I don’t know much about comedy as a reviewable art but like oodles of college professors in the humanities I’ve covered humor in the classroom, teaching novels by Fay Weldon, Emily Praeger, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mark Twain, George Meredith, Francine Prose, Jonathan Swift, Martin Amis—the list of provocateurs is a long one. We explore the broad elements of comic art: breaking chains of expectation, lampooning, satire, high and low comedy, wit, slapstick, choreography, irony, subversion, and how comic imagination lets us propose necessary and contrarian things with a fool’s liberated view.
(BTW: the best comedy reviews I know of are at The Guardian. In the United States the reviewing of comedy is haphazard and often relegated to intrepid souls on the internet. In general it’s easier to find well reasoned reviews of stage comedy than stand up though once in awhile someone first rate like Jason Zinoman will write something good. See his review of Louis C.K. over at the NY Times.)
We need comic writers and performers much as we need poetry. No one knows whether poetry is precisely necessary but plenty of reasonable people expect life without it would be less attractive. And here’s the thing: both poets and comics should shock us. Baudelaire and George Carlin have more than a little in common.
Which gets me to Kathy Griffin who is never funny though she aims (relentlessly) for shock value. Shock alone isn’t enough to drive comedy or literature. Griffin is that kid in the third grade who pulls down other kids pants. She’s the one who made you say “penis” and waved her arms with glee. There is really nothing more to her shtick than this. Until two days ago when she posed for a photograph while holding aloft a fabricated severed head decked out with a Trump wig. What a disgrace! Even if you dislike 45 her “joke” was no better than all those racist displays where President Obama was tricked out for lynching. One imagines that the vulgarity of comedy ought to be in the service of something—anything—smarter than this.
Beheadings are never funny. Especially in the age of ISIS. Really. Some shit just won’t make it in comedy. To test this out, try writing a good guillotine joke. Personally I know of only one. Here’s how it goes:
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the midst of the French Revolution the revolutionists lead a priest, a drunkard and an engineer to the guillotine. They ask the priest if he wants to face up or down when he meets his fate. The priest says he would like to face up so he will be looking towards heaven when he dies. They raise the blade of the guillotine and release it. It comes speeding down and suddenly stops just inches from his neck. The authorities take this as divine intervention and release the priest.
The drunkard comes to the guillotine next. He also decides to die face up, hoping that he will be as fortunate as the priest. They raise the blade of the guillotine and release it. It comes speeding down and suddenly stops just inches from his neck. Again, the authorities take this as a sign of divine intervention, and they release the drunkard as well.
Next is the engineer. He, too, decides to die facing up. As they slowly raise the blade of the guillotine, the engineer suddenly says, “Hey, I see what your problem is …”
If this joke is funny, and I think it is, it’s because the smartest guy in the bunch assures his own demise.
Waving a dismembered head before a camera has nothing shrewd about it.
Ill humor is one thing; rage is another. Don Rickles made a career from ill humor. It can be done.
Kathy Griffin exudes pure resentment. In this way she’s no better than “the Donald” and his worst followers.