Thanks to two open-minded parents, my love for stand-up comedy started as a young boy in the 1980s. Richard Pryor. Redd Foxx. Eddie Murphy’s seminal “Raw” and “Delirious” routines. Andrew Dice Clay. Sam Kinison. George Carlin. I spent many evenings going to sleep to BET’s “ComicView” and HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam.” Mama took me to see Chris Rock live for his “Bring the Pain” tour when I was 15 years old.
I long viewed stand-up comedy as a medium of largely unchecked freedom …one of the only ways in which someone can take a battle ax to social propriety and get away with it in the name of laughter. For years, I was the owner and operator of the “lighten up … it’s only jokes!” bandwagon. But I’ve been constantly challenged on that idea over the last decade as we’ve collectively evolved into becoming less tolerant of wanton ribaldry from our comedians.
Unsurprisingly, many actual comedians are struggling with this, as was evident in Chris Rock’s latest Netflix special, “Selective Outrage.” Though Rock’s 1990s material cemented him as a top-five dead-or-alive comedian, something was a bit off about the new special. It’s as if, at 58, he’s traded in his sharp, incisive delivery for the old-man-yells-at-cloud phase of his career. Riffing on the state of Elon Musk’s balls and protracted O.J. Simpson jokes in 2023 simply didn’t land.
Rock battled all kinds of demons on that stage Sunday — particularly nailing a live telecast mistake-free (which he didn’t) and meeting the expectations of his much-anticipated response to being slapped by Will Smith at the Academy Awards ceremony a year ago (whether he succeeded depends on whom you ask). But “Outrage,” above everything else, has me wrestling with what “funny” looks like in the third decade of the 2000s.
At his worst, Rock is still leagues funnier than most comedians, and he’s been a Black icon for most of his career, which spans the better part of 40 years. But a couple of missteps revealed a few chinks in his once-impermeable armor. The first is the 2011 “Talking Funny” clip in which Rock allowed comedians Ricky Gervais and the since-disgraced Louis C.K. to fling the N-word unchecked while Jerry Seinfeld sat as the only voice of reason.
The other, of course, is his throwaway joke about a Black woman’s hair during the Oscars that prompted the slap from Smith. This turned quite a few people against Rock and prompted the Twitter faithful to point out that he’s been making jokes at the expense of Black women his entire career (which is a bit unfair considering just about every Black comedian, male or female, has done the same thing). Essentially, many tuned in to “Outrage” just to get on social media to blast Rock.
Haters notwithstanding, Rock encountered a more pernicious issue for his seventh televised routine in nearly 30 years: jokes that no longer hit in a society with evolved sensibilities. He played with certain sensitive topics — including abortion and trans people — with the caveat that he has no problem with them. But he seems to be catching the most hell on Twitter for bits criticizing two Black women: Meghan Markle and Jada Pinkett Smith, the latter of whom he outright called a “bitch.”
Many older comedians, especially those who’ve been performing since the 1980s — when we collectively busted a gut at demeaning jokes, and social media wasn’t around — openly struggle with adapting to new standards of “funny.” We’ve had time to analyze how unkind Black entertainment has been toward Black women historically, so lobbing the B-word toward a (generally) beloved Black celebrity was never gonna land well.
“Charleen’s Boy,” the latest Netflix special from Deon Cole, 51, is generally funny, save for the fact that he refers to women as “bitches” every 17 seconds or so — and we know he’s talking mostly about Black women.
Some of the legends have embraced the evolution of funny: Katt Williams got love a couple of years ago when he suggested that comedians who don’t get with the times aren’t really funny to begin with. Murphy, one of the progenitors of the last several decades of touchy humor, publicly apologized for his nearly 40-year-old, wildly homophobic routines that are tougher to hear these days.
“It would seem only a small percent of comedians can remain wildly popular as stubborn anachronisms, including Rock.”
But most older comedians are intransigent in their unwillingness to evolve, choosing instead to bitch and moan about how they don’t “recognize comedy anymore” and can’t tell the jokes they used to. It’s likely why many of the “Def Comedy Jam” greats from the ’90s have pivoted into something else or aren’t doing much at all. It would seem only a small percent of comedians can remain wildly popular as stubborn anachronisms, including Rock and his homeboy, Dave Chappelle.
The world will speak with dollars and tweets to let comedians know if their version of “funny” has gone too far, which is why we got Michael Richards way up outta here. But any topic can be mined for humor if done properly, which is why Robert Downey Jr. might have the only successful execution of blackface in Hollywood history. Chappelle long walked the tightrope of transgressive humor without falling over: “How old is 15 really?” is a hilarious, 19-year-old routine on child sexual assault.
Only recently have Chappelle’s jokes come under harsh scrutiny, especially regarding his focus on trans people in his recent Netflix specials. A very vocal minority — the one responsible for think piece headlines — has sought to expose the potential danger and power in the comedy statesman’s words. Yet that minority has emboldened him and seemingly made him more popular than ever: Folks who love and hate him run up his numbers and make him richer just to see who he’ll piss off next.
Thing is, Chappelle’s funny wouldn’t be nearly as funny to the masses if he were an up-and-comer. His offensive humor is accepted largely based on the trust he’s established over a three-plus-decade career. Same with Rock: Even if his routine isn’t as fresh as it was 28 years ago, he has more than enough cachet to convince sizable audiences to pay money to see him. Twitter outrage over “Outrage” will likely help contribute to crazy viewership numbers that Netflix will never reveal.
There’s certainly a generational subjectivity to “funny:” Rock and most of his peers don’t have many fans under 25, and those of us from “Generation Achy Joints Crawling Out of Bed” will fondly recall cracking up at “In Living Color,” which is chock-full of skits that couldn’t be released on network television today. If you’re like me, you often face the moral conundrum of still laughing at cringey jokes, while the Generation Z-ers basically came out of the womb knowing better. I’m pretty sure Trevor Noah’s generally inoffensive standup puts me to sleep because I’m an “elder millennial” whose first presidential vote wasn’t lost on a Donald Trump presidency.
Chappelle and Rock count on that older audience to prevent them from needing to evolve their comedy (find me someone in the “Outrage” audience under 35). Much like any Jay-Z verse written after 2010, both men are too rich to even bother making sure their routines don’t grow staid: A good percentage of “Outrage” focused on Rock’s life as a wealthy man, and Chappelle recently called his audience “the poors” when they were pissed at him for bringing Elon Musk onstage.
But most offensive comedians will never have that cachet or that F-you money, which is why we don’t hear much from them anymore. Lisa Lampanelli basically retired from comedy when she realized that jokes from a white woman about banging Black men were no longer for the world. Extreme insult comics like Jim Jefferies and Anthony Jeselnik — both of whom rely on hardcore misogyny — will never blow outside of niche audiences in a world where their material is exceedingly “cancel”-worthy.
Of course, one doesn’t need to rely on offensive material to find mainstream success in comedy — see Noah and Kevin Hart, who has made a tidy living in comedy without pushing the boundaries of his idols. It says a lot about our evolved sensibilities that Hart, one of the world’s most beloved mainstream comedians, lost a shot at his dream gig of hosting the Oscars in 2019 because of his response to homophobic tweets he let off years before he was a marquee artist.
(If “funny” involves pushing boundaries, Hart may never achieve the greatness of his comic forebears because he keeps it noncontroversial. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
Though the comedy landscape has certainly changed, the one consistent thing about critiques of comedy is their inconsistency, which Chappelle and Rock both drive home in their latest specials (Rock in the title itself). People who bring out the pitchforks when their marginalized group is made fun of will guffaw at jokes made at the expense of others, which is a hypocrisy many refuse to cop to.
The inconvenient truth is that humor is wildly subjective, and even if society at large no longer allows for certain types of humor to rock unanswered, our sensibilities don’t move in lockstep. While I’ll never again tell someone that they’re too sensitive to laugh at a joke they find offensive, I’ll never allow anyone to tell me what I should not laugh at. Because, while I’ve evolved, I’ll always have that 9-year-old boy cracking up at jokes I had no business listening to inside of me.