Sanitation departments aren’t usually controversial. New York City’s sanitation department’s Twitter account is full of zero-waste tips, charity work, and employees rescuing kittens. What does it take to make a sanitation department sinister?
Experimental Condition #1: an advertisement asks viewers to recycle more readily, making a tongue-in-cheek request that they toss those scribble drawings whose loss your kid will “get over … eventually.” Possible Hypothesis #1: viewers interpret the ad as an attempt to cheekily draw attention to which kinds of materials are recyclable. Possible Hypothesis #2: Viewers interpret the ad as a denigration of the arts and a call to emotionally abuse your own children. If you are a particular type of Twitter user, you likely chose the latter—you killed comedy.
A comedian and their audience aren’t like friends in a bar; their relationship is entirely unique. Comedy relies on its own version of the suspension of disbelief—the audience accepts behavior within the confines of comedy that would be disavowed outside them. This acceptance only occurs through generosity: we gift the comedian the most generous interpretation of their intentions and, in return, a trust is born that allows us to laugh at the wrong thing in the safety of knowing that everyone knows it’s wrong. Without this generosity, we can have no comedy—merely antagonizers, the guilty-by-association, and the righteous. A world lacking the generosity at the core of comedy is a world in which we seek out the worst interpretation of all we encounter.
Comedy is not a science, it’s an art, and all art requires baring a sliver of one’s soul. The history of comedy commemorates those who were brave enough to withstand the vulnerability of telling an uncomfortable truth, kindly wrapped within the tameness of a joke. That joke is like a fawn—vulnerable, its fate dependent on what the world does with it. The fawn will die without care and protection, easily picked off by predators. In a time of commodified outrage, in which offense is capital that can be traded for praise and clicks, the forest of fawns that is comedy has become a hunting ground.
Trust requires vulnerability. When we read NYC’s recycling ad and attack the trust placed in the generosity of viewers, we become the wolf who hunts fawn; the allure of outrage makes us predators. This requires an intellectual sin—the choice to see malice where we could easily see otherwise. In our short-sighted hunger, we rob ourselves of the purpose for which comedy exists. We choose quick outrage and make ourselves cynics in a world we’re determined to see only the worst in.
Crusaders against comedy hide behind a mask of moral righteousness. Lines like comedy shouldn’t punch down are repeated ad nauseam, but comedy withers into propaganda when locked in a moral pillory. Within the space of true comedy, cultural rules can be mocked and social expectations skewered. The freedom to give offense is still freedom, something we take for granted more than ever, even as an American company, Netflix, has curtailed that freedom by blocking Hasan Minaj’s show from Saudi audiences, in acquiescence to their government. Imposing a set of moral rules on comedy in an attempt to harness it for ideological purposes is like washing clothes with fire—it misunderstands the very purpose of comedy and obliterates it in the process.
When comedy becomes a hunting ground for people in search of easy kills, it teaches us more about the hunters than the hunted. The very people who are quickest to perform their morality for their peers simultaneously undermine the morality of those peers. At the root of the choice to kill comedy is a fear that everyone besides us is moral seaweed, ebbing and flowing in any direction the waves of comedy sway them. The outrage at NYC’s recycling ad is not personal offense (naturally, we would never throw out our own child’s art), but terror at the possibility that the ad will inspire others—those droves of morally flaccid commoners—to turn towards their child’s artwork, glassy-eyed as they pile it all into a recycling bin, deaf to the tears and pleas of their forever traumatized would-have-been-Picasso six-year-old. Repainting the world as full of straw-people that are nothing but tabula-rasa-sleeper-cells, waiting for a dangerous joke to launch them into immoral havoc, uncovers both arrogance in believing one is uniquely morally superior and hunger for quick bites of outrage.
The desire to be the world’s moral mother, to protect the soft ears of an impressionable populace with our assumed monopoly on goodness is an escape route from impurity within the self. Comedy is the honest excavation of darkness within the safety of laughter—we laugh because we see the shadow of truth in that darkness and the laughter keeps the shadow tamed. Exposing our darkness in slivers is how we contain it: darkness grows fastest when it’s kept out of sight. Comedy crusaders refuse to see the shadow and resent the reminder of its existence. Like the Moral Majority, the Puritans, militant jihadists, the compulsion to cleanse the world of immorality betrays the refusal to acknowledge immorality as our own original sin, born within us all.
When we hunt comedy—as with any prey—we risk driving it to extinction. The desire to smother comedy under a moral cloak has always existed, but in a time and culture where the choke of true censorship has never been felt, we behave like spoiled children—oppression becomes novel when freedom is common. The rules we seek are utopian fantasies unique to each dreamer; the perfect balance between acceptable and unacceptable is doubly impossible—the impossibility of perfect regulations and the impossibility of perfect moral agreement among millions. Blinded by visions of utopia, we naively flirt with the kind of morally tinged censorship that grows into what ultimately forced comedian Bassem Youssef to flee his home in Egypt.
Comedians are the easiest of artists to kill. They do not hide behind poetry, imagery or instruments—they are loud and direct despite their vulnerability. Protect comedy. Believe there is enough good in others to know you are not uniquely moral. Question yourself if sanitation departments become controversial. Don’t hunt for malice in vulnerability. Don’t hunt fawn.