A lot of us, it’s safe to say, are on the Internet for the jokes. Even (or especially) when we run up against the unrelenting horrors of social inequality, environmental collapse, and violent death, you can bet that some wiseass is putting a humorous spin on it and tossing the half-baked result to their Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook account. It’s a natural response to feelings of powerlessness in the face of insurmountable, harrowing fate—and I’m all for it.
Some can locate the kernel of comedy in the perilous morass of a triggering topic. The staffers of the satirical news website the Onion have made a name for themselves as the most consistently funny comedians of this variety. But even they once had to walk back a disastrous joke. In 2013, during the live broadcast of the Academy Awards, the site’s Twitter feed produced this gem about 9-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis, star of Beasts of the Southern Wild: “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?” Within an hour, the bracing quip had vanished. An apology from Onion CEO Steve Hannah followed the backlash. He called the joke “crude and offensive.”
Of course, that’s only half the equation. The Onion is crude and offensive, and it enrages satire-proof readers on a regular basis. The Internet has breathed fresh life into the interminable debate over who is allowed to make light of what, and when, and in what context, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever reduce the spectrum of taste to a workable blueprint for comedy. What strikes me as more interesting about Hannah’s mea culpa was this line: “No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.”
That is to say, the Onion’s true crime wasn’t blithely applying a vicious, misogynist epithet to an innocent child; it’s that this wasn’t funny. It had no point, other than shock value. Comedians often seek to push the envelope, and we let them—as long as they earn the right. Unfortunately, quite a few supposed funnymen haven’t, and I want to dig into their work.
But before we do, I’ll quickly dispense with the inevitable reply: I understand that nitpicking humor tends to look like missing the joke. When I wrote a piece about how comedian Patton Oswalt’s Twitter trolling didn’t come close to matching the standard of his sparkling standup material, his hypersensitive followers—the same ones who claim to find Oswalt’s attacks on left-wing sensitivity so funny—tended to blast me with comments along the lines of “you’re just an idiot and didn’t get it” or “who the fuck are you, anyway?” Well, believe me: I went to middle school, so I’ve got a pretty decent grasp of sneering provocations.
And who am I? The audience, and I sit in final judgment of all.
1) Daniel Tosh
I don’t have to be Louis C.K. to tell you that Daniel Tosh is among the most overrated standups working today. Part of me suspects that Tosh himself, in the grand tradition of self-loathing jesters, is well aware of this. There’s something soulless in his long-running (read: cheaply produced) Comedy Central show, Tosh.0, which aims to take on viral Internet culture. In the wake of Tosh’s riff on rape jokes during a live set in 2012, the blowback for which he blamed on being “heckled,” critics pointed out how his series tends to rely on punchlines about sexual assault or, at the very least, the objectification of women.
The hashtag here is Tosh’s M.O. in a nutshell: “You can make good jokes about awful things, but I don’t bother; easier to just say the awful thing and hope somebody laughs.” A more recent tweet, in response to civil unrest in Baltimore over the yet-unexplained death of Freddie Gray, for which six police officers have been indicted, is also quite revealing:
Can an expert tell me what’s funny here? It simply repackages the myopic reaction of conservative America to riotous protest (“Forget systemic racial injustice; white-owned small businesses are on fire!”) with cheerful irreverence. If the observation is that Caucasians don’t care about the plight of blacks until it directly impacts their ability to conveniently sate any given desire, there’s no daylight here between a criticism and the enactment of its sorry truth.
Few online personae are as insufferable as the smug atheist, and I say that as someone who tends to fill the time spent in church during weddings with extra-blasphemous thoughts, just as a way of daring some deity to strike me dead. Nobody with an ounce of common sense thinks there’s a “War Against Christmas” or that Christians are “persecuted” in the Western world, but that doesn’t mean we’re impressed with junior debate club–level arguments about how religion is the root of all evil. If their view is that “God” remains, at best, a disastrous fiction, then what are we to make of their enduring obsession with this noxious fantasy?
David Javerbaum, once the head writer and executive producer of The Daily Show, has won 11 Emmys, a couple of Grammys, and two Peabodys. But you’d never know it from the tripe he posts as @TheTweetOfGod, a faith-skewering father figure with nearly 2 million followers.
LOL, God talks about jerking off! Also, he created the universe by jerking off! He sees people—including Dick Cheney—jerking off all the time!
Scarcely surprising that this schtick was adapted for a “memoir” and a Broadway show, the only two media that can match Twitter for masturbatory self-congratulation.
Roosh, a.k.a. Daryush Valizadeh, is a fascinating case and, thankfully, the least prominent of these dudes. No one better exemplifies the paradox of the philosophical pick-up artist—namely, that a consuming scorn for women somehow dovetails with a bottomless need for and endless pursuit of their company. If seducing ladies was actually your bag, wouldn’t you kind of like them? And not worry about the state of manliness or gender at large?
Any doubts you have about Roosh’s core insecurities are easily obliterated by a Web forum called “Return of Kings,” the prattling on about a retrograde movement he calls “Neomasculinity,” and pride over an endorsement from crackpot conspiracy network Infowars. Not to mention his raiding the Bible for pertinent examples of false rape accusations.
It’s this singular lack of self-awareness that makes me wonder if “Roosh” himself is a joke that’s reached the point of no return, i.e., profit. This guy tours the globe spouting gospel indistinguishable from the phallomanic puffery Tom Cruise’s character marketed in Magnolia.
I find it impossible to read a blog post like “Girls With Short Hair Are Damaged” and not see a psychotic energy devoted to the grandiose prank of becoming a full-time devil’s advocate.
Like, read his transcript of a definitely 100 percent genuine chat with strangers on the street:
Latin Girl: I used to have long hair, but I just broke up with a boyfriend.
Me: I’m sure it looked better before.
Indian-American Girl: That’s sexist and stupid! It looks cute!
Latin Girl [ignoring her remark]: Wanna see a picture? [shows me her passport]
Me: God, it looks way better. You look like a different person, and way younger.
Indian-American Girl: She looks just as good, dude. Who are you?
Me [to Latin girl]: Let me ask you something: Are guys hitting on you less now with the short hair?
Latin Girl: Oof. Absolutely. A lot less.
Me: If you had to put a number on it, what would you say the reduction is?
Latin Girl: At least 90 percent less. That’s partly why I did it. I wanted to be alone for a while after my break up.
Me [to Indian-American girl]: See what happens when theory meets reality?
Every aspect of this rendering—that he identifies the “girls” by ethnic subgroup rather than name, the rigidly formal turn of the conversation that gives way to a pat conclusion, the straw feminist’s comeuppance—suggest that Roosh wants his manly acolytes to stroke their beards and chuckle, and many do, though he cracks himself up most of all. Watch him try to keep a straight face as he explains that “there will be no homosexuals in Neomasculinity,” alludes to the rise of “sexbots,” and draws a line in the sand between himself and men’s rights activists.
I don’t know what’s scarier—that Roosh sees this all as a game, or that he doesn’t.
4) Doug Benson
A walking stereotype. Truly, a hack comedian’s hack comedian. Drug-friendly readers will be aware that among stoners roam the handful who have tried to make marijuana use into their defining personal characteristic. Well, imagine a pothead that dull and one-note with a microphone, about 18 half-baked podcasts, and a built-in, bro-tastic demographic.
That Benson will rarely stray, in concept or execution, from the premise that he’s blazed out of his mind at all times is the surest evidence of his aggressive mediocrity—yet he offers so much more. Verified standup comedians are, as a rule, some of the least entertaining presences on Twitter, sensibly opting to focus on promotion and save their killer stuff for paying crowds; still, one develops a dark suspicion that this is as good as Benson can be:
Another low point in the past month saw Benson deploying his earnest, Blackfish-informed disgust with SeaWorld as a punchline in a barrage of wholly unrelated tweets.
You know what’s the funniest, though? When a guy who makes people laugh for a living has to explain when and how he was making them laugh. Jeez, people, lay off the bong for a sec.
That’s painful. Not as painful as standing in a humid, vomit-scented tent at Sasquatch Music Festival as you watch him phone in a set because he’s been drinking hard in the sun for three days straight, but it hurts all the same. Can’t wait till he switches his gimmick to sobriety.
5) Andy Borowitz
OK, seriously: What’s the deal here? Andy Borowitz was called “one of the funniest people in America” … by CBS News Sunday Morning. The rest of civilization considers him the comedic equivalent of a recurring canker sore. You start clicking around on the New Yorker’s website, and eventually, a link to one of his columns pops up. Mindlessly, you might just click it.
What greets you in the open tab is a parodic twist on the news so gentle as to place it beneath mere obviousness. No, it’s so obvious it doesn’t register on the plausibility spectrum. It’s ultraobvious, and it was apparently penned by Dave Barry’s ghostwriter in his sleep after he passed out watching CNN on Ambien, or maybe just a strong herbal supplement.
Here is how a recent hit, “Iran Offers to Mediate Talks Between Republicans and Obama,” unfolds. (Note the almost ideological refusal to try for anything approaching the unexpected.)
TEHRAN (The Borowitz Report)—Stating that “their continuing hostilities are a threat to world peace,” Iran has offered to mediate talks between congressional Republicans and President Obama.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, made the offer one day after Iran received what he called a “worrisome letter” from Republican leaders, which suggested to him that “the relationship between Republicans and Obama has deteriorated dangerously.”
“Tensions between these two historic enemies have been high in recent years, but we believe they are now at a boiling point,” Khamenei said. “As a result, Iran feels it must offer itself as a peacemaker.”
The item struggles on for another four short paragraphs, as if toward a requisite word count it cannot hope to meet. Where Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts” could pack an encyclopedia’s worth of absurdity into a single zigzagging sentence, Borowitz’s comedy dies mid-headline, at the precise moment we guess what the rest of it—and the perfunctory copy below—will do.
Unlike others on this list, however, the Borowitz Report isn’t courting outrage, which ends up being his gravest crime. On a host of heavy subjects that allow and encourage no-holds-barred commentary, the column is poisonously innocuous, tiptoeing about for a spoof of tragic political dysfunction that’s as bland as white bread and a fifth as nutritious. The cartoon versions of these pieces wouldn’t make it out of the New Yorker’s slush pile.
Illustration by Max Fleishman