Netflix has released two ‘blockbuster’ comedy specials within the past couple of weeks and together they represent something of a watershed moment for mainstream comedy. Dave Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones and now Bill Burr’s Paper Tiger are being widely praised for their ‘courageous takedowns’ of outrage culture and media stunts like #metoo, which also (yawn) appear to have some demented SJW panties in a twist.
I’ve got nothing against Chappelle or Burr, they just want recognition, fame and fortune like many others, and they’ve worked hard to get it. This is not a review of either special, because I hope anyone reading this knows what they’re getting at this point: pretty stale last-gen comedy – expertly performed – that’s sufficiently mob-approved to be featured on Netflix. It’s the sort of stuff that works well enough in a dank basement comedy club with a bunch of drunk dudes, but feels distinctly off in an arena packed with sycophants.
For all the talk of these specials being ‘politically incorrect’, both comedians know they must operate within the confines of acceptable 2019 discourse or have the big bosses at Netflix ask them to “tone it down”. So they each go as far as they know they’ll get away with, giving the average viewer just enough for them to think they’re being outrageous, but never coming close to the sort of jokes you’d make in private with trusted friends.
This is not to say that comedy needs to be offensive to be funny or for offense’s sake. But it does need to be smart and fresh. While these specials are clearly performed by masters of the craft, they’ve solidified the idea in my mind that the golden moment for stand-up has passed, at least for now. Consider that even Louie’s last special wasn’t up to his usual standard, and that the likes of Stanhope and Gervais have fizzled out.
It might be that stand-up is a dying form, that the evolution of comedy led by new online platforms is making it irrelevant. Or it could be that fresh blood is needed; all the jokes seem to have been done to death. Maybe it just needs to hibernate for a few years until there’s some new stuff to chew on. Getting a highbrow laugh from a transgender joke today is like trying to squeeze blood out of a stone.
I want to know what Carlin would be saying if he was still around – if he’d lost it, we’d know stand-up was done (Burr, incidentally, said on Rogan’s podcast this week that Carlin was saying stuff in 1990 that’s come true today – I don’t see any mainstream comedians attempting that today). I realize I’m saying this, by the way, at a time when stand-ups are selling out huge venues and generating massive hype. Well, so do pop stars, and we don’t judge their artistic merit by their ticket sales.
An uncomfortable truth for stand-ups today is that they don’t stand much chance of being as funny as Donald Trump, a man who guarantees you at least one chuckle every time you see him on the news or read his tweets. And being funny is not even his primary goal. Look at Alex Jones, who I have no doubt will be remembered as one of the most misunderstood and brilliant comedians of all time. Look at Sam Hyde, who made unsuspecting audiences the butt of his joke when he did stand-up because he understood how fake the form had become. Look too at Bronze Age Pervert’s new podcast Caribbean Rhythms, if you want to see what’s really at the cutting edge.
Going back to Chappelle and Burr, the content of their specials and the way they’ve been promoted (the trailer for Burr’s goes hard on the SJW bait) tell us that Netflix has finally figured out, as Peterson once put it, “how to monetize SJWs”. They at last had that boardroom meeting in which they cut the crap and focused on the untapped market opportunity of getting normies laughing at offended idiots. Whether this means they’ll one day realize the potential value of, say, Alex Jones to their bottom line, I’m not sure.
If you’re a hardcore conspiracy nut, you might even get off on the idea that the outrage surrounding Chappelle’s 0% Rotten Tomatoes score was manufactured by a larger media conglomerate mafia that owns Netflix and the film magazines to get more people to watch it. After all, those reviewers do at times come across as too insane to be real.
Anyway, you might say I’m being too cynical about what the ground troops of anti-PC culture are heralding as a big mainstream win against humor suppression. I just want to make the point that while this might feel like a satisfying shift of the Overton window and a move away from the depressing trend of ‘woke capital‘, it’s more likely that what we’re seeing here is a new sort of controlled opposition to the Cathedral which, as always, exists purely for monetization and to keep you from asking too many questions.