Comedians are talking about some pretty unfunny things these days
Tell a joke. Elicit a laugh (fingers crossed). Repeat. For decades, this has been the script that comedians have stuck to. And, it’s worked. But in a time that’s increasingly turbulent and verging on, if put lightly, unfunny, comedians are dialling down the funny and becoming serious. If you tune into comedy for a good giggle, you don’t have to despair just yet. The funny folk aren’t omitting laughs altogether. But they are upending traditional notions and challenging standard comedic devices by addressing more pressing topics like mental illness and racial injustice.
The funny folk aren’t omitting laughs altogether. But they are upending traditional notions and challenging standard comedic devices by addressing more pressing topics like mental illness and racial injustice.
Can comedians, whose job it is to make us laugh, really be taken seriously?
Neal Brennan: 3 Mics (2017), a Netflix comedy special written and performed by Neal Brennan, was one of the first to take on the challenge in an innovative way. In the eponymous special, Brennan alternates between three microphones—one for one-liners, one for more traditional comedy and another to recount stories of childhood and his struggle with depression. Not only does Brennan flip the conventional stand up formula by using three mics, by cycling through the three devices, he plots comedy against mental illness in stark contrast. Gratefully, the comedian’s one-liners provide an outlet for the discomfort he invokes during his gritty personal storytelling. This is exactly how Brennan makes his special thrive by getting us thinking while soothing us with a laugh.
Across the globe, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby announced in what may or may not be her final comedy special Nanette (2018) that she is contemplating retiring from stand up. Frustrated with the self-deprecating and humiliating positions comedians often put themselves through in order to get a laugh, Gadsby didn’t take her final bow without first starting a dialogue. The beginning of her special takes off slow but gradually turns into a crescendo of anger and sadness, where she touches on everything from sexual assault to her experiences with coming out and systemic homophobia. In this revolutionary piece of social commentary, Gadsby leaves us reflecting on a whole host of social ills including our desire to be entertained at any cost.
This paradigm shift in comedy isn’t exclusive to those behind the mic. Comedic actors have also moved towards drama in film. Jordan Peele, known prior to last year for his work on the comedy sketch series Key and Peele, has made history as the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his horror/thriller Get Out (2017). In addition, Peele was nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Achievement in Directing. In Get Out, Peele tackles prejudice and racial discrimination black people feel everyday at every level, even in a seemingly liberal climate, with terrifying stakes.
Swapping comedy for drama is a big leap of faith, especially for those who have only ever known how to make us laugh.
Funnyman Steve Carell has steadily made the transition to dramatic roles. Far from his comedy days as a correspondent on The Daily Show and as beloved Michael Scott on The Office, Carell’s recent work has included playing convicted murderer John du Pont in Foxcatcher (2014) and high-stakes investor Mark Baum in The Big Short (2015). His latest role as David Sheff, the father of a son dealing with a methamphetamine addiction in the just-released drama Beautiful Boy (2018) has solidified Carell’s undeniable place in dramatic acting. Carell’s portrayals are all the more effective because we find credence in whatever role he disappears into. This deviation from comedy can be explained by the pressing need to tell narratives about weighty topics like the addiction crisis. To viewers, comedians often feel like a trusted friend, someone you could talk to.
For over two years, comedian Bo Burnham took a hiatus from the stage, to instead focus on making his writing and directorial debut with Eighth Grade (2018). In the movie, Burnham projects his struggles with anxiety onto his 8th-grade heroine Kayla, who deals with her own insecurities against the backdrop of her final week in middle school. In his last Netflix comedy special, entitled Bo Burnham: Make Happy (2016), Burnham dwelt on the paradox of the performer. On the one hand, the task of the performer is to “perform” for his audience and make them happy. On the other hand, Burnham doesn’t want to compromise his artistic integrity simply to delight his fans. In Eighth Grade, Burnham solves the dilemma by crafting a film that values his vulnerability and creativity over the expectations of his audience.
Swapping comedy for drama is a big leap of faith, especially for those who have only ever known how to make us laugh. And yet, whether it’s behind the mic, behind the camera or on film, comedians and comedic actors alike are embracing the sensitive underbelly of drama.
For these creative minds, comedy is a gateway drug to drama; a spoonful of sugar to help better process the often difficult but crucial take-home messages from their sets.
Behind the mic, instead of resorting to the formulaic self-deprecating humour that is sure to elicit a few chuckles, Brennan and Gadsby chose to be honest about their struggles. Intermittently, between revelations, a few jokes are tossed in with subsequent laughter. For these creative minds, comedy is a gateway drug to drama; a spoonful of sugar to help better process the often difficult but crucial take-home messages from their sets.
The same can be said for those who have turned towards dramatic acting and filmmaking. Given more breadth and freedom, comedians like Peele and Burnham are able to convey their own imperfect narratives in their films with a silver lining of humour. No longer bound by traditional structures of comedy and removed from the pressure of a live audience, these forays into the dramatic are a cathartic way to disclose their personal experiences whilst simultaneously drawing attention to uncomfortable, but not unfunny, topics.
Trevor Noah, the current host of The Daily Show, said: “I always believe that funny is serious and serious is funny. You don’t really need a distinction between them.” In the last year, this seemingly contrary approach to humour has taken centre stage. Comedians are asking for your attention, but more importantly, your understanding in order to speak their truths and be heard. In doing so, they help countless who have also been stigmatized, silenced and marginalized from society. When your favourite comedian, whose favourite thing in the world is to make you laugh, stands up and delivers an urgent message, it’s your job to take them seriously. And hopefully, once the lights have been shut off and the applause has faded, you’ll act differently.
And with that, thank you. Goodnight. You’ve been a great audience.