No Justice For Old Man

Is there anyone else who should address Jimmy Fallon's blackface controversy?

I am trying to figure out if there’s a common denominator between Jimmy Fallon wearing blackface on SNL in 2000—

and Jimmy Fallon wearing brownface on Late Night in 2012 (“I watched them darken his skin and thicken his eyebrows in the studio for this,” someone who worked there at the time told me)—

and Fred Armisen darkening his skin on SNL from 2008 to 2012—

and Darrell Hammond wearing blackface on SNL throughout the late 90s and early ‘00s—

and Will Ferrell wearing redface on SNL last year—

Is there any single individual who had a say in the writing and production of all these sketches?

Someone in some sort of, I don’t know, producer-type role?

Someone with some manner of, how do I put this, executive-type authority?

Someone who famously had to be publicly pressured into hiring black women a few years ago?

Someone who once played himself asking Oprah Winfrey to play Aunt Jemima in a cold open deleted from NBC’s website, though the rest of the episode remains?

Someone who had his show’s first black woman repertory player—a one-season performer who resented being cast as stereotypes—call him “Mister Lorne” in that same sketch?

Someone who in 2014 cut a sketch about the Ferguson protests?

Someone who last year reassured a new hire that they’d be able to wait out the controversy around his racist comments?

Someone who maybe owes the public some accountability too?

Is there anyone who fits that bill?


Images via NBC.

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On last week’s paid edition of this newsletter I discussed the dangers of comedy clubs reopening. I just made that post public, in case you would like some context for today’s post, which will go a little deeper into the thinking of two comics who returned to the road.

Those comics are Jeff Dye and Brad Williams, who last weekend headlined at Wiseguys in Salt Lake City and Bricktown Comedy Club in Oklahoma City, respectively. This week they went on Theo Von’s podcast This Past Weekend to chat about their experiences. The conversation was illuminating and disturbing. What it suggests is that the comics who initially return to live performance will be those least afraid of the coronavirus and those who least understand it. You will see shortly why this is incredibly frightening.

A bit about the clubs who booked them. Both are operating at 35% capacity: Dye says there were about 100 people at his shows, Williams says there were 100-125 at his. Both clubs are performing temperature checks on staff and customers, maintaining distance between tables, and seating guests only with their own parties. Wiseguys requires staff to wear masks and gloves, while Bricktown only mandates masks; neither requires customers to wear PPE. (Dye describes audiences members wearing masks as they entered and left the club, but taking them off during the show.) Both clubs disinfect high-touch surfaces like tables and chairs between shows, and Dye says Wiseguys disinfected microphones as well. Both comics complain about the low pay necessitated by reduced admission.

Otherwise they had a great time performing for audiences that seemed starved for a good time. “This weekend, dude, people were so generous,” Dye says. “One dude tipped our server like 200 bucks. All these people were gushing to me, like, oh my god, thank you. They were just so happy. I was crushing on throwaway lines, it was very generous.”

Neither comic was particularly concerned about the risks. For them it was all about getting back to getting laughs. “I wasn’t worried about the shows,” Williams says. “In terms of you look out at the audience and it sounds different because it’s at a third capacity or half capacity or whatever it is, my philosophy is: okay, or I could stay home and there’s no show. There’s no one getting laughs, there’s nothing.”

“I was more worried about the travel,” he continues. “I loved the shows. The audiences, much like you said, were great. They were so starved for content, they wanted to go out, they wanted to have fun. But traveling, that was weird, because you had to wear the mask the whole time… That’s six hours of wearing a mask. And they’re not serving food on the plane, so if it’s a long flight you’re like, okay, I gotta snack up before I get on.”

“I dealt with it pretty selfishly,” Dye says. “I’m not afraid, I wanna go tell jokes. I’m wearing the mask out of respect for others, but if you want to come hug me I don't give a shit. I don't care… The people that come to my shows obviously don't seem to care either. So if they get me sick or I get them sick, fuck ‘em. They came out. It's like, I’m not hurting gram-gram, she's at home. And I know that that's a selfish take, and I'm admitting that I'm selfish, because I just want to get back to comedy so bad. And I'm so tired of being at my house with my dog. I tried to do one of those virtual shows, had a great time, but it wasn’t the same… I needed it. I need my hotel rooms, I need to flirt with girls, I need to tell jokes. I needed some sort of semblance of what I’m used to.”

Williams and Von eagerly co-sign Dye’s swim-at-your-own-risk approach. “Yes, the safest thing would be to stay in your homes and throw a blanket over your head and never leave your house,” Williams says. “Yeah, that’s the safest thing. But there are ways to do these shows.” He applauds temperature checks and distancing measures, but doesn’t seem to mind that customers aren’t required to wear masks. When Dye mentions a patron who kept his mask on during the show, Von pokes fun: “How brave is that guy, though? Think about that, if in your head that's where you are fear-wise, and then you go to a place and you're like, I'm gonna rough it out! It's my wife's birthday!”

It’s an odd attitude toward masking—certainly not a cure-all, but still crucial to the preventing the spread—which no one at the table seems to take all that seriously. “Afterwards at the meet-and-greet, they’re like, hey, can we get a photo with you?” Dye recalls. “And I was like, you want a mask or no mask? And they were like, dude we don’t care about that, and they were all touching. It did get a little irresponsible.” Von asks if he started to get nervous at that point, and Dye says no. “If they get sick, they get sick. It’s on them.” (I reached out to Dye with several questions, including whether he’s concerned about asymptomatic transmission, and will update this post if he gets back.)

Dye and Williams stress that if people go out and act responsibly, everything will be fine. They also don’t seem to care if they or anyone else act irresponsibly. “I think you just gotta make your decision,” Dye says. “I would never judge anyone for wearing gloves out in public and doing the mask, I think that’s great. I think that’s awesome. I just, if you don’t want to do that, what’s that one guy, God? He gave us like, free will? And we love that about him? We love that he lets us do whatever, whatever the consequences are?”

“My parents are both like 75 and my dad’s immune-compromised,” Williams replies. “He should not be going out—”

“And if you’re gonna go hang out with him, you shouldn’t be,” Dye says.

“Exactly, I should go get tested,” Williams says. “If grandma's living with you at your house, then you have a different responsibility. So we’re not saying just everyone go out. But if you’re young, healthy, 30-year-old, 20-year-old, and you’re like, I wanna go just have a little bit of fun and be responsible, good.” They observe that comedians, with green rooms and stages to themselves, are probably the safest people in the club, although Williams did try to stay toward the back of the stage, so his spit would not fly into the audience.

It’s hard to tell whether their blithe attitudes are informed more by their individualist philosophies or just plain old ignorance about the virus. At one point Williams says he was reluctant to post about his shows on social media, fearing other comics would criticize him “for earning my goddamn living.” Dye says he’d welcome the conflict. “Go ahead, Nikki Glaser,” he riffs. “Talking about being—you’re such a hero for staying at home with your parents. Go ahead, come at me. Oh how heroic, you millionaire. You haven’t had sex for two months, get a life. Nikki, you do grosser things all the time, bragging about anal sex, you’re worried about a virus nobody’s ever seen. Shut up.”

Later he describes a joke from his set at Wiseguys. “Are we really that scared?” he asked the audience. “Even the people that are the most scared, who claim that they’re the most scared of this, they’re all at home going ooh did you watch Tiger King? and sending each other big black guy dick memes. Nobody's really that afraid. If this is the end of the world, no one seems to really be that scared.” In response, the audience cheered “We’re not afraid!”

Maybe the ignorance is itself informed by the individualism. About an hour into the podcast, Von asks what his guests think about places of worship reopening. “It's kind of like standup, man, you gotta go to that responsibly,” Dye says. “That’s one of my biggest things, and this might make some of the listeners annoyed. People don't take their own responsibility. So they'll smoke for 40 years and then go, isn't it sad I have cancer? It's like, no, dude. Yes, we love you, mom, but you don't get to smoke for 40—and they go, oh well I need disability because I'm a big fat lardo and I eat McDonald's 75 times in one day for the last 30 years.”

“No responsibility,” Von responds.

“They all want health care, but like… you don't even take health precautions,” Dye says. “That's the beauty of freedom, is that we get to do what we want. You don't get to do what you want and then be a victim.” Williams agrees, offering that if you’re a lion tamer and a lion bites your arm off, you can’t sue the circus. (Well...) Then he and Von conclude that the risk borne by comedians right now is just like the risk of brain damage in football. “It would be way safer if no one played professional football,” Williams says. “But these guys, it’s their choice.” (Well…)

The masks really come off when Williams, who has a four-month-old son at home, marvels at the couple who brought their baby on one of his flights. “I just kept thinking to myself, why does that baby have to fly right now?”

Dye responds:

So I would say, oh, maybe they should have drove, you know? Like, don't be on a crowded plane where we share air with other people. Maybe they should have drove. Rent a car drive to wherever this emergency destination is that you're taking this infant. Right? And then people would say, Oh, Jeff, what if they can't afford it? Well they should get a better job! They should have worked harder. Like even those things—they say, well some people can't—well then work hard!—just take your burden and bear it. If you're broke, get rich. If you're fat, you don't like it, lose weight. If you're fat and you're happy, great, flaunt it. Just do whatever is working for you—I mean, do better.

Maybe you think that’s a little harsh? Think again. Dye speaks from experience. He used to be poor. He lived in his car. Then he found a job “where morons can make money.” Now he’s a successful comic; the meritocracy is real. “The fact that I’m rich is ridiculous,” he says. “It makes me go, just figure it out.”

“There has to be some social recourse,” Von says. “There's no responsibility… we always just keep helping the lowest common denominator, which in America you can be.” He recalls traveling to India and seeing “handicapped people dragging themselves on the ground because they don’t have a wheelchair.” In America, “we don’t make people have to be better themselves, really. You know, it’s like we’ll just keep making it more comfortable. We don’t challenge, it doesn’t seem like we challenge.”

“Look at food,” Dye chimes in. “People will just eat for taste. All they care about is the mouth. Food is to fuel you. It's supposed to make your body operate at a high level. But we just, all we care about is the taste part.” He draws an extended metaphor in which someone puts Mountain Dew in his car instead of gas, ignoring the mechanic who warns him the engine will need constant repair. “That's what we do with our own bodies. We get one body in our entire life and we just put shit in it. And then once we get to 40 we realize we've got problems and we need pills and medications. It's like, yeah, stupid. You've been doing it to yourself.”

“And we get ‘em,” Von laments. “That's the thing, in the US we get 'em. I feel like—I wonder if we didn't have those things to help us, you know, if we didn't know that there's some bailout program that's gonna be there.… if we all went completely broke, we know there's probably a way we're gonna get housing somehow. and we're gonna probably be able to be able to get medicine… it doesn’t make us challenge ourselves.”

Dye agrees. “We all know that worst case scenario, you can go stay with your parents until you get back on your feet.”

If you’ve been wondering what type of comic would return to the road before the pandemic ends, you have your answer: the type is “idiots who don’t know shit or give a fuck.” As I wrote last week, it’s impossible to overstate how dangerous this is. These guys spent at least ten minutes of this podcast dressing up eugenics in the language of personal responsibility. They have no idea how class or poverty works, let alone the coronavirus. Williams at least recognizes some duty to the collective good—staying to the back of the stage, avoiding the elderly, declining to do meet-and-greets—but not enough to see the risk he puts himself, his family, and the entire country in by performing live comedy. If he thinks smokers with lung cancer do deserve healthcare, or that people with disabilities shouldn’t have to drag themselves across the ground, he doesn’t say so. Which makes it hard to imagine he cares all that much about the risk posed by 125 people gathering in a comedy club to eat, drink, and laugh for a couple hours.

Comedy clubs should not reopen. Live comedy is not important enough to endanger comics, audiences, service staff, and the communities surrounding them. So long as they do reopen, the circuit will self-select for comics who don’t understand or care about that danger. This weekend Dye is performing at the Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club in San Antonio. Williams will be at Wiseguys. After their shows last weekend, both received a flood of texts and calls from other comics—at least 40, Dye said—asking what it was like. “It’s the same,” Williams told his friends. “It’s just a few less people.”

If other comics follow their lead, we’re in for a very bad time.

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reopening

things are not looking up

THIS WEEK IN COMEDY

Comedy clubs: we’ve always known they’d someday kill hundreds or thousands of people. Now their reign of destruction has finally begun. Yesterday The Comic’s Comic reported on a slew of clubs that have reopened with their respective states: The Addison Improv in Dallas, Wiseguys’ three locations in Salt Lake City, The Comedy Club of Kansas City, Rick Bronson's House of Comedy in Phoenix, Bricktown Comedy Club in Oklahoma City. I will add the Improv’s other Texas locations, San Antonio and Houston, to that list. Comedy’s back, baby! Thank you Republican governors!!

Some measures these clubs are taking to keep people safe: reduced capacity, temperature checks, social distancing between customers (but not between customers and staff), hand sanitizer stations, frequent disinfecting of high-contact surfaces, single-use menus, contactless pay, et cetera, et cetera. Are patrons required to wear masks? No, but they can if they want. Rick Bronson’s goes so far as to “ask” people who are feeling unwell or exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 to please stay home. The Improv similarly requests that people in high-risk groups refrain from coming out; it’s working on a webcast option for them to enjoy instead.

Incidentally, did you know that at least 44% of coronavirus infections come from people without any symptoms? Or that the biggest outbreaks, other than in nursing homes, have occurred in enclosed spaces with poor air circulation and lots of people, even properly distanced people, talking, yelling, or singing? Did you read about the community choir practice in Washington where nobody shook hands, everybody kept a safe distance from each other, and one asymptomatic carrier infected almost everyone else there?

Here’s what one comedian told The Comic’s Comic about his show at the Addison Improv:

It was excellent! I’m driving home right now. I didn’t trust flying so I drove to the gig. Wiseguys followed all the required procedures- took temperatures of all staff and customers, all staff wearing masks, cleaned everything between shows, spaced audience apart and they only sat about 33% of the room. I think it made everyone feel safe. Each comic had their own microphone.

I think we are beginning to normalize some of this pandemic stuff. Seeing masks in the audience wasn’t that weird to me. One thing that hasn’t changed is laughter- it’s still contagious. It felt great to connect with a live audience again. Although I was incredibly rusty. They enjoyed hearing comedy about the pandemic- as opposed to the political/scary aspect of covid. It was so good to be there. I hope other clubs can start opening up in a similar cautious way.

We are beginning to normalize some of this pandemic stuff! That’s great. I love for a super contagious ill-understood incurable deadly virus to be so normal that I’m not even scared of catching it at one of the places where I’m most likely to catch it. I think it’s perfectly sensible for a club to make their staff wear masks but not the people who came for the express purpose of forcefully exhaling every 30 seconds or so. Laughter is the best medicine. Everybody deserves a chance to forget about the scary political aspects of the pandemic their elected officials are letting them die in. And now to drive several hundred miles to another city where even more people will exhale forcefully in my direction.

There is only one meaningful precaution a comedy club can take to protect its staff and patrons from infection: staying closed. Until we have mass testing and contact tracing, everything else is a half measure. Maybe club owners are telling themselves Well there’s always going to be some level of risk, but that’s not true: there’s no level of risk if you don’t let people into the place where the risk is. Maybe comics are telling themselves Well I deserve to make a living too, but that’s not true either. They don’t deserve to make a living from live comedy more than their audiences deserve to stay alive.

It’s impossible to overstate how dangerous this is. These are road clubs opening back up and road comics performing at them. If things carry on, pretty soon there’ll be a merry band of Covid vectors criss-crossing the country, bringing the virus to a new poorly-ventilated room each weekend. The joy and community of live performance aren’t worth the risk, especially when clubs can draw on their deep wells of talent to produce shows online. Surely they can make at least as much money from a ticketed Zoom show as they could from a quarter-capacity room. With the right marketing, they could probably make more.

If comics want clubs to exist on the other side of this, they’ll have to police each other vigilantly: there’s no Comedy Boss telling everyone what to do, other than the bosses opening up spots for whoever’s willing to take them. So long as the spots are there, and there’s no shame associated with taking them, people will. Right now the norm is “let people take their own risks.” It needs to be “let’s sacrifice our lifestyle for a while so we don’t kill anyone.” Otherwise we’ll soon find out how contagious laughter really is.

THIS WEEK IN TV

I enjoyed Solar Opposites, the new Hulu animated series from Rick and Morty creator Justin Roiland and writer/producer Mike McMahan. It’s… very similar to Rick and Morty, in that the main character is a narcissistic scientist (albeit an alien scientist), voiced by Roiland, who gets his (quasi-) family into a bunch of zany adventures. The humor and tone are near-identical, though it never quite achieves the emotional resonance Rick and Morty taps into at its best, and it perhaps leans a bit too hard on third act climaxes in which a high-concept sci-fi device spirals out of control and puts the entire city at risk. But if you’re into the first part of that sentence, then you probably won’t care too much about the other two. The show also has a really inventive subplot involving a society of miniaturized people kept in a sort of terrarium by two of the main characters. They get a standalone episode late in the season that’s probably the show’s best—its own Ricklantis Mixup, more or less.

THIS WEEK (/MONTH) IN THE INTERNET

–I loved this book review by Jenny Odell, which doubles as an essay about the weird lives of birds and birdwatchers:

My imagination is stretched every morning by the neighborhood crows that I befriended on my street in 2016, after learning in Ackerman’s previous bookThe Genius of Birds, that they recognize human faces. I’ve had four years to observe the behavior of one crow family. I’ve seen them groom one another, forage in the neighbor’s roof gutter, peck curiously at mushrooms, wipe their beaks on the power line, yawn, scold a hawk or cat (with different sounds for each), do barrel rolls when it’s windy, and sometimes follow me down the block, landing on various branches near my head. Lately they seem to enjoy my hiding a peanut for them under a pile of driftwood and pine cones, and they once moved a small rock from one side of my balcony to the other. Why they did this is … a deep mystery. The more I observe them, the less of a grasp I feel I have on them. Instead, they look more and more like willful individuals.

-Through Twitter I have become acquainted Jimmy Thomson, a Canadian journalist covering ecological issues and indigenous communities for The Narwhal. Last week he published a long, fascinating exposé about workplace abuse on deep-sea fishing vessels:

In 1996, Fisheries and Oceans Canada took the unprecedented step of closing the fishery for five months in the wake of years of over-harvesting. 

B.C.’s bottom trawl fishery involves dragging a net through the water column or along the seabed, harvesting a variety of fish that live near the bottom of the ocean, including Pacific cod, hake, rockfish and pollock. The fishery was only permitted to reopen once it was guaranteed an independent observer would be stationed as a watchdog on each and every boat.

Yet an imperfect system means observers — whose reports could ultimately result in a shut down of a boat or even the entire industry — are vulnerable to intimidation from ship skippers and crew members who at times exercise pressure on individuals to under-report their findings or look the other way.

[…]

Worldwide, at least half a dozen observers have gone missing under mysterious circumstances, and there are likely more, says Liz Mitchell, president of the Association for Professional Observers. At a 2013 conference in Chile, she says, she learned of three more disappearances that had occurred there.

“Everywhere they go, observers get harassed,” she says. “[Abusers] get away with it because most people don’t even know what an observer is.”

-Dylan Shearer, a historian and comedian in Chicago, wrote a great essay examining the structural reasons why so many comedians have dogshit politics:

Scenes, especially ones as developed as Chicago’s, have hierarchies. Some people, generally older white men, have more influence, both cultural and institutional, than others. If someone who has been doing shows at iO for the last twenty years likes you, they often have the power to put you on a team, give your indie team a prime spot, or any other number of ways of giving you a leg up in the comedy world. For a young improviser trying to make a name for themselves, pissing someone off like this could derail any plans of making it big. Just as quickly as someone can boost you, they can ice you out. Scenes other than Chicago’s have similar relationships.

The rise of social media has also made it harder to express political opinions without consequences. Becoming FB friends or Twitter mutuals with a gatekeeper in the scene, means watching what you post on those platforms. Expressing an opinion that piques the ire of a gatekeeper could lose you a shot at a Harold Team, after all. The owners of the various improv theaters also exert a lot of influence who gets to play and who doesn’t. They go to shows and parties and don’t stick solely to the business-side of the operation. Performers feel pressure to conform to more middle-of-the-isle views, than anything that might attack the interests of the theater owners. Say, higher taxes on the wealthy, paying actors, or employee unions.

THIS WEEK IN FEELINGS

Pandemic sucks! I miss my friends! I regret not resolving certain interpersonal conflicts before getting stuck in Boise! I can’t believe they’re going with Biden! If he picks Harris I’m gonna scream! If he picks Klobuchar I’m gonna yell! If he picks Abrams I’m gonna holler! How have none of the bad people died yet! It’s so stupid that all of the stupidest things keep happening! Who cares if Jerry Seinfeld’s a good joke writer, all his thoughts are boring and irrelevant! Jimmy Fallon should go to jail for his topical raps, to say nothing of his other crimes! Yes self-production and distribution is the future of comedy, but it’s still very funny that nobody bought Sam Morril or Mark Normand’s new specials! I don’t care for the Rory Scovel series even though I quite like Rory Scovel! If massive structural change is only possible with mass populist anger, and the only media encouraging mass populist anger is right wing media, then, well, fuck! AhhhhHHhhhhHHHH!!

REST IN PEACE DEPT.

POETRY DEPT.

Ada Limón, “The End of Poetry”:

Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower
and snowshoes, maple and seeds, samara and shoot,
enough chiaroscuro, enough of thus and prophecy
and the stoic farmer and faith and our father and tis
of thee, enough of bosom and bud, skin and god
not forgetting and star bodies and frozen birds,
enough of the will to go on and not go on or how
a certain light does a certain thing, enough
of the kneeling and the rising and the looking
inward and the looking up, enough of the gun,
the drama, and the acquaintance’s suicide, the long-lost
letter on the dresser, enough of the longing and
the ego and the obliteration of ego, enough
of the mother and the child and the father and the child
and enough of the pointing to the world, weary
and desperate, enough of the brutal and the border,
enough of can you see me, can you hear me, enough
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.

This Is Not A Practice Run

Joe Rogan and Elon Musk are dangerously wrong about the coronavirus.

I recently unlocked two paid editions of this newsletter, an essay about the future of late night and an essay about the future of improv. If you like that sort of thing, six bucks a month will get you a lot more:


In the 1960s NASA prepared for the moon landing with a series of incremental missions. Apollo 6 tested the launch vehicle. Apollo 7 tested the command module in earth orbit; Apollo 8 tested it in lunar orbit. Apollo 9 took the combined command module and lunar module on a test drive in earth orbit. Then Apollo 10 took them on a jaunt around the moon, ensuring everything would function during the landing mission itself. By the time Apollo 11 lifted off, every part of its journey had been carefully tested and retested. The rest, well, it’s history.

Practice, practice, practice. It’s important! We all do it, we all love it. Runners practice for the big race. Violinists rehearse for the big concerto. Fishermen, I can only assume, test their skills on smaller fish before graduating to the big ones. Without practice, you might get something wrong, maybe even disastrously wrong. Without practice, people might die.

Can a pandemic be a form of practice? Joe Rogan and Elon Musk say yes:

JOE ROGAN: Do you think that in a sense, the one good thing that we might get out of this is the realization that this is a potential reality? That we got lucky in the sense? I mean people that didn’t get lucky and died, of course I’m not disrespecting their death and their loss, but I’m saying overall as a culture, as a community, as a human race, as a community, this is not as bad as it could have been. This is a good dry run for us to appreciate that we need far more resources dedicated towards understanding these diseases, what to do in the case of pandemic, and much more money that goes to funding treatments and some preventative measures.

ELON MUSK: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s a good chance, it’s highly likely, I think, coming out of this that we will develop vaccines that we didn’t have before for coronaviruses, other viruses, and possibly cures for these. And our understanding of viruses of this nature has improved dramatically because of the attention that it’s received. So there’s definitely a lot of silver linings here.

ROGAN: Potentially, if we act correctly.

MUSK: Yeah. I think there will be a massive lining of here no matter what. Hopefully we can be more of a silver lining than less.

ROGAN: Yeah.

MUSK: So yeah, this is just kind of like a practice run for something that might in the future have a serious, like a really high mortality rate and we kind of got to go through this without it being something that kills vast numbers of young healthy people.

Until now I have understood practice to denote the act of developing and honing practices, generally in a low-stakes environment, such that one is able to competently employ them when the stakes are high, like in an audition or archery match or earthquake. What I have learned from Rogan and Musk, two intellectual heavyweights with millions of devoted worshipers, is that practice also refers to massive systems failures that result in thousands of daily deaths. How? Because they remind us that it is bad when systems fail, and we should try to make them not fail in the future, or else even more people will die, and I don’t just mean old and sick people!

Ah wait—I just remembered. That’s not practice. That’s “a lesson.” Practice is when you try to do a thing well. A lesson is what you learn when you do it poorly, for instance by not shutting down your state in time to mitigate community spread, establishing a mass testing and tracing apparatus, or giving businesses enough money to keep their employees on payroll.

It’s easy to get confused here. Lessons are the product of failure, which means they are often also the product of practice. But they are also the product of not practicing. We have to be clear about which type of lesson we’re dealing with, lest we mistake earnest efforts with catastrophic negligence. (See: Andrew Cuomo laundering his mismanagement of the pandemic’s epicenter into national acclaim.) Are thousands of people dying every day because authorities reacted slowly and incompletely? Or were they going to die sooner or later, the authorities overreached, and there’s no point in staying home or wearing a mask? You can see how easy it is to get confused, especially if you don’t think 80,000 deaths is really all that much.

In their defense, Rogan and Musk are deeply ignorant. They call this a “dry run” because they see nationwide shelter-in-place orders as an overcorrection that may, someday, be appropriate to a virus that kills enough people to merit such drastic measures. The pandemic is tragic, Rogan keeps saying, but it’s not as bad as experts told us it would be. Both insist that as awful as the deaths are, it’s mostly the old and infirm who are dying, which Musk describes explicitly as less tragic than the deaths of young and healthy people. He also harps on an erroneous talking point about hospitals inflating death counts for Medicare money—

MUSK: Because the list of symptoms that could be Covid at this point is like a mile long. So, it’s hard to, if you’re ill at all it’s like you could recover it. So, just to give people better information. Definitely diagnosed with Covid or had Covid like symptoms. We’re conflating those two so that it looks bigger than it is. Then if somebody dies, was Covid a primary cause of the death or not? I mean, if somebody has Covid, gets eaten by a shark, we find their arm, their arm has Covid, it’s going to get recorded as a Covid death.

ROGAN: Is that real?

MUSK: Basically.

ROGAN: Not that bad, but heart attacks, strokes—

MUSK: You get hit by a bus.

ROGAN: Cancer.

MUSK: If you get hit by a bus, go to the of the hospital and die, and they find that you have Covid, you will be recorded as a Covid death.

ROGAN: Why would they do that, though?

MUSK: Well right now, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I mean, it’s mostly paved with bad intentions, but there’s some good intentions… in there, too. And the stimulus bill that was intended to help with the hospitals that were being overwrought with Covid patients created an incentive to record something as Covid that is difficult to say no to, especially if your hospital’s going bankrupt for lack of other patients. So, the hospitals are in a bind right now. There’s a bunch of hospitals, they’re furloughing doctors, as you were mentioning. If your hospital’s half full, it’s hard to make ends meet. So now you’ve got like, “If I just check this box, I get $8,000. Put them on a ventilator for five minutes, I get $39,000 back. Or, I got to fire some doctors.” So, this is tough moral quandary. It’s like, what are you going to do? That’s the situation we have.

—a conspiracy theory that Rogan repeats in a subsequent episode with fellow coronavirus denier Brendan Schaub. It’s true hospitals receive additional funding for treating Covid-19 patients, but there is no evidence they are exaggerating deaths. Meanwhile there’s abundant evidence that the global death toll is far greater than the official count.

Rogan and Musk want to reassure us that things are not so bad, when in fact things are worse. They insist federal and local responses were too much, when in fact they were too little. This makes it difficult to take their “silver lining” very seriously. Sure, it’s good that we’ll be able to learn from what happened. It’s also going to be difficult to arrive at any consensus about what we’ve learned when people like Rogan and Musk are being lethally dishonest about what happened.

To make matters worse, they’re talking about the pandemic as if it’s almost over. In that interview with Schaub, Rogan says he wants to go to Utah and perform at comedy clubs that have already reopened, and they both scoff at the notion of audiences wearing masks. In truth the crisis is barely a few months old. People are going to die, daily, by the thousands, for quite a long time yet. What Rogan and Musk are doing is nothing short of conditioning their followers to accept those deaths. Don’t sweat it, they’re saying; you shouldn’t have to change your life to save someone else’s. But changing our lives is exactly the thing we have to practice now if we want to survive the next pandemic—and if we want to survive this one.

I acknowledge there is a grim realism to the idea that this is not as bad as it could have been. The virus could have been deadlier, yes. It could have been airborne, yes. Many millions more could be suffering, yes. This is the nature of things. They could all be worse. So I broke my leg; I could have broken both. So I broke both; I could have died in a volcano. This is not helpful information, especially if you are using it to argue for an end to leg-protection measures. To me it seems more like an excuse not to look in the other direction. So things could be worse; could they also be better? How? What can I do to improve them?

These are the questions people like Joe Rogan and Elon Musk should be asking. Instead they are complaining that not enough people are dying to warrant a fundamental rethinking of the way we live. I hope their followers have better sense than them.

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