Jesse David Fox On Cheap Laughs
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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from the episode:
Jesse David Fox : There’s this idea that laughter is the best medicine, and, well, it depends on what your ailment is. If you have a disease, it’s not. Like, there’s studies that have proven it just does not help. But if what is hurting you is that you cannot laugh about something, if something feels too heavy to move, the thing that comedy can do better than anything else we have so far as a species is make a thing feel lighter. You know, I quote Viktor Frankl, and he comes up with this theory after being in a concentration camp and talking essentially about how they were able to get through. Basically he says humor can offer an aloofness, and the ability to be detached from something a little bit, to have it be lighter, is so necessary to both acknowledge the moment and be able to move forward. It is fundamentally why we have humor.
It is why we as a species evolved to sort of figure out ways to make each other laugh, because, you know, tragic stuff happens all the time.
Maris Kreizman: Amen. One thing I wanted to get to is your use of the word “fearless.” It’s often used to describe comics who don’t give a fuck. And what you’re talking about is comics who are not afraid to be vulnerable. And I think about this specifically because we just saw a pub date for Maria Bamford, Gary Goldman, and Aparna Nancherla. And what a trio of fearless comics.
JDF: Yeah I don’t know how it was decided that comedians willing to offend people, willing to hurt people’s feelings, are ‘fearless.'”
Because even most other tough comedians would be like, it’s not that hard to do, to go up there and say slurs out loud. And being that type of comedian is [often] born out of a fear of being vulnerable. Like, they’re so fearful to go up on stage that they lash out on a particular group, because they’re so scared someone’s gonna see them.
It’s such a little kid thing to do. And it’s probably born out of the memory of how they bombed one time and it was so bad that they will never do it again. So as a result, they’re invulnerable, but then they’re not expressing themselves.They’re not being themselves. And in contrast, I write about Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, and Margaret Cho specifically. And it’s this idea that I contrasted with Louis CK, where, unlike being a perv, having mental illness can actually hurt you professionally. And to talk about it, in an industry that might be like, especially with women, oh, she’s crazy. We shouldn’t work with her.
So they [know the risks] and proceed anyway, because they realize it will help people. That’s why they do it. Now it has become so much more common for comedians to talk about having mental illness. It’s just easy. You go to a comedy show, it’s just like, I have this, I have that. That is truly a 15-year phenomenon. Like, 15 years ago, Maria Bamford was doing it, no one else really was doing it to the degree she was.
She changed what is normal to be spoken of in comedy. And it wasn’t easy. But she knew that is what a comedian can do. It’s hard to talk about things. Comedians are good at talking. Jokes make things easier to hear. The hope is you reorient what we think of as challenging. There’s easy things to joke about, and there are hard things to joke about. And I really want to give people the vocabulary to appreciate the people who are really doing the hard stuff, and doing it beautifully, doing it hilariously.
I had talked to Gary and Aparna and I was like, there are too many comedians talking about mental illness now. And they were like, no, there can never be too many. Like, they all remember the first time they heard any comedian doing it, and how it, how freeing it was, and like, again, it’s that being able to joke about something is such a gift. And meanwhile, there are comedians out there who complain about wokeness and how they’re not allowed to say anything anymore. And a lot of them have very lucrative deals with Netflix.
Well, a lot of people are scared, right? A lot of people like being scared. They’ve built such a shell around themselves that they want an artist that reflects that. So then they don’t have to reflect at all, right? They’re like, That’s how I talk! That’s good! End of story. And I think, and that’s a lot of people. The biggest comedians in the world, and always have been, for the most part, people who do stuff like this. But I want people to be able to know that that’s not necessarily good.
Like, I have a chapter about a lot of sort of edginess and whatever. The goal of that chapter is one to try to explain why comedians do it at all. I feel like people who don’t like it don’t even understand why the comedians are doing it. They just think, why is this person going on stage and complaining about trans people. It’s so weird!
Well, this is the tradition. There is some academic explanation, like, a hypothetically liberal explanation, for why you would choose to do it. And I don’t necessarily want to choose sides. I don’t want to finger wag and be like, you are bad, I don’t like you, you’re bad people.
I wanted to be like, this is why your art is worse. You’ve now become so obsessed with this goal of not doing what people say you can’t say, that you’re now only saying a thing you’re not even interested in saying. And again, comedy is an art form, so if you’re not expressing yourself, if you’re not expressing what you care about, instead you’re expressing just what people are saying you’re not allowed to say. And it’s easy. Like, that’s the thing. It seems hard, because you can’t go to work and say something that makes fun of transgender people, because you have a job that’s normal or whatever. So it seems hard to see Dave Chappelle be like, transgender people are bad or whatever he says.
Actually, because it’s a sensitive subject, it puts so much potential energy into whatever he says, or any comedian who does this joke says. Anything you say that is a relief will get a huge response. But that is cheap. That is a cheap thrill compared to what more interesting comedians are doing.
Jesse David Fox is a senior editor at Vulture, where he works as the site’s comedy critic and serves as the chief curator of the magazine’s event series, Vulture Festival. He is also the host of the hit podcast Good One, where he interviews comedians about their process. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. His book is called The Comedy Book.