Oppressive Onstage But Woke Behind It

Writing about the relationship between comedy and political impact in Fighting Thatcher with comedy: What to do when there is no alternative, Gavin Schaffer writes that this relationship has been unclear: comedy has on one hand been understood as a rebellious force, and on the other hand as a force of reinforcing the status quo [1]. In this post, I want to emphasise that this relationship is complicated by comedian’s activity beyond their comic performances: political impact of comedy depends not only on the immediate content of comedy but also on how comedians present themselves beyond their comic performances and how their real ideological stance gets understood.

A contemporary stand-up comedian whose reception illuminates this is Anthony Jeselnik, known for controversial dark comedy that has been often considered immoral. To exemplify his performance style, he has joked that he told his girlfriend ”I think your mom tried to sleep with me last night” and that she responded by saying that was impossible, to which he replied ”Oh well, in that case. You should always wear makeup.” In an interview for the New York Times, it was implied that he does not get abundantly criticised by people with liberal worldviews for expressing misogynistic and racist and otherwise oppressive ideas; he said the reason for a relative absence of backlash is his audience’s awareness that his real attitudes are the opposite of those of his persona. He could deliver his comic content in the same way if he actually held the beliefs of his comic persona, but I believe more liberal audiences would in that case not appreciate the shock of his jokes in the same way.

His liberal audiences permit and even enjoy oppressive ideas being encoded into his jokes. That is because of his leftist self-representation beyond the content of his stage comedy, for instance, in the New York Times interview article, in which he is described as cleverly self-aware and he explicitly describes himself as leftist. Jeselnik’s comedy shows that the reception and political impact of his controversial comedy content is dependent on his visible activity beyond the stage for comedy.

The New York Times interview: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/30/arts/television/anthony-jeselnik-netflix.html

[1] Gavin Schaffer (2016), ‘Fighting Thatcher with comedy: What to do when there is no alternative’, Journal of British Studies, 55(2), 375.

One comment

  1. Great read! As Gavin Schaeffer notes, “this prioritizing of comedy over ideology, combined with huge success, ensured that much of what had once been an alternative, challenging scene was indeed incorporated quickly into the capitalist cultural mainstream”, which makes me wonder if this is, as you suggest, comedy despite political views. Perhaps he is using this persona to satire sexism and those who perpetuate it in adopting this role or use it as a way of both entertaining with politics encoded within its structure.

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