A few weeks ago comedian Brodie Reed tweeted the following:
myk prefers interdependence to eternal war @mykolaPlease quote this tweet with a thing that everyone in your field knows and nobody in your industry talks about because it would lead to general chaos.
To my eye this was an uncontroversial if ill-acknowledged assertion true of most cultural institutions, and one borne out by recent data. But naturally it triggered a bunch of snowflake comics:
As pile-ons go, this was pretty tame. Still, it struck me how immediate the resistance was—how predictable; how obtuse—and I thought of it as I listened to the latest episode of the Comedy Cellar's podcast. Noam Dworman, the Cellar's owner, and comic Dan Naturman hosted author Meghan Daum to discuss her new book about the culture wars. Early in the episode (around nine minutes), Dworman launches into a complaint about the New York Times' 1619 Project. He recently read a historian's critique of the project, he said, and was appalled by Nikole Hannah-Jones' dismissive response to it on Twitter. (Dworman said the critique was by historian Gordon Wood, but Hannah-Jones' tweet was in response to James McPherson's critique in the same publication.) That response was, "LOL. Right, because white historians have produced truly objective history." Here's what Dworman had to say in return:
You see this over and over again. The idea now is that you can dismiss anybody's argument based on the color of the skin that it comes out of. And you don't even have to be embarrassed... What I find astounding about where this has gone is that once you start criticizing people, dismissing people for the color of their skin, or attributing characteristics based on the color of their skin… you have two possible realities. One could be, white people actually do have these qualities based on the color of their skin, but no other group does have characteristics we can comment. Or, you have your characteristics, therefore I must have my characteristics. And if I can talk about yours, then logically you can talk about mine. And that's just simple logic, right? My seven year old daughter could understand that logic.
Daum responds by explaining the notions of intersectionality and punching up/down. She suggests that in the contemporary discourse people think it's acceptable to make fun of white people because that counts as punching up; and women think it's acceptable to make fun of men for the same reason. She finds all of this objectionable because it assumes that the target of the punching "has power that they may or may not have." She says she finds the notion of toxic masculinity to be similarly offensive because anyone complaining about it is just "handing [men] power that they don't really have." Dworman jumps in to resume complaining about the 1619 Project, specifically Hannah-Jones' explicit framing of the endeavor as a subjective telling of history (because no telling of history is objective, as she said on Twitter, but which Dworman elides). Quote:
We have all these lessons that we've learned in science about bias and that's why we have double blind experiments… 'cause we know that the closer you are to something, the less likely [sic] your judgment is. And now we reverse it to say "No no no, we only want to hear from the people who might be so emotionally close to this that they have no objectivity." And that people who might be disinterested, their opinions are worthless. But it makes no sense. And intersectionality is just racism. Yes, there is a different effect when you punch up, it's hard to hurt—you can punch up at Michael Bloomberg all you want and it doesn't affect him. But that doesn't change the fact that what you might be saying about his whiteness is foul, and immoral, and anti-intellectual, and wrong… Just because I can do this, because it won't hurt you, doesn't mean I should give myself license to do it, because it's still wrong. Martin Luther King didn't give himself license to do that.
There's a lot to unpack here, but when you unpack nonsense you just end up with more nonsense. The important thing is that Dworman evidently has no idea what racism is. This becomes clearer later in the episode (around 55 minutes), when he gripes about his daughter coming home from school with some insidious liberal notions in her head:
My daughter in first grade came home—my wife is Indian—so my daughter comes home, says, "Dad?" And she had never even had any concept of color. She says, "Daddy, you're white, right?" I'm like, "Yeah." She goes, "Do you treat people badly?" I'm like, "No honey, I don't—did you ever see Daddy treat anyone badly?" She says, "Well, did you used to? 'Cause we learned at school that white people used to treat people badly." So they're getting this stuff—
Daum interjects, disapprovingly, that these days they're even teaching the 1619 Project in schools. Dworman huffs that his daughter also recently asked him if it's true Donald Trump wants to build a wall to keep immigrants out and make Mexico pay for it. To Dworman these anecdotes are evidence that his daughter's teacher is trying to "inculcate" her with liberal ideology she is not yet able to regard critically. Naturman points out that Dworman's not being totally fair: Trump did say those things. But:
NATURMAN: She is wrong, by the way, about white people used to… insofar as [the teacher] didn't say, "People treat each other badly." By singling out white people, she was wrong. She was not wrong about Trump wanting to build a wall.
DWORMAN: No, she was right, white people used to treat black people badly.
NATURMAN: By saying white people used to treat people badly, it is a lie by omission. People have been treating people badly for centuries, of all races, colors and creeds… if white people were the only people in history that did that, she might have a point.
DWORMAN: They're trying to impose a certain worldview onto my daughter. I'm a very political guy, I never discuss politics at home because I understand how powerful my words can be to her. And I want her to think for herself. I don't want to start brainwashing her. However, I became so nervous about this trickle-down intersectionality that I decided I wanted to—I do want to brainwash them about race and the evil of racism.
Then he asks if Daum thinks it's okay for him read his kids books like Tom Sawyer and say the n-word when it appears.
This is all very funny because Dworman's daughter indeed came home from school that day with a facile, sanitized understanding of racism as white people being mean to people of color. But apparently this is what Dworman—a middle-aged man—literally thinks racism is, so he got upset that her teacher exposed her to a concept her young brain wasn’t ready for. And because her teacher centered the evils of white people, he sees the whole lesson as somehow an example of woke culture gone too far. They're teaching children about white supremacy? Why, that's not history, it's politics. It's trickle-down intersectionality. The man thinks he can teach his first-grader about race better than her history teacher, but his understanding of race is barely a first-grader's: it's closer to that of a first-grader who spends recess mainlining Ben Shapiro and Sam Harris, whose podcasts Naturman and Dworman respectively extol later in the episode. Also in this episode: Dworman's strident defenses of Louis CK (because he asked Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov for consent and never blocked the door) and Brett Kavanaugh (because Christine Blasey Ford's friend was skeptical of her story); his refutation of the axiom that rape is about power, not sex ("As a man, I understand being overcome with lust. And yeah, I could see if I was some kind of sociopath, I’d be like, well I’m just gonna take what I want. That wouldn’t be about power, that would be about taking sex. Now, maybe some guys do it for power."); and his lamentation that whereas in the past it was only unacceptable for men to coerce women into sex, society has gotten so puritanical that these days it's even off-limits for male bosses to date female employees.
I wish Dworman were a comedian and I could simply write off all these impassioned arguments as just jokes. Alas he is a businessman who inherited the Cellar from his father and we have no choice but to assume his ramblings in fact reflect his beliefs.
One thing you learn very quickly writing about show business is that the suits really are as stupid as they’re made out to be. The whole industry is a confidence game run at every level by dumb, incurious, boring assholes so dazzled by the improbability of their success that they can only apprehend it as proof of their own goodness and intelligence. More likely they are lucky and persistent; more likely they are lucky and mad. Noam Dworman is obviously not the only comedy club owner who thinks "racism" means "individual actors acting racistly" rather than "a web of socially and politically entrenched structures that enforce and reproduce racial inequalities irrespective of whether I myself have used the n-word." If he were, club comedy would not be so overwhelmingly white and male and straight and cis and able-bodied, because gatekeepers would understand that they live in an unequal world and cannot wait for equality to passively materialize around them. But they don't get it; they don't care to get it; they see themselves as lights of reason in a world sliding backwards into chaos. In reality they are desperately clinging to the fading relevance they were born into and have spent their careers convincing themselves they deserve. I think deep down they know they don’t, and they live in fear of this knowledge, and this fear is what makes them short-circuit anytime their worldview comes under threat: you unfunny hack, don't you know comedy is a meritocracy and good jokes are all it takes to succeed and you're only complaining about the system because you haven't succeeded within it and how can it be racist when I know all these black comics and equality means everyone of every race gets made fun of equally and if you think punching down is a real thing then you're admitting you think white people are superior, aha, if you think I'm wrong then why won't you come on my podcast and debate me?
It's easy to forget that in addition to saying bonkers shit online, these people also have real power in the world. I generally don't go to clubs or follow club comics. Few people in my social circles do either. (I did go to the Cellar a few weeks ago, and as I grabbed a drink at the bar—this is true—I overheard someone at the famed Comic's Table complaining about my tweets. Timing!) The comics I know and follow spend their nights performing in bars and bookstores and backyards and theaters. Every so often news from the club world bleeds into ours and someone says, "Oh right—that all exists right next to us." You don't see it if you don't look, and there's rarely any reason to look. But like any entrenched structure it's there all the same, visibly and invisibly exercising its influence on the culture. To state the obvious: clubs, like improv theaters, form a pipeline. Comics who succeed within them go on to write for SNL and Fallon and make sitcoms and specials. They cultivate national audiences by touring and podcasting. They perform, if they're lucky, the social function of humor, which is to construct social groups through assimilation and alienation. Jokes can be many things, but one is a means of assuring people their beliefs are good and right. The story of comedy in the 2010s, like so much else in the 2010s, is the story of fandoms consolidating around those assurances into raving hordes willing to do anything for the people who provide them. See: Dave Chappelle's transphobic jokes. See: podcasts it is simply too perilous for me to identify by name. See: what happens when someone, just hypothetically speaking, loses a high-profile job for saying racist and homophobic slurs.
This is why it matters, unfortunately, that Noam Dworman is a moron. Structural inequality reproduces itself in part through cultural institutions like comedy clubs. Fighting inequality requires us to root it out of those institutions, which is impossible if the people running them have no idea how inequality works. They may say their clubs are neutral platforms; they may say they have no values other than giving audiences what they want. This ignores both the embedded nature of inequality—the invisible hand of the market is white and male—and the fact that every booking decision is a value statement. You needn't look very far to see that Dworman's particular value set is not the exception but the rule. Last year an unrepentant Louis CK returned from his brief hiatus to venues like Zanies and Yuk Yuk's and the Cellar; now he's touring the world with a rotating cast of Cellar comics like Joe List, Kevin Brennan, and Keith Robinson as his openers. TJ Miller has been performing steadily since he was accused of sexual assault thanks to clubs that don't believe or care about the accusations. Jeremy Piven responded to the assault allegations against him by rebranding as a club comic; he has a spot at the Hollywood Laugh Factory tomorrow. Jeff Ross parlayed his talent for tepid insults not only into a steady touring career, but also an apparently standing invite to make racist, xenophobic and pro-cop propaganda for Comedy Central. The Stand gives a home to comics like Aaron Berg and the Legion of Skanks, who regularly traffic in racism and violent misogyny. Chris Hardwick's current tour includes the Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia, the Tacoma Comedy Club, and the Columbus Funny Bone. Every one of these bookings could have gone to underrepresented artists, or even to well-represented artists who haven’t, you know, hurt people. It takes an affirmative decision by a human being to give them instead to accused predators, admitted predators, and proud bigots.
We are in a period of intense organizing around racial equality, gender equality, and sexual violence. (These are obviously all interconnected but I like to say three things at a time.) In Hollywood we have seen this reflected in Time’s Up, #PayUpHollywood and the current Writer's Guild action against talent agencies, among other efforts. The movement has not yet reached the American standup world in any comparable way. I suspect this is in part due to the form's individuated nature—it's difficult to organize when everyone is a freelancer—and in part because, as I argued recently, the comedy boom has bifurcated standup: the people in spaces that most need reform don't give a shit, and the people who give a shit created their own spaces. Much as improv theaters self-select for workers who can afford not to care about getting paid, comedy clubs self-select for workers who don't care if their bosses hire Louis CK, program majority-white and male lineups, or go on podcasts and say that rape isn't about power, it's about taking sex (!!). The rot, it turns out… is structural.
I don’t know what it will take to change any of this. Or if it can be changed. I think often about that episode a couple years ago when the New Yorker Festival booked Steve Bannon. A group of other panelists, including comics Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, John Mulaney, and Patton Oswalt, swiftly threatened to drop out if Bannon was not dropped first. Their demand was met within hours. My feeling is that any structural reform in comedy would require similar coordination by headliner-level comics threatening to steer clear of clubs that don’t uphold certain standards of conduct. Obviously there are plenty of compassionate, progressive headliners who give a shit about equality, but it also seems increasingly clear that clubs can get by without them. The New Yorker has liberal cred to maintain and a liberal audience to serve. The Stand does not.
Maybe that’s underestimating the power of professional thinkers to change the way people think. And the capacity of dumb cowards to buckle under public pressure. It’s certainly tempting to think that if we just continue building a healthier and more equitable ecosystem outside comedy clubs, they might eventually regress so far into the past that they stay there. But that wouldn’t be right. These places matter. What they put into the world affects it. We can’t just avert our gaze. Any working comedian who cares about the art form—who wants it to prosper and evolve, to grow more inclusive and more daring—owes it to their colleagues and audiences to call out the rot at its core. Perhaps they can start with the Comedy Cellar.
Header image via Comedy Central.
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