Following Donald Trump’s election, a growing chorus of voices began to request—if not require—something more from cultural art forms. Say something meaningful. Use your voice to inform, dissent, disrupt. Comedy has always been a space where truth tellers can peel back the layers of this fucked up life and reveal something deeper, and nobody has been criticizing Trump more publicly and with more exuberance than comedians. That it might happen to strike an audience as funny is comedy’s gift to the world. Laughter could be a relief and a unifying force.
Mark Normand is edging in that direction, albeit quietly. In his new Comedy Central special, Amy Schumer Presents Mark Normand: Stop Being Yourself, he begins innocuously enough. Normand shares an extended bit about social anxiety that gets at the crux of his proclivity for drinking to excess (got to calm that pre-frontal cortex down somehow!), and has the potential to develop into more biting commentary about the woebegone nature of introverts in an increasingly public society. From there, he smoothly segues to navigating life as a single man in his early 30s following the end of an eight-year relationship. But it’s what he does towards the end of his hour that’s most interesting.
Under the guise of examining the foibles of PC culture in a delivery reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld minus the “What’s up with that?” catchphrase, Normand offers viewers a changing perspective: That of the white guy. If that sounds unnecessary at a time when diversity is the modus operandi of any good cultural form (and for good reason—adding necessary voices and perspectives to the blanket of the past helps expand people’s horizons), Normand is in a position to complicate the assumption. He hasn’t woven his political material into engaging stories like Kyle Kinane, but neither has he avoided politics altogether like John Mulaney. He uses his standard set-up/punchline, set-up/punchline to ask, “Why?” “It’s kind of a catch-22 because you get all the bad stuff,” he says about the overriding opinion concerning white men these days. “Everybody goes, ‘Ugh, straight white male. Shut up. You guys are the worst.’ But then you can’t complain either. You’re like, ‘Well shit, can I get something?’” He immediately catches himself, policing his own speech. “Well, that sounds bad, a white guy saying, ‘Can I get something?’ but you know what I mean,” he says, laughing at himself.
Normand is not here to defend white guys in all their continued patriarchal splendor, but to reinsert nuance into a conversation prone to generalities. “You go up and make fun of a certain group onstage and everybody chews you out and burns you at the stake, but then if you go up and make fun of white people, everybody goes, ‘Yeah, they do do that!’” he says with a note of chagrin. “Well, some of us do.” Normand’s stance sits somewhere between Dane Cook and Anthony Jeselnik; he does not want to get the audience on his side through bro-comedy, but he doesn’t want to alienate them by employing a more sinister tone. He falls in between those two polarities. “I think PC is good,” he says. “I’m all about progress. It’s just that I think certain people, it’s all becoming buzzwords instead of actually caring.” Normand points to college campuses and the increasingly kneejerk reaction he’s been getting in recent years. “The context is completely gone,” he explains. “College kids today are all out to lunch. I’ll be onstage, and I’ll be like, ‘So my black roommate…’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh jeez! Can you believe this!’ Well, he is my roommate and he is black, and you guys freaking out about just the mention of a race is way weirder than if I’d said anything bad, which I didn’t, and you’re profiling me because I’m a white guy. No one is thinking anymore. They’re just going with this Pavlovian outrage. There’s zero thought behind it. Listen to my fucking words. What they do is way more damaging because then they get on the blogs and they go, ‘Hey, this guy’s a racist!’ and I’m sitting at home with my black roommate going, ‘Can you believe this shit?’ and he’s like, ‘I know, right?’” At the end, Normand falls into a bit explaining the frustrating circumstances, his comedic inclination serving as buffer. His comedy emerges from the kind of wisecracking often shouldered by the socially anxious to keep opponents at bay.
“I just want there to be some kind of guideline, “ he admits, “like ‘Why can we make fun of this group but not that group?’” If the answer to that question seems obvious, like ‘progress dictates otherwise,’ that’s exactly what Normand wants to challenge. Normand, among other comics, argues that PC culture, in choosing never to speak about certain things or to immediately silence those that do say something anodyne, poses a new kind of problem equal to the old one it’s trying to solve. As an outlet prone to loosing the restrictions adhered to on an everyday basis, comedy becomes a place to explore why these things are happening and why it might be problematic. “The truth is the best stuff and when somebody gets offended, that’s when you know you’re on to something,” he says. “I’m not trying to poke the bear. If it’s truthful and it hurts, I still gotta do it because it’s truthful. But if it’s truthful and it doesn’t hurt, I’ll still say it because it’s truthful.”
If his comedy seems offensive not because of what he is saying but because of who is saying it, Normand seems poised to upend audience expectations, and report from the sidelines as white men experience a social and political sea change. Besides, he calls bullshit among those most vocal about PC subject matter. “All my friends who are the most progressive, they all live in a gated community with all white people. I think there’s a lot of that in life. A lot of people talk shit all day long, because they’re actually insecure or overcompensating or something like that,” he says. “Look at the homophobic guy that turns out to be gay. Bill Cosby, you know, America’s Dad is a fucking rapist. If you look at me, these comedians who go onstage and say horrible dirty things are actually the best people on earth.” Insert rimshot here.
Presents Mark Normand: Stop Being Yourself premieres on Comedy Central on May 12.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.