Laughter is somehow different now. Blame Trump, blame outrage culture, or blame the terrifying rise of public shaming, but rarely does a week go by that some public (or even not-so-public figure) makes a joke that ignites a flurry of angry tweets and thinkpieces. Does this response fall under the umbrella of the First Amendment? Or is it hate speech masked as “lulz,” as has been the tactic of internet-savvy white nationalists? Whatever the answer, comedians are in a tough spot. In a new roundtable interview with GQ, comedian Aparna Nancherla sums it all up by pointing out how “people are picking comedians based on their politics,” much in the same way that people are handpicking which news sources feed them the narrative they want to believe. Hasan Minhaj subsequently laments the lack of an “objective reality.”
Nancherla and Minhaj are joined in GQ’s roundtable by Mike Birbiglia, Roy Wood Jr., and Kathy Griffin, the latter of whom reflects on how she’s only beginning to recover from the fallout (and federal investigation) that followed her bloody anti-Trump photo shoot.
There’s plenty to dig into, not the least of which being Griffin’s vulnerable words about the toll of that photo shoot and how her long-simmering anger was born from decades of inequality in the comedy industry. But Wood’s discussion of navigating pro-Trump audiences, as well as the mentor/mentee relationship between Birbiglia and Minhaj, are also striking in their own way.
What everyone here agrees on, however, is that comedy is different now, not in that it’s funnier, necessarily, but that it feels more precarious and, ultimately, more important.
Minhaj: The Daily Show satirized an entire form, and now what you see in the marketplace is all the tentacles of Jon Stewart’s children in late-night satire. [...] And I think the biggest challenge we have is the characters have now mutated and evolved beyond just O’Reilly. The villains took steroids. How do you satirize Alex Jones? It really makes O’Reilly look like he’s from planet Earth.
Wood: The stakes matter more. People always say, “Oh, this is a good time for comedy.” I don’t think the comedy factories of satire that are on TV are creating better comedy. It’s the same writers. It’s the same people. But people care more, so now the jokes matter to you.
Minhaj: You don’t think this is the golden age of comedy?
Birbiglia: I think it’s the opposite. Because there’s been the devaluation of news as truth, the accepted setups have gone away.
Minhaj: Like there being an objective reality we all agree on.
Birbiglia: If we can’t agree on the setups, we can’t have punch lines, so it’s a very divisive time in comedy. I look at Jimmy Kimmel and go, “He’s doing great work.” Another guy looks at Jimmy Kimmel and goes, “Fuck that guy. He’s trying to get health care for his son, and he’s got a platform.”
Wood: I would imagine somewhere in the pantheon of Jimmy Kimmel clips, he said something halfway political that showed a level of give-a-fuck-about-society that no one reacted to, because it was in ‘08 or ‘09. I wonder: If we weren’t in the era of Trump, would people be telling him to shut up?
Minhaj: I just think we have a shift now where political culture has become popular culture.
Read the full interview, which is twisty, hilarious, and a bit contentious, here.