Jay Jurden made the very good point in Vulture yesterday that one of the greatest frustrations of this Darren Knight affair is that even in failure he has drawn attention away from all the other, greater talents in Variety’s “Comics to Watch” showcase at Just For Laughs last week. So, um, I will try to be brief as I make a few observations on the mess.
Or really they’re just a bit of context. Last year the sociologist Michael P. Jeffries published Behind the Laughter: Inequality and Community in Comedy, an illuminating work of research into the lives and struggles of comedians. He interviewed more than 60 writers, comics and club owners—including names you’ll recognize, like Eliza Skinner and Hasan Minhaj, and names you won’t—to paint a detailed portrait of the industry’s structural inequalities, how comics adapt to them and what can be done to address them. One of the most illuminating chapters spells out in stark detail the extra labor, emotional and literal, required of comics from marginalized groups.
I was reminded of this chapter when I read that Knight, in his catastrophic JFL set, said, “Comedy shouldn’t be about sexism or race, because that’s not what people want to hear.” (Accounts vary on whether he said “sexism” or “sexuality”; for the purposes of this article I think it’s safe to assume both describe his beliefs.) He’s not alone in this opinion, which presumes not only that comedy audiences are white, cisgender, male and straight, but also that they are uninterested in the stories of people who aren’t. In a 2014 Buzzfeed interview, Jerry Seinfeld got upset when he was asked why most Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee guests are white men: “People think it’s the census or something? This has got to represent the actual pie chart of America? Who cares? Funny is the world that I live in. You’re funny? I’m interested. You’re not funny? I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that.” This opinion is a privilege, of course, that Seinfeld and Knight enjoy because they were able to come up in comedy without thinking about race, gender or sexuality. Others do not have this privilege, largely because audiences in fact do want to hear them talk about it.
Drawing on a range of interviews, Jeffries details as wide a range of ways comics are expected to perform race and gender, both onstage and off. Sometimes these expectations are made very explicit. In one section, the writer and performer Ali Barthwell describes an improv class where she “played the mother of a pregnant teen was disappointed with her daughter for not planning the pregnancy.” When the scene ended, her instructor told her she had played the character “too rational, smart and calm,” whereas he would have preferred to see her play “a big momma welfare queen.” Similarly, the improv performer Patrick Rowland recalls entering a scene with a British accent, to which his scene partner responded that there aren’t any black people in London. “(A), that’s wrong,” Rowland says, “But (B), who says I was playing a black person? I’m playing a character. So that irks me. And sometimes, although it’s crazy, it’ll get the most laughs if I play a stereotypical black person.” Because improv’s golden rule requires that performers support their scene partners’ choices—lest they drag down the scene and tank their own credibility as an improviser—comics of marginalized identities often find themselves pressured to “yes, and” their own marginalization.
These dynamics play out in stand-up, too, even if they are usually less explicit. Watch a handful of late night sets (or the first installment of Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup) and you will notice that comics often open a set by acknowledging whatever is “other” about them. As Hasan Minhaj tells Jeffries, “there’s an initial expectation” at the start of an act, “and within three seconds what comes out of your mouth should probably match up with what they think.” Jacqueline Novak goes a little further, explaining that one cannot get to the meat of one’s set without first acknowledging one’s “personal status quo. And, I think however you have to tell them, you feel the need to acknowledge your race, sex, your physical size.” It would be easy to write this off as simply a natural way to earn an audience’s trust right off the bat—you don’t need much setup to joke about your physical appearance—but the fact remains that the performer-audience relationship is dictated by white, cis-hetero-patriarchal norms.
For comics who are not buoyed by those norms, this imposes a constant need to anticipate the audience’s expectations. Even when those expectations are not necessarily sexist or racist, there are nonetheless patriarchal and/or racialized forces at play. Citing an interview with Myq Kaplan, for instance, Jeffries notes the long tradition in black comedy of highly physical performance. While he suggests “it is too simple to say that black physicality is a racist stereotype created by white people to keep black comics in their place,” the very fact that black audiences have different expectations of black performers than do white audiences means that black performers must accommodate those differences. Several of Jeffries’ interview subjects describe the need to code-switch—to adopt different stage personae and material for different rooms, effectively doing twice the work that white comics do. Here’s Veep writer Alexis Wilkinson, who explains why the pressure to code-switch led her away from live performance:
When I did a black audience, I definitely felt like I need[ed] to be more physical… There’s a busy physicality of it, and even a different rhythm of presenting jokes. I felt like these are things that are going to get a black audience on my side. Where, with a white audience, those sorts of things would probably be more alienating than anything. You know, they just got done seeing five white guys walking down the stage rambling. And I get up there, and, like, it’s going to look like a coon show is what it’s going to look like. So I’m like, “All right. Let me not do that.” I don’t know if I’m willing to play the game. I know I would need to play to be successful, and if it means that much to me I’d much rather leave my performance and my appearance and everything out of it, and just put the jokes on paper.
Jeffries stresses that Wilkinson is not making a value judgment about black comedic traditions when she tones down the physicality in her performances. “Her decision is both a practical move to win over the audience and a simple matter of dignity,” he writes. “Like all black comics who perform for white audiences, [Wilkinson] is keenly aware of the way she is perceived, and she endeavors to avoid racist stereotypes even though they are the audience’s fault, not hers.”
The need to anticipate and address an audience’s prejudices is, not shockingly, intersectional. Jeffries goes into equal depth on the pressures felt by women in comedy: the assumption that women are not as funny as men, the need to be constantly aware of one’s gender in majority-male lineups and/or majority-male rooms, the need to write jokes accounting for one’s gender and appearance, the ways “objectification continues offstage when they are taken less seriously by potential business partners.” Comics like Darren Knight and Jerry Seinfeld have never felt these pressures. For those who do, they are inescapable.
And they shape a comic from their very first open mic. As Jeffries notes, there are slightly more than zero comedy clubs that cater to non-white audiences, which means comics of color have few opportunities to develop their acts for audiences of color—that is, to develop their acts free from the expectations of white audiences. And as Wilkinson explained, even black comics who play in black clubs find that they still have to develop separate acts for white audiences, effectively doing twice the work of white comics. This dynamic affects gay comics as well—here’s Matteo Lane on code-switching (bracketed phrases are Jeffries’):
I’m gay, but I rarely do gay shows. And I’ve talked about this with a lot of other comics, with a couple of black comics. It’s the same thing. They’re like, “I don’t want to just do urban rooms. Because how am I going to grow if I’m only talking to my minority?” I am the same way. It’s, like, I have jokes where I talk about being gay, but I’m not like some of these gay comics. Like [in exaggerated, effeminate voice], “Hey, girrrl!” You know, no one’s going to relate to this unless they’re gay.
Improv and sketch are possibly even more hostile environments for nonwhite comics, not only because “the cultural norms of sketch and improv training and performance are established by white men with white audiences in mind,” as Jeffries writes, but because the high cost of entry weeds out comics who don’t have the money to pay for it (and then keep paying for it). Especially in expensive cities like New York and Los Angeles, this barrier disproportionately affects people of color. And while Jeffries doesn’t offer comparable gender-based demographic data, I think we can reasonably venture that improv and sketch audiences, like improv and sketch lineups, are also largely male—it is a good rule that audiences tend to reflect who is onstage—meaning these burdens are borne more acutely by women in both forms. This is one of many reasons it is important for comedy venues to pay their performers—not only to compensate them for their labor (visible and invisible), but to make a career in comedy more viable and more accessible for more people.
There just isn’t any way around it: The comedy industry is defined, at every level but especially at the ground floor, by racism, sexism and cis-heteronormativity. So in one sense it’s rich of Knight to say that comics shouldn’t talk about race or sexuality, because these forces more or less require it of comics who do. And as Jurden points out in that Vulture piece, it’s a particularly vile suggestion coming from someone whose whole schtick is “rooted in a queer, female, and black narrative.” He is essentially reprimanding comics for reacting to structural inequalities at the same time that he appropriates a reaction to structural inequalities.
But obviously the very suggestion is absurd on its face. Comedians should tell their stories; we should listen. I just think it’s important to bear in mind the harsh, invisible forces that shape a comedy act long before it reaches us, and continue shaping the comedian long after.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.