule-breaking it undermines their claim from the start.
Ultimately, the lesson to take from Fire in the Maternity Ward isn’t about figuring out how offensive Jeselnik’s jokes might be to some hypothetical person. The point is how willing someone is to defend the jokes they crack. If they can rationally and honestly explain what the punch line means to them, what its purpose and intent is, that can lead to a fruitful discussion. Perhaps comedy’s real bravery depends on whether or not someone will own up to the stakes implied in their sense of humor, can articulate why are making fun of what they are making fun of. When asked about how his comedic persona has evolved over time, Jeselnik responded that “I’m not the devil’s advocate; I am the devil.” So we’ve been warned. What we should be wary of are the devils who think they’re really comedians.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.