“Everything has become fucking absolutes,” Bill Burr declares on his latest special, Paper Tiger. In that particular instance, he was referring to the die-hard “patriots” opposed to Colin Kaepernick’s police brutality protest and, later on, the #MeToo movement. During his hour on the Royal Albert Hall stage, Burr attempts to find the gray in both situations, but en route shows the absolutes he lives by—absolutes that, coincidentally, keep him from being relevant. Netflix released Paper Tiger shortly after Dave Chappelle’s doggedly controversial special, Sticks and Stones, and the parallels are difficult to overlook. Over a total of roughly two hours, both comedy greats manage to get in some genuine laughs, but ultimately stumble when trying to discuss the social mores of 2019.
Burr starts off with a trial-by-fire, using the first two minutes to portray PC culture as whiny and then starting in on jokes using transgender people as a punchline. Later on, he manages to make valid points about white women benefiting from many of the same privileges as their male counterparts, but on the way reveals one of his own absolutes: women are a joke. Women are the punchline. Nothing is funnier than doing his stilted high voice and declaring that “If you have a dick and balls, we don’t want to hear it!” Feminists are stupid and rape accounts can be as close to fiction as Star Wars (this perspective is especially disappointing considering the candor with which he explores his own sexual assault). Even his takedown of male feminists—aptly pointing out that many dudes identify as such to a) get into women’s pants or b) deflect from their own past wrongdoing—falters when he reveals the machismo rendering Burr a veritable fossil. To him, male feminists don’t just have questionable motives, but are also missing their manhood. It’s a concept pulled from the most trite, testosterone-overdosed set in a forgettable comedy club.
On the other hand, Burr kills when talking about his marriage, his temper and even robot sex (yes, it will likely destroy humankind). Funnily enough, though, one of the tales from Burr’s childhood reveals that his absolutes run deep. When speaking about the origins of his temper, he recounts how his father gave him a doll for Christmas as a punishment and he burst into tears. That’s the kind of thing that began to stoke his rage, a traditionally feminine toy. And sure, he’s a comedian, so it’s possibly an invented vignette, but the fact that it’s the sort of event he could see as igniting an ongoing temper reveals a lot.
Then we have Chappelle. He doesn’t even try to find the nuance in contemporary issues, instead proclaiming that he doesn’t believe Michael Jackson raped either of the men featured in Finding Neverland and joking that if he were a pedophile, he’d have gone after Macaulay Culkin. He makes a joke about transgender being akin to a Chinese man born in a black man’s body (absurd as it is, Rachel Dolezal actually tried to pull this bullshit). It’s not funny, just stomach-turning and ill-conceived. As Paste comedy editor Garrett Martin (no relation) notes, much of Chappelle’s criticism of sexual assault survivors, among other subjects, comes from his own sensitivity. That’s his absolute: he is famous, therefore he makes the rules (or at least, the rules don’t apply to him). We’re making his famous friends depart from comedy for, oh, maybe a year, tops? He’ll cry foul. It’s some out-of-touch shit.
So how did they both miss the mark so thoroughly? Both comedians have realized that they do not understand certain social norms in 2019, some of which are questionable but undeniably offer an improvement on the past. Their solution? Not probing these new parameters and seeing how they themselves fit into this slightly shifted societal makeup, but instead finding the lowest common denominator way to mock the unfamiliar. When you are used to being in a position of power, the idea of being vulnerable—even the slightest bit, and absolutely nothing compared to their targets—makes lashing out seem like the best way to remain at the top of the totem pole. It’s just weakness, reminiscent of that kid who bullies because he so fears being the subject of another’s torment.
At the end of the day, the question isn’t just “Is it funny?” (for Burr, sometimes; for Chappelle, less so), but “Why?” The “why” goes beyond “because it’s funny.” Tell a fucking knock-knock joke, whatever; it’s arbitrary as long as it’s funny. But why is that funny? Why do you want to laugh at those who are powerless? The intent of comedy goes beyond making people laugh, but also commenting on society. It’s 2019; god knows there’s plenty to poke and prod at with our funny bones. The “why” is answered simply because Burr, Chappelle and other middle-aged comics like them can mock these groups—sexual assault survivors, minorities, trans people, the list goes on—and doing so has long been an easy laugh. However, audiences these days are less receptive to “punching down” than in the past, and this shifting preference has likewise become another subject for mockery. That cheap, cruel laugh is gone, and comedians have no recourse other than complaining about changing social standards in entertainment.
If you’re talented enough (which both these men are), then you can make almost anything funny. Comedians have long gone after the offensive, the sensitive, whatever subject matter will touch an exposed nerve. Shock value does not equate comic genius, though. How you approach these subjects matters, and if you forget that you might become just as outdated as some of these hack jokes.
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.