In Praise of Comedians Who Don’t Buy Into the PC Panic

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Comedian and filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait is currently hard at work promoting Call Me Lucky, his new (excellent) documentary about fellow comedian and activist Barry Crimmins. Goldthwait and Crimmins are guests on today’s episode of WTF with Marc Maron; Salon just published a solo interview with Goldthwait. Unsurprisingly, a leftist publication asked a performer about his feelings on so-called “political correctness.” Surprisingly, the results were… not cringeworthy!

When asked to talk about “the current idea that ‘politically correct’ culture is ruining comedy,” an idea that’s been vocally espoused on the site (and in critiques of the site) before, Goldthwait offered the following answer:

I don’t agree with that at all. I think people should be able to talk about whatever they want onstage, but they shouldn’t be surprised when other people have opinions about what they are saying. I’ve always said what I’ve wanted to say onstage, and I’ve heard repercussions from disgruntled people. People talk about political correctness as if they are being oppressed. I don’t think there should be censorship. But people shouldn’t be surprised when folks don’t swallow everything you say.

The quote doesn’t make for as compelling rage-bait as, say, Jerry Seinfeld’s odd crusade against society’s evolving sensibilities, and the interview subsequently hasn’t generated much conversation. (To be fair, Goldthwait also didn’t create one of the most popular sitcoms in television history.) Goldthwait’s comments are, however, are a reassuring reminder that just as a horde of sentient Twitter accounts isn’t kicking down Trevor Noah’s greenroom door anytime soon, neither are all comedians reflexively dismissive of what the increasing prominence of social media and identity politics have done to their craft.

Whether it’s Seinfeld’s instantly notorious Seth Meyers appearance, Patton Oswalt’s lengthy Twitter sermons on the dangers of social justice-speak, or Amy Schumer’s initial, over-defensive response to her inevitable backlash, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests comedy is rapidly polarizing into embattled performers circling their wagons and the Internet personalities leading the charge against them. Take the recent mini-revolt against online darling Jon Stewart following Wyatt Cenac’s own WTF interview, in which the former correspondent described an argument with Stewart over an impersonation of Herman Cain; Stewart, Cenac’s boss, eventually told him to “fuck off,” a phrase that instantly became the interview’s takeaway. (The podcast includes Cenac’s other reflections on his background and Daily Show experience as a whole, and is available here.)

It’s worth remembering, however, that there are plenty of performers like Goldthwait who understand the difference between censorship and a negative reaction from the public. Many even mine that understanding for comedic value; Andy Kindler’s annual State of the Comedy Industry address, delivered last month at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival, took aim at Seinfeld. Here’s the money quote from Kindler’s pre-show interview with New York Times comedy columnist Jason Zinoman:

“I love the idea that they don’t know what racism is, but he does because he grew up in … ,” Mr. Kindler stopped, pausing for dramatic effect, “Massapequa, that hotbed of racial unrest.” Then he shifted from a wry tone to that of a lawyer laying out the facts of the case: “Massapequa is 1.7 percent black. The median income is $100,000 a year. The first black person Jerry met was George Wallace,” the comic.

And in scripted comedy, there are shrewd bits like the running joke in Another Period‘s second episode on “ravish culture,” which took equal aim at both rape culture itself (“Men can’t be ravished!”) and the discourse surrounding it (“Some people feel that ravishing is not a topic to be made light of”). The episode, co-written by creators and stars Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome, is as much a nuanced parody of contemporary social norms as it is an excuse for silly historical references to “lithographs” and “etchings” — which is exactly as it should be.

Easy as it is to either throw up one’s hands at a refusal to evolve — or in Kindler’s words, “Why is the gay French king bit that important to you?!” — or start classifying art as Totally Good or Very Bad, comedy is proving as capable as it’s ever been of producing insightful, interesting, and above all, funny material. Occasional firestorms be damned.