Sunday, August 27, 2006

an insomnia-induced post about being earnest and being funny.

a feminist analysis of vegas-style L’Art Du Nu (a.k.a. boobs and $10 martinis) is forthcoming. i swear. because really, how could I not?

but first, something else. piny at feministe has an interesting post up about irony and how it relates to queer humor, which is a response to an earlier, also interesting post by amanda at pandagon about the generational “irony differential.” i have one thing to say about each post, and i’m just going to get right into it. so, if you’d like to have something even approaching context around what i’m about to say, please clicky the linkys to the above (really good! and did I mention interesting?) posts.

1. in amanda’s post concerning the “irony differential” among boomers and Xers, she makes the following point:

There were some people in the thread below that complained that the next generation, the Millenials, is being unfairly characterized as “earnest”. I think they’re probably right that it’s unfair. It’s probably a characterization from the same people that think that these sort of multi-layered jokes are stupid. They’re hoping that the next generation will just give up and stop being so ironic.

i found this intriguing, as just recently BoyCat and i were talking about postmodernism (shut up, we were!), and i was saying how i think it’s a shame that “earnest” has become a dirty word. now, i’m not really an Xer and i’m not really a “millennial” (and don’t call me Generation Y either, that was a load of bunk. what, we’re the generation that comes after X? what does that even mean?), so i don’t feel as if i have a stake in this generational smackdown. however, i think that to react to being called “earnest” as if someone had just insulted your mother has taken this whole po-mo thing a bit too far.

it’s true, though – studied disaffection is the order of the day among people my age. if you haven’t perfected the art of snark, if you aren’t able to construct an entire worldview around your ability to mock people and things, then you’re not worth your hipster salt. don’t get me wrong – i love a good meta joke and perusing Gawker just as much as the next person. but in the end, i don’t think this is a sufficient means of dealing with the world. i know why we do it. we do it because to be “earnest” about anything is to be somehow vulnerable to it – earnestness opens us up to the possibility of truly caring about something and thus able to be disappointed, wronged, or duped. we protect against this vulnerability by embracing its opposite – disaffection – and thus are inoculated against the accusation of ever taking anything (or ourselves) too seriously.

but isn’t this a dead-end? if i can’t care about anything, what’s the point? it’s like nihilism, it’s self-defeating. there’s nowhere to go with it. i’m not saying all us twentysomethings should go out and re-find religion, or environmentalism, or a sense of civic responsibility, but i do think that it’s all right to take the shattered theoretical landscape of postmodernism and try to re-make something out of it. something that you think matters, and something that you can admit caring about. is that so bad?

2. holy cow, this is going to be a long post. ok, piny takes this humor ball and runs with it into the field of queer humor. this reminded me about a point i wanted to bring up around humor and offense – particularly, that tightrope that people walk between the two all the time.

the particulars: the other night, BoyCat and i were lounging around watching some of the william shatner roast on comedy central. naturally, george takei was there. given that george takei recently came out of the closet, i figured there would be some shots taken on that front. what follows are two examples of how you can make a joke about a gay person, one successful and one painfully not so.

(let me state for the record that yes, i understand that the point of a roast is to be shocking and irreverent and outrageous. i get that you can say mean things about people and they will laugh. that’s totally all fine – if you’re funny. see below for more.)

the first joke in question came from some random white guy comic whose name i don’t know and don’t really care to know, because he wasn’t memorably funny. but he had decent pacing and timing, and was steadily slinging it around. he mentioned george takei, how he liked george, george was a good guy. then he went into the set up, saying something about how he and george hang out, but sometimes it’s hard for straight guys to know what to talk about with gay guys, hard to try to find a topic to converse about. he said, “i’ll be like, ‘hey george, i was just watching the superbowl, i mean um sucking dick!’” which, you know what? was kinda funny. because the comic was just playing up a basic truth, which is that straight guys can get uncomfortable around gay guys, and then say idiotically amusing things as a result. his delivery signaled an understanding of how ridiculous he would sound saying such a thing, which indicated an understanding of how inherently ridiculous such discomfort is. it was certainly not the funniest joke i’ve ever heard, but it at least succeeded in not being off-putting.

the second joke was from ben stiller. now, i’ve had a fairly low opinion of ben stiller’s comedic ability for going on a decade now, and this did nothing to improve his standing in my eyes. i was actually in the bedroom at this point, half paying attention to the audio from the tv in the other room, but i heard him start in on shatner about never replying to his fan letter as a kid. then he says that george takei totally wrote him back. then he says something to the effect of, “yeah, and then george invited me over to his house. and he told me that sitting on his lap was a transporter and would beam me to heaven. so that was nice.” which, you know what? was pretty offensive. because stiller is, at bottom, as lazy comedian, so he took the lazy gay joke route and just insinuated that takei was a pedophile. and lazy jokes with not only zero truth, but also a healthy dose of homophobia, are not very funny. for christsakes, stiller, you’ve got millions of dollars and nothing to do all day, and you can’t come up with anything funnier than a pedophile crack that a sixth-grader could have written? that’s not even offensive, that’s just downright sad.

in short, i know there’s a fine line between funny and offensive, and that often the best comedians are the ones who consistently live on that knife-edge. but i just thought these two jokes were so emblematic of both how to get away with it and how to fail miserably. the moral of the story? be self-deprecating, and don’t waste your money on the next ben stiller movie.


jayniek said...

great post, kate.
i think I need a re-read before i can comment for real.

and also, ben stiller married the blonde girl from "Hey Dude" on Nickelodeon. That was probably the best move he's made in a while.

jayniek said...

and she's not funny either.