Comedy Book by Jesse David Fox | Review of the new account of 'how comedy conquered culture'
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Comedy Book by Jesse David Fox

Review of the new account of 'how comedy conquered culture'

Like it or not, comedy finds itself on the front line of the culture wars. Whether it’s reactionary stand-ups complaining that you can’t say anything any more on their mammoth multinational platforms, or more fringey comics using their work to edge marginalised voices into the mainstream – often to the chagrin of the former group complaining that the upstarts are just not funny.

Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock – even Jo Koy hosting the Golden Globes – these are massive, influential names in the cultural landscape, with some like Jon Stewart and John Oliver holding serious political clout as well. Yet the artform has been massively overlooked in terms of serious critical analysis, especially in the US. For too long dismissed as a triviality, as just jokes,

This is the situation Jesse David Fox – comedy critic at Vulture and host of Good One: A Podcast About Jokes – sets to redress in his simply titled Comedy Book.

No tome taking comedy seriously can go without quoting EB White’s maxim, best paraphrased as: ‘Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies’. Debunking the idea that analysing comedy is a fool’s errand, Fox writes: ‘Because of the frogs and the aversion to seriousness, comedy has gone under-considered throughout its history, even as it has ascended as a major cultural force. Comedians have wielded a great deal of influence and have acquired power as a result, but there has been little focus on how they actually do that.’

Needless to say, as a fellow comedy critic I’m fully on board with Fox’s aim of fostering a deeper way of watching comedy, and of encouraging comedians to up their game. And I’d suspect most readers of Chortle would feel the same

‘To openly allow for critique is to take comedy seriously, and taking it seriously will allow it to evolve and mature,’ Fox writes. ‘The hope is to empower comedians to be more ambitious, be it to write jokes even more sharply, pursue more unusual comedy, or play to larger audiences made up of people who are actually supporting them as a specific artist and not someone just providing a service.’

He does this by explaining both the evolution of comedy from formulaic gags in nightclubs to Instagram performers in their infinite variety, and also how a stand-up – Rock particularly – hones material to unambiguously fuse his viewpoint with that of the audience.

Fox, rightly I think, challenges the idea that comedy holds a mirror up to society and speaks truth to power. Instead, he says, stand-up aims to tap into something that already exists, ‘to bring aspects of the collective unconscious into the collective consciousness’ as well as forming a tribal  sense of community and belonging among those with similar viewpoints.

He's also tries not to be too highbrow and aloof – a complaint easily levelled at those prone to examining something as apparently straightforward as a gag. He detects a snobbishness in reviewers who smugly point out the erudite in-jokes in The Simpsons, while ignoring the often funnier references to popular culture in the same show, but says it's an almost inescapable consequence of a critical framework that does not value ‘low’ art, like comedy.

However, at another point, when discussing the serious points stand-ups can raise, he argues ‘comedy doesn’t need to make you laugh’, which might be considered an elitist, out-of touch viewpoint, even if it’s a natural extension of his belief that ‘Does it make you laugh?’  is a limited criterion through which to consider an art form.

I’d argue, instead, that eliciting laughter is the fundamental of comedy – like saying of music that ‘it has a tune’ – but the manner in which that is generated and executed is where the art and power lies.

Fox knows context is all-important in comedy, primarily the fragile trust between performer and audience that gags are in good faith. Gilbert Gottfried’s ‘too soon’ joke about 9/11 days after the tragedy, even to an audience of comedians, shows how easily that confidence can be broken.

All this insightful commentary serves as a build-up to the main event of the increasingly heightened clash between the socially liberal left and comedy’s ‘bad little boys’, as Fox dubs them, who ‘spend most of their sets complaining that audiences are too sensitive, too politically correct, too woke, not to like them. Ricky Gervais is their king, Joe Rogan their pope.’

Incidentally, Fox elsewhere uses the devastatingly dismissive line: ‘In 2011, HBO brought together three esteemed stand-ups and Ricky Gervais’. That was describing the discussion show Talking Funny, in which Louis CK likened Gervais’s understanding of the joke-writing process to his toddler daughter’s.

But the author’s best phrase sums up those on Gervais’s side of the culture wars in just three words: ‘Bigotry is hack.’

As an example, he cites Chappelle, who ‘wants to be seen as the, or at least a, GOAT. That is the reputation he has among his peers, again largely for his mastery of the live audience. But to younger comedians and younger, savvier comedy fans he is becoming a "relic",’ thanks largely to his material targetting trans people.

It is, Fox notes, impossible for a comedian who achieves arena-level status to write material as good as the stuff that got them there – but some try harder than others to keep their edge.

In another brilliantly astute observation, the author takes down the ‘bad little boys’ self-aggrandising stance of being ‘brave’ in their outspoken comedy. ‘"Fearless" is often used to describe comics unafraid of hurting people,’ he writes. ‘When it should apply to the comedians afraid of being hurt by people and persisting anyway.’

Fox is full of praise for comics putting their vulnerability on the line in such a way, and for those pushing the limits of what comedy is capable off, especially those like Bo Burnham who strip away the artifice of supposedly ‘authentic’ stand-up – when it is still, after all, a performance.

On the divisive question of whether specials such as Hannah Gadsby’s seismic Nanette qualifies as a comedy, he concludes: ‘The fact that they activate the state of play makes them comedies, but they then hold you there, instead of using play to generate laughter.’

While recognising their popularity, Instagram or TikTok comics can never achieve the same brilliance, Fox suggests as short videos do not ‘demand the attention necessary to blow someone’s mind with brilliance. It favours the quick hit of a person doing a cool trick It gives the person scrolling a dopamine rush.’

Such analysis may reflect the thoughts a dedicated comedy fan might already have had, but as with a stand-up bringing ‘aspects of the collective unconscious into the collective consciousness’, having the ideas crystallised in such a way, and so persuasively argued, makes them all the more cohesive and powerful.

Comedy Book therefore serves as both a definitive snapshot of the current state of the art (in America, at least) and a celebration of those thoughtful, passionate and creative comedians pushing it ever onwards, while offering pause for thought for the lazier, knee-jerk comics trying to ensure it doesn’t progress. At least, we can only hope it does.

• Comedy Book: How Comedy Conquered Culture–and the Magic That Makes It Work by Jesse David Fox is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is available from Amazon, priced £19.99 in hardback and £10.99 as a Kindle ebook.

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Published: 10 Jan 2024

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