Friday, May 24, 2024

Mike Schur, Mike Pesca, and the State of Comedy

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The other day, I had the opportunity to see TV comedy writer and producer Michael Schur speak on a panel along with some film and philosophy scholars. Michael Schur is the creator of three of my favorite shows on television: Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99, and The Good Place.

Schur comes off as an insightful, deep-thinking person. He read a lot of academic texts on moral philosophy when researching The Good Place, a lighthearted (mostly) comedy show. Schur engaged in deep discussion about, among other things, whether TV (and comedy in particular) can make people better people. He is very aware that his shows represent a new breed of comedy that is uplifting and humanistic. He talked about the interesting challenge of making comedy that’s funny without being mean. As a new student of TV and of comedy specifically, this is a trajectory in comedy that I’m extremely interested in.

One of the reasons I got really interested in this type of comedy is precisely because of the environment I happened to be in to see Schur speak. The event took place at the university I used to work at, which is always a little weird for me to go back to. I spent almost a decade in academia, which can be a very toxic culture. It’s a culture that deals in a lot of aggression and dominance: a lot of judgment, people thinking they’re better than other people, people putting you in your place. A lot of this happens along the race and gender lines you might expect, keeping power where power has traditionally been kept. A lot of the abusive behavior goes unchecked and unpunished. During the time I was trying to survive in that environment, I really had no desire to go home and watch a heavy drama, especially something filled with violence and backstabbing. I needed something uplifting – but still smart.

This is part of why I need Michael Schur’s shows so badly. As Schur described it, in a world that is so toxic and volatile, with people hurting other people, maybe we should have some entertainment that models a different way to be. Maybe even entertainment that makes people think about how they can treat each other better. He pointed out that TV is a medium that reaches way more people for more time than anything else, quoting a statistic that the average American watches 6-8 hours a day. If all TV was like the shows made by Michael Schur, maybe it would be a good thing for the world if people watched that many hours of it.

Schur is not the only one moving towards a more humane comedy, full of shows that explore characters’ foibles compassionately. Netflix has hits like GLOW, which gives us meaningful stories about the struggles of its diverse characters, but also the feel-good resonance of a bunch of women creating something silly and fun together, improving in their acting and wrestling skills and being proud of what they made. A show like High Maintenance, showing slice-of-life vignettes of different kinds of people in New York City, would not have been possible even on HBO until very recently; I used to have to watch art-house indy movies of wildly varying quality to approach something like that slow, wry realism.

The comedy shift: An expert weighs in

Image from the movie Fletch
Chevy Chase in Fletch. I don’t have this movie memorized, please don’t take away my comedy nerd credentials!


I’ve been thinking a lot about how comedy has changed. In the 80s and 90s, in order to be cool, it was imperative to be cynical, sarcastic, detached. Comedy that lacked irony or cynicism was unthinkable. Honesty and vulnerability were for chumps. The classic sitcom of my childhood was Married with Children, which turned on the (then still radical) premise that family members commonly despise each other. Seinfeld broke new ground, but what’s funny about it depends on the amoral and kind of despicable nature of all its characters.

Some of this comedy evolution might just be about counter-swings of the pendulum. After all, all that 80s cynicism was a reaction to the sappy-sweet Leave It To Beaver vibe of TV in the 60s. But Schur talked about another facet of it: In recent years, more of us (especially: white people) have become more aware of the horrors all around us. With inequality in wealth growing and corporate power unchecked, people are worse off than they were in the youth of Boomers and the childhoods of Gen X. Then there’s the looming environmental catastrophe, and the global rise of fascism. Maybe it’s not such a great time to be cynical and detached anymore, when we all are called to stand firm for principles as basic as democracy, as empathy. Maybe kindness really is a radical act, and openness and vulnerability are survival tools, are ways to connect, which we desperately need.

I’m always interested in hearing what experts think about this comedy shift. An article in Slate titled “We’re Much, Much Funnier Than We Used to Be” was advertised to me as clickbait, but bait that was either fortuitous or very craftily targeted: I swallowed that bait up fast and got reeled in.

The author, Mike Pesca, an NPR commentator and podcast host, has some interesting points about how the medium of TV comedy has changed. He is right that we have come a long way from when The Monkees was the Emmy-winning comedy show in 1967: no shade on The Monkees (I guess), but was that really the best we could do? I expected Pesca to make some reference to how the number of jokes per minute is increasing over time in modern comedy shows, but I don’t get the impression that the longitudinal trend has been studied scientifically yet.

So why is comedy better now? Pesca explains that part of it is reflective of how the TV industry has expanded. There are many more scripted shows than before, and Pesca’s back-of-envelope calculations estimate a thousand or more currently working TV comedy writers in the U.S., a lot more than before.

He also points out that there are more kinds of pathways to this job now, more inputs and influences. He describes how comedy writers of the previous generation all kind of watched the same things, and did not have access to the modern wealth of internet humor, both corporate-produced/curated/stolen like College Humor, or more D.I.Y. stuff on YouTube and TikTok. (He seems to have skipped a decade or so, failing to mention any parts of meme culture– like LOLcats, remixed G.I. Joe PSAs, HomestarRunner and other flash animation– or Vine, the much-loved TikTok predecessor that was a hotbed for cutting-edge humor too weird and/or too made by marginalized creators for mainstream production.) Pesca also notes how this generation of comedy creators were raised on thinky game-changers like Arrested Development.

Pesca seems to be circling around something here, but not willing to come out and say it: the current crop of comedy writers has more kinds of people in it than the narrow mold of nerdy white men it’s been for so long. You can see this when he describes what he sees as the former standard curriculum for up-and-coming comedy people, the now-past era when

…Every driven funny person in America read Mad magazine as a kid, National Lampoon in their teens and 20s, ate up Monty Python, and later watched every episode of The Simpsons.

Now, sure, lots of people consumed those media; everybody watched The Simpsons. But who watches every episode of The Simpsons? Who has the time and energy for that? Mostly, a small, privileged group of people – upper-middle-class white men – with a lot of time on their hands.

And he is studiously ignoring the elephant in the room when he refers to

    …Every boy in my summer program at Cornell quoting every line from Fletch.

Yeah. Emphasis on boy, on summer program, on Cornell. Right, got it. Pesca’s background comes through loud and clear here, but he doesn’t seem to realize it. It kind of seems like, for him, upper-middle-class, white, and male are just “normal”.

Comedy looks different now. It’s less white and more gender-diverse. And D.I.Y. internet humor is intrinsically connected to this. People of different backgrounds now have outlets to create and get noticed. Broad City was a web series made by Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson before it got championed by Amy Poehler. High Maintenance also started as a small-production web series, created by two white people, but featuring many stories about people of color. Brian Jordan Alvarez’s 2016 web comedy, The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, is a cult hit that many know from the meme showing the glamorously unhinged Freckle explaining that “sometimes, expensive things… Are worse.” And I’ve seen hundreds of Vines made by strikingly creative young comedians of color whose names I don’t know because they didn’t have an Amy Poehler to mentor them into fame.

As I continued to read Pesca’s piece, I started to wonder how much Pesca is comfortable with comedy getting more diverse. Pesca has, at this point, spent some 1200 words extolling the virtues of modern comedy, explaining to us how modern TV’s jokes land so much more often than jokes did from, say, The Muppet Show (weirdly, though, I thought the two jokes he picked to demonstrate how often the Muppets’ comedy falls flat, were actually pretty funny.) But Pesca makes an unexpected turn, then. He spends the second half of the article describing how comedy, in his view, has taken a turn for the worse.

Pesca has two different arguments why comedy isn’t what it used to be in the golden days of all the Cornell boys quoting Fletch. One seems to be something about the overuse of comic idioms or memes. The other is about “cancel culture” (sigh.) I’ll take these on one at a time.

G.I. Joe PSA screenshot
Remixed G.I. Joe PSAs were an early example of absurdist internet humor. Pork chop sandwiches!

Meme Culture (?)

Pesca complains that a proliferation of comedic phrases and ideas have become sprinkled into normal conversation to the point that they have become overused and tired. At least that is what I think he is arguing. It’s a little hard to tell, since this part of the piece is mostly made up of a list of examples of such phrases: spirit animals, dumpster fires, and sportsball. It’s notable that many of his examples are memes I became familiar with from Tumblr, from the woman- and queer-dominated world of fandom. And fandom, in turn, picks up a hefty dose of slang, memes, idioms, and other cutting-edge cultural products from communities of young people of color, especially queer people of color. Pesca has a point, but he doesn’t get at the core truth: By the time all the straights and whites are saying a catchphrase, yeah, it is tired and overused – because the communities who created it finished with it a decade ago.

Pesca asks, “Are these locutions simply the modern equivalent of the cigar-miming Groucho impression?” And of the Cornell Fletch-quoters. Uh, yes. No duh, as we used to say in the 90s. Obvs, as we said in the early 2010s. Has Pesca ever read a chunk of dialogue from the 1920s, full of its charming, circumlocutious slang? Has Pesca ever watched Shrek, jam-packed with every funny pop culture reference of the day? Did Pesca live in a cave back when we used to all say “gag me with a spoon” and “don’t have a cow” until those phrases were drained of all humor? Does he really think a set of trendy memes and references, which many people sprinkle liberally through their speech, is a new phenomenon?

A student of comedy should be a student of human nature. Pesca needs to brush up.

Also, as someone who was around and enjoying comedy in the 90s, the idea of irony surprisingly eludes Pesca. When comedians like the McElroy brothers, along with their non-comedian fans, make some play on “the answer was with us the whole time” – to take one of Pesca’s examples – it is with a full ironic understanding of the cheesiness of that phrase, the way overuse has drained it of meaning. It’s classic Simpsons-esque irony I would expect someone like Pesca to recognize.

And, the way that The Youths use these phrases (Pesca seems allergic to the word “meme”) is consciously, deliberately repetitive. It is recombinatoric and generative, making jokes on the subversion or inversion of the memes. They create absurdity by using the memes in exactly the opposite way they were intended, or by combining them together with other, unrelated memes, in brain-breaking layers. But I guess Gen X comedy experts find youth internet culture a little intimidating to dive into. Too bad; they could learn a thing.

The McElroy Brothers
The McElroy Brothers are not experts. But they fully understand the tropes of the Evil Clown and found-footage horror.

“Cancel culture”

Pesca slides not very gracefully from a critique of meme culture into a critique of cancel culture. His connection is tenuous: because we have this “agreed-upon” set of memes, phrases, idioms we all joke about (as if this is a brand-new thing) – we don’t have surprise anymore in comedy (as if anything would be funny without surprise.) And that means we are less willing to take risks, and that means everything is too P.C., and not funny anymore, despite his previous argument that comedy is funnier now.

The thing is, there is no such thing as “cancel culture”. Pesca, fortunately, agrees with me on this! As he says,

Like most targets of cancel culture, comedians aren’t usually stripped of their jobs or livelihoods, though that occasionally happens. They are publicly censured, not literally censored.

Right, they are publicly censured. Because that is a brand-new phenomenon in media, too, apparently? And because the public critique of public figures is apparently something we should wring our hands over.

Pesca could really use some perspective on this issue from Contrapoints (Natalie Wynn). She is aware of

…A cycle that it seems like our culture repeats about once a week. Somebody makes a joke, some people are offended by the joke, and other people are indignant about the fact that these people are offended.

Wynn dissects the outrage-du-jour, which was Ricky Gervais’ latest transphobic jokes. A trans woman, Natalie explains that she actually supports comedians making trans jokes, even dark comedy about the trans experience — but to make a good, funny, edgy joke requires knowledge about trans people, which most cis people just don’t have.

In 2012, seven years before Wynn’s video came out, I really thought Lindy West had the definitive take on offensive humor, specifically Daniel Tosh’s rape joke he directed at an actual person in his audience critiquing his other rape jokes. We can look aside from West’s unfortunate characterization of Louis C.K. as woke – hey, a lot of us believed that in 2012 – and get what she is saying, which is what Wynn echoed later. It is possible to make a good rape joke (West gives and explains four examples.) It basically comes down to whether, when writing your joke, you have a basic understanding that rape is a horrifying societal problem and that women are people. Us liberal snowflakes don’t have a high bar for you to hurdle here, comedians.

West also gets right at the heart of the “cancel culture” debate, breaking down the illogic in cries of “censorship”:

When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks. … In a way, comedy is censoring yourself—comedy is picking the right words to say to make people laugh. A comic who doesn’t censor himself is just a dude yelling.

But comedians are getting critiqued, and mild consequences are arriving upon them! Oh, horrors. It’s funny how Pesca can’t even find any examples of a serious set-back to a comedian’s career: someone “lost gigs”, someone had his mike cut at an event at an elite college. James Gunn “originally” was dropped by Marvel Studios but then was reinstated. Pesca first wrote that Kevin Hart was kicked out as a host of the Oscars, but the article had to be corrected because Hart voluntarily stepped down. Pesca notably does not bring up comedians like Louis C.K. – who did a lot more than tell offensive jokes, and who still, somehow, has a career.

Every show I love is somehow not that great because of women and people of color ruining it

Pesca concludes that, though comedy is funnier now, it’s also very unfortunate that all the jokes “have to” punch up. He even thinks it’s a little unfortunate that Michael Schur’s The Good Place adheres to “proper progressive attitudes”. (How, exactly? By having Black and Asian main characters? By caring about morality?)

Most oddly out of this entire article, Pesca claims that two of the most inventive and critically-acclaimed recent comedies, Fleabag and Russian Doll, “are not confrontational television” – because their heroes are “charming and charismatic” and their only mistakes have to do with drugs and sex. Pesca has completely lost me now. TV is only confrontational if the hero is ugly to you? Or engages in extremely immoral, rather than moderately immoral behavior? It’s gotta be Breaking Bad or Boardwalk Empire to be “confrontational”, is that it? What exactly is “confrontational” about yet another show featuring someone who gets away with murder? And I’m super curious – what does this man think of Killing Eve, I wonder? Or Santa Clarita Diet – shows where a woman is a murderer?

Fleabag and Russian Doll both happen to be extremely important to me. They both made me feel profound emotions. I think about them all the time, long after I watched them. Fleabag deals in the squirmy complexity of female identity when you’ve absorbed a whole lot of society’s misogyny, and you’re willing to put up with a lot more misogyny directed at you in order to get laid. There is a huge amount of discomfort and social commentary in some scenes, but maybe you need to have read the Cliffs Notes of Feminism 101 to get it. Fleabag also deals with guilt and loss, and with a nuanced, hilarious, and realistic relationship between two sisters. And to top it off, it is technically inventive, using a new-to-TV method of fourth-wall-breaking to brilliant comedic effect.

Russian Doll is hard for me to even write about because I don’t have an understanding of all the layers of it, all the references: I need to read more thinky pieces about it. But this show, too, grappled with the compromises women make in society, as well as the fundamental human need to be loved, and with grief and suicide. It explored the Big Questions, and somehow was also funny and entertaining. It was also creepy and even took a brief dive into a horror movie vibe. And it ended on some of the most uplifting melancholy I have ever seen on TV. Also, nobody like Natasha Lyonne’s hard-edged, wisecracking character has been the lead in a TV series or movie before – at least no woman. And the show somehow got humor out of things like breaking your neck on a set of stairs over and over. Not confrontational enough, I guess.

Both these shows had women protagonists who are fully sexual beings. They were horny a lot. They lusted after inappropriate targets, doing stupid things to get sex. They acted as sexual agents going after what they wanted, even when it was bad for them. Women as antiheroes, women with sexual agency, women with interiority. Sorry, Pesca, but that’s still radical. I’m looking forward to the day when it isn’t anymore.

Maxine in Russian Doll
Greta Lee as Maxine wishes Nadia a “Sweet Birthday, Baby!” for the umpteenth time.

What is funny: two versions of hope for the future of comedy

Anyway, Pesca has hope for comedy. After all, it’s somehow funnier now, even though P.C. cancel culture is ruining it all. I don’t really know how that works, but I only have an average white person’s level of cognitive-dissonance tolerance, unlike Pesca, who seems to be a cognitive-dissonance ninja: This challenging TV show is not challenging because a woman wrote it and stars in it; TV comedy today sucks even though it’s objectively better, because I want to pout about how people get vocally mad when white guys punch down.

Pesca’s hope, as he reveals in his final paragraph, rests on the fact that some comics are still being offensive without being censured. He reassures us,

Every night at the Comedy Cellar, three of the five comics onstage will announce they’re going to touch the third rail, then do it, and usually get a laugh.

I guess that makes everything all right. All the white men can breathe a big sigh of relief that sexism, racism, homophobia, and so forth are still alive and well in the comedy clubs of America.

It’s weird, though, because his very example of how The Kids Are All Right really sounds like the very thing he was deploring a few paragraphs ago. In stand-up, announcing you are going to touch the third rail and then touching it is a really tired, overused trope. I mean, by Pesca’s own estimation, sixty percent of comics are doing it on the daily. I thought that humor depended on surprise? Offense will usually get a laugh, because it surprises, because it’s taboo. I thought it was an axiom of comedy that simple offense without some more depth, some finesse, is a cheap way to get a laugh, a tool for amateurs.

But what do I know? I’m not a comedy expert.

Here is why I have hope for the future of comedy. Writers of comedy who don’t go straight for the cheap laugh, who think harder about punching down, are better writers and better comedians. Because they have to think. They have to situate themselves in society, they have to do the littlest bit of observation, of analysis. So their comedy is better. It’s smarter, it’s funnier. And also, it doesn’t hurt people like me, and other people not like me; it doesn’t shut us out. Hey, guess what, I like not being the butt of half the jokes anymore. It’s great that people are putting more thought into their rape jokes these days.

As Lindy West says, in an interview with Huffington Post,

…Comedy is a coping mechanism, comedy makes people feel less alone. Just for everyone trying to survive and not explode at this bizarre time in history … And it’s so satisfying when someone points out an absurdity that you hadn’t quite put together, put your finger on before. When someone points out something that you missed, or makes a connection you hadn’t seen, and makes you laugh and makes bad people look ridiculous. It’s really powerful.

I have hope for the future of comedy because we’re in an age of television, hopefully not temporary, which has opened up and allowed opportunities for writers and creators who would otherwise not have had opportunities. Without cable and streaming services, and the kind of monetary risks Netflix and Amazon decided to take, Fleabag would have stayed an obscure theater production – it would never have been a TV series. Russian Doll wouldn’t exist. Broad City wouldn’t exist without successful woman comedians, who themselves benefited from mentorship from a successful woman, paying it forward.

I have hope for the future of comedy because of Generation Z, because of the wealth of content they make and put on the internet for free to be combed through and stolen. A lot of it gets watered down by the time it hits the mainstream, and yes, all the hip new sayings are definitely old and stale by the time white 40-year-olds are saying them around the water cooler. But the creators are still creating. It’s still all there. And with growing opportunities, opportunities for people that don’t fit that birthed-by-National-Lampoon mold, I hope some of them start making it big.

I have hope for the future of comedy because not all comedians come from the same class backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and genders anymore. This is not just because of streaming TV services opening up opportunities. It’s because of what people like Pesca keep denigrating as “cancel culture”: the shocking idea that maybe celebrating shitty rape jokes makes comedy inhospitable to women, and a culture of stupid racist jokes makes comedy inhospitable to anyone who isn’t white. Punching down is not just frowned on because it’s politically incorrect (read: mean.) Punching down hurts comedy. It gate-keeps, and that has the end effect of reducing talent.

Because diversity in comedy is not just a wider pool of talent to draw on, which means the quality will rise. It’s the variety. If you can tell me a joke that’s about the particulars of your life and your background, which is different than mine, that will surprise me. And humor rests on surprise, right? That’s what the experts of comedy tell me.

So Pesca and I agree. We are much funnier than we used to be. It’s because of a set of reasons, having to do with the very things that Pesca and a million guys like him are throwing little tantrums about all the time. That’s fine. Tantrum away. The rest of us will be busy laughing.

Images courtesy of Amazon, Netflix, and NBC

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