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‘The Rehearsal’, Manipulation and Spontaneity

photograph of film set

The recent HBO series, The Rehearsal rests on a common concern – having to navigate situations without experience, where mistakes can significantly alter your life and the lives of those around you. Spearheaded by writer, director, producer, and performer, Nathan Fielder, the program offers people an opportunity to “rehearse” potentially high stakes situations by repeatedly running through a simulation with the actors. The episodes to air so far involve a bar trivia fanatic confessing to a friend that he previously lied about having a master’s degree, a woman practicing raising a child before deciding to become a mother, and a man hoping to convince his brother to let him access an inheritance left by their grandfather.

The show derives its humor, in part, from the lengths Fielder and his crew go to in the “rehearsals.” In the first episode, his team build a fully furnished, patroned and staffed, 1-to-1 replica of the bar in which the confession will take place, complete with live trivia. Fielder hires an actor to play the part of the confessor’s friend, who then arranges a meeting with this friend to better understand her personality, speech, and mannerisms in addition to gathering information about her from a blog she runs.

To simulate motherhood, the team hires many child actors to act as the adopted son. However, labor laws prevent a child actor from working more than four hours in a single day and limit the days a child can work each week. So, Fielder and his team must regularly replace the actor playing the child but do so covertly to maintain the illusion of raising a single child. Additionally, the team of actors changes each week, to a group of older actors, so the woman experiences raising a child at each stage of development.

Why go to such lengths, aside from the entertainment value? In the first episode of the series, Fielder notes that in our regular lives whether we achieve happy outcomes is a matter of chance. The idea behind taking painstaking efforts to make the “rehearsal” look and feel like reality is to leave the participants as prepared as possible in order to reduce the role fortune plays.

The appeal of performing these “rehearsals” seems to be motivated by a desire to control our interactions with others, in order to produce the best outcomes for all involved.

This is an incredibly common desire. Feeling like things are out of your control, especially those things which have a significant impact on the course of your life and the lives of those you care about, is anxiety inducing. The fact that things may go horribly wrong for us, despite our best efforts and intentions, creates a feeling of powerlessness. Being wrecked with anxiety and marred with feelings of powerlessness makes life difficult, to put it plainly.

But ought we follow through on this desire to gain control over our interactions with others? Richard Gibson helpfully analyzes the desire for control in the context of gene drives here. In doing so, Gibson presents an argument from Michael Sandel. Sandel argues that our desires for control, particularly in the realm of genes, involves a lack of humility. When we try to control as much as we can, this implies that we think it is appropriate for us to control these things. Specifically, Sandel claims that when we view the world in this way we lose sight of what he calls life’s giftedness. Our talents, skills, and abilities are given to us in the same way that a friend might give us a present. Much like one would think it inappropriate to alter a friend’s gift, perhaps trying to take total control of our lives is similarly inappropriate.

However, the real moral issues behind our desires for control become clear only when we consider that “rehearsing” involves other people.

For instance, the bar trivia fanatic is not just aiming to limit the fallout he experiences as a result from his confession. Instead, he is afraid of how his friend will react, and thus tries to control her reaction.

Of course, one might see no problem here. After all, we regularly tailor our interactions with others to avoid offending them while getting what we want. This is simply part of life.

Yet “rehearsed” interactions seem importantly different. To see why, consider the following: Daniel Susser, Beate Roessler, and Helen Nissebaum, in a discussion of manipulative practices on digital platforms, describe manipulation as “imposing a hidden or covert influence on another person’s decision-making.” Manipulative practices, they argue, involve trying to control a person in the same way that one might control a puppet, producing the desired behavior in the target by pulling on the target’s proverbial strings. Further, they argue that manipulative practices are more problematic the more targeted they are – manipulation that is tailor-made to match one person’s psychological profile seems more troubling than manipulation that trades on a widespread cognitive bias. Compare an ad for beer on TV the week before the Super Bowl that shows people excitedly watching a football game, to the same ad appearing in the social media feeds of sports fans after they make posts which suggest that they are feeling sad.

Although not perfectly analogous, there are important similarities between manipulation and “rehearsal.” We can see this with the trivia fanatic. In some cases, the “rehearsal” must be covert; if the fanatic’s friend knew he spent hours “rehearsing” their conversation, this would surely undermine his efforts and likely cause great offense.

A “rehearsal” may involve efforts to control how others respond to the conversation. One practices pulling different strings during the conversation to see how that changes the final outcome.

Finally, some “rehearsals” are targeted; the actor in the fanatic scenario puts in significant effort to mimic the friend as closely as possible. Surely, the actor cannot perfectly capture the psychological profile of the target. Nonetheless, imperfect execution does not seem wholly relevant. Thus, at least some “rehearsals” appear morally problematic for the same reason manipulation is worrisome.

Yet other “rehearsals” may lack these features. The rehearsal of parenthood, while hilarious due to its absurdity, does not need to be covert, involve an effort to guarantee particular outcomes, nor target a specific individual. One’s child will certainly have a different psychological profile than the child actor and, no matter how skilled the actors, surely they will not have indistinguishable performances. Thus, “rehearsals” that aim to try out a particular role, like parenthood, seem to have a different moral character than those that aim to make another person act in a desired way.

There is, however, one thing which may be universally problematic about “rehearsals.” During “rehearsals” of a conversation, Fielder stands by, taking notes and turning the conversation into an elaborate decision tree. This seems to turn the conversation into a sort of game – one practices it, determines cause and effect relationships between particular conversational choices and interlocutor responses, then pushes the proverbial reset button if the conversation takes an undesired turn.

As a result, it seems that the ultimate goal of a “rehearsal” is to eliminate spontaneity in the real conversation.

But part of what makes our experiences with others worthwhile is when the unexpected occurs. The price we pay for spontaneity is the anxiety of uncertainty. Our desires for control, if satisfied, may leave our interactions with others feeling impoverished and hollow.

I cannot say with perfect certainty what the goals of The Rehearsal are. The show offers a hilarious but often uncomfortable glimpse into what people are willing to do to gain a feeling of control. In doing so, it offers us the opportunity to reflect on what we should aim to take out of our interactions with others, and whether gaining control is worth what we might lose. If this was Fielder’s purpose with The Rehearsal, then it is a rousing success.

Is All Comedy Ethical? The Office’s Irresponsible Use of Satire

Photograph of the cast of the TV show The Office all sitting for a press conference on set

Before I start, I have a disclosure to make: I am a huge comedy fan; stand-up, sketch comedy, sitcoms, dry humor, dark humor, you name it and I’ll probably watch it. In high school I would stay in most Saturday nights waiting for the newest episode of Saturday Night Live, and I became so intrigued by the way the show was simultaneously political and funny. However, SNL was very blatant about their liberal political views, while I noticed other shows were not. Other shows like, Portlandia, seemed more invested in providing social commentary through sketch comedy.

Moreover, comedy is often used to make critiques of our social world, and comedy writers play around with various forms of comedic critique. Shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah rely on witty jokes with emphasized punch lines, while shows like SNL use exaggeration, imitation, and parody. Nevertheless, both of these shows, and many other shows containing political and social commentary, utilize satire to convey their critique (they might also be how you prefer to intake current events). Satire can be defined as humor that utilizes exaggeration, ridicule, and irony to expose someone’s flaws and shortcomings. Satire is meant to criticize and convey an opinion; however, it is important to analyze whether writers are able to convey their messages clearly, even when these messages are conveyed through irony or exaggeration.  

While seemingly unrelated to ethical issues, satire and comedy have epistemic power. Since society often learns through media, and comedy is a kind of media many intake on a daily basis, comedy has the power to influence knowledge about a particular topic or society at large. This is particularly poignant considering satirical comedy promotes a particular perspective. When I started watching SNL, I was not fully aware how excitedly I internalized many of the political opinions conveyed through cold open skits, where politicians were freely questioned, imitated and made fun of. This reflexivity led me to ask, what could be the risks of consuming satire simply for its face value, its ability to make people laugh? Can a comedy show be considered harmful, when a satirical critique is not legible or understood by everyone? As I began to develop a critical lens, I realized that I did not always understand certain references, or know exactly why I was laughing. Other times, I understood how brilliant seemingly nonsensical comedy could be.

I became inspired to ask these questions after watching the episode “Diversity Day” from The Office. “Diversity Day” is the second episode of the first season of The Office, and a salient portrayal of satirical comedy. In the episode, Dunder Mifflin corporate headquarters calls in a diversity training specialist after Michael Scott, the office manager, recreates a Chris Rock stand up act. While Michael does not see a problem with his imitation, his actions make the entire office very uncomfortable. At one point, Michael decides to lead Diversity Day by making everyone put a notecard with a particular racial or ethnic group written on it on their foreheads. His game consists of having people guess what group is written on their notecards by talking to others who are supposed to give them clues of who they are. Michael goes on to promote the use of problematic stereotypes as clues and eggs people to “stir the pot.”

This episode can easily be called controversial and problematic by many; however, writing off the social critique within the episode as simply “problematic” might mean missing some of what the writers hid in irony and exaggeration. One could argue that the writers utilized exaggeration to convey the problematic and hurtful nature of racial tropes and stereotypes. As Michael promotes “stirring the pot” it becomes evident that even those who do not mean to be insensitive are fully aware of how to be so. The overtly problematic content is mean to shock viewers into acknowledging how hurtful these common assumptions are, because the writers purposefully make Michael appear misinformed and ignorant. Additionally, one can see how Michael’s intent of “stirring the pot” might point to society’s need to talk about race in blunt and honest ways, instead of pretending no one knows what prejudice looks and sounds like.  Nevertheless, viewers are meant to understand that at the end of the day, Michael’s way of going about this conversation is not nuanced, sensitive, or productive.

Some might not understand this use of satire and choose to dismiss the show as problematic; however, what might be worse is an audience that laughs at Michael’s racially insensitive jokes and does not consider them hurtful and disgusting. This is where the danger of satire lies: when a show like The Office purposefully uses stereotypes as a form of exaggeration meant to highlight normative opinions, it is not a guarantee that everyone will “get it.” Viewers might watch “Diversity Day” and impersonate Michael impersonating Indian people. Jokes meant to convey a point, jokes that are not meant to be repeated, might become popular shared knowledge and the punch line of many conversations.

As I watched “Diversity Day,” I acknowledged that this episode might be very irresponsible. While I could see what the writers had sought out to do, I also realize that my understanding of racism and power combined with my interest in comedy put me in a particularly advantageous position. I know I am among those most likely to “get it.” Sadly, I am not too confident about the magnitude of that group. My background facilitates my understanding of the episode, something not everyone can rely on when watching comedy shows. I began to wonder, is it ethical to utilize hard-to-understand satire when discussing topics related to power? Does the epistemic harm that this representation might cause outweigh the benefits?

It is imperative to remember that comedy shows are a form of media, and one might consider media a form of speech. Arguably, then, a creator’s or artist’s ability to express their speech freely through comedic portrayals is a constitutional right. However, what is legally permissible is not always what is most ethical. Additionally, one could say that paying too much attention to the possible harms of any given satirical show could result in over policing of speech. Nevertheless, writers must assess the possible impact their shows might have on audiences. As epistemic influencers, they are responsible for asking, does this have the potential to do more harm than good? The answer to that question has the potential to influence the next Netflix pick.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

“Who Is America” and the Ethics of Comedy through Deceit

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen at a red carpet event

Last week marked the first season finale of Sacha Baron Cohen’s reality television show, Who Is America. The show, which premiered on Showtime early in July, is based on the premise of pranking American politicians, reporters, and even everyday voters into saying or doing embarrassing things on camera. Cohen’s victims have included former Senatorial candidate from Alabama Roy Moore, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, and football star and accused murderer O.J. Simpson.

Continue reading ““Who Is America” and the Ethics of Comedy through Deceit”

Reputation over Potential: “Classic” Humor, Art History, and the Women on the Other Side

Black and white photograph of a cubist exhibition in a museum

As I explore in “The Unexpected Tension of Netflix’s Nanette,” Hannah Gadsby revolutionizes comedy with her show Nanette when she quits being funny. Gadsby works within a male-founded and dominated genre, using the same platform that so many white straight men before her have used to sell cheap jokes at the cost of marginalized groups.

Gadsby repeats occasionally during the hour-long show that she has to quit comedy. At first her proclamation seems like the central joke that the sketch keeps returning to; however, her assertion becomes to feel more real the more that people watch, and they may begin to wonder if her comedy is revolving around a truth. Midway through the show, Gadsby jokes that it does not look like she can quit comedy because she does not have a backup plan with just a 15-year-old art history degree on her resume. Gadsby goes on to say about the artists whom she studied: “They were dead then, they’re just deader.”

Gadsby discusses what she learned from her art history degree, explaining how she realized that women have two roles in the narrative of art: the virgin or the whore. Judged by sex, women see themselves through the male gaze in any introductory art history course. Men craft the pictures. Women lay naked on the bed. Men are the geniuses. Women are the models. Gadsby gives the example of Picasso, one of the most lionized artists in art history, providing one of his quotes: “Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.” A prime example of a woman-hater that has reached historic idolization, Picasso and his infamous misogyny is often cast as tormented genius. “I understand the world that I live in because of art history,” Gadsby says. “I understand the world that I live in, and my place in it. I don’t have one.”As someone who is attracted to women, she does not fit into one of the two patriarchal categories that artists like Picasso worked to perpetuate.

Gadsby says in one of her jokes that she is often introduced “as that lesbian comedian.” Her identity separates her from other comedians because our society values heterosexuality and gender conformity. In one of her early self-deprecating jokes about lesbians lacking a sense of humor—the irony being palpable since Gadsby is the one providing comedy for the audience of an almost 6,000 seat theater—she comments, “That is not my joke. It is an oldie, oldie but a goldie. A classic, it was written, you know, well before even women were funny.” In the first half of her show, Gadsby provides a sample of the comedy that has motivated her decision to quit the career.

In order to work her way into comedy as a gender non-conforming woman, Gadsby has built her career on those jokes that do not belong to her because the genre of entertainment does not either. Gadsby asks, “Do you understand what self-deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak. In order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself. Or anyone who identifies with me. And if that means that my comedy career is over then so be it.” Patriarchal institutions are all about performing, conforming, and filling your destined role because they become incredibly challenging to change from the outside looking in.

Later in the show Gadsby challenges this kind of “classic” humor: “Do you know who used to be an easy punchline? Monica Lewinsky.” One of the many jokes about Lewinsky’s sex life and weight comes from the famous comedian Jay Leno: “Monica Lewinsky has gained back all the weight she lost last year. . . . In fact, she told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah—she didn’t want to give up her sex life.” Bill Clinton, then a 49-year-old married man with the most powerful position in the United States, had an affair with a 22-year-old intern. But the criticism, humiliation, and focus came down on Lewinsky’s body and sexual agency.

Jessica Bennett’s Time article, “The Shaming of Monica: Why We Owe Her an Apology,” details the “slut-shaming” humiliation that Lewinsky faced, including a Fox News poll in which 46 percent voted that Lewinsky was an “average girl” while the other 54 percent chose the second option, classifying her as a “young tramp looking for thrills.” Fox News did not invent that dichotomy just for Lewinsky. That average girl or tramp dichotomy has been around through centuries of art history, bringing us back to the virgin or whore. The main poll that came out about Clinton in the wake of his impeachment was his skyrocketing 73 percent approval rating.

Gadsby diverts her criticisms to the man who abused his power and her own industry that helped him get away with it: “Maybe if comedians had done their job properly and made fun of the man who abused his power then perhaps we might have had a middle aged woman with an appropriate amount of experience in the White House instead, as we do, a man who openly admitted to sexually assaulting vulnerable young women because he could.” History repeats itself when powerful men learn about what they can get away with and women learn that that their worth will be determined by which category they fit into: the virgin or the whore.

Returning to a discussion of art history, Gadsby not only compares Trump to Clinton, but also to Picasso. In the article, “Hannah Gadsby on how Picasso is the Donald Trump of the art world, and why we need to rethink art galleries,” Dee Jefferson elaborates on the connection between Trump and Picasso—two powerful and untouchable men—that Gadsby hints at during Nanette through her comment: “The greatest artist of the 20th century. Let’s make art great again, guys.”

Gadsby brings up how she commonly receives advice to “[s]eparate the man from the art.” Yet that dissociation takes deliberate effort and a compromising approach to prioritizing what matters. In his article, published by The Telegraph in April of 2016, Mark Hudson, an art critic and writer, attributes the worsening of Picasso’s misogyny toward his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, whom he stayed with for 18 years: “As their relationship disintegrated and she became increasingly delusional, his depictions of her and women in general grew ever more hateful – tortured masses of teeth, limbs and vaginas.” Ten years into their marriage, Picasso began a relationship with an underaged girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, that lasted nine years. Khokhlova’s suffering mental health in her relationship with Picasso does not make her to blame for Picasso’s hatred of women, but rather a victim of it. This representation of Picasso is not specific to Hudson alone, and I do not mean to criticize Hudson specifically. His article is one of the many examples of how victim-blaming comes naturally in our society in order to preserve a famous man’s reputation.

A common argument to preserve Picasso’s notoriety favors excusing his misogyny as a symptom of the time period: Picasso was just a product of his sexist environment. However, that sexism stays alive in how we frame, praise, and preserve his genius and reputation today. Hudson describes the 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter—who met Picasso when he was 45—with unflattering superficiality: “[b]londe, of equable temperament and athletic physique – but completely ignorant of art – Walter was immortalised in images of melting, idyllic eroticism in which we feel her guiltless enjoyment of her own sensuality and the artist’s complete satisfaction in regarding it.” Even today, we still judge a 17-year-old girl in terms of her appearance and sexuality through the male gaze.

In his Vanity Fair article, John Richardson writes about Walter and Picasso’s courtship: “Although she always claimed to have resisted Picasso for six months, she was sleeping with him a week later. They needed to be very discreet, for she was six months under the conventional age of consent.” Richardson turns a predatory, law-breaking situation into a bit of gossip. Blaming Walter’s inability to “resist” Picasso’s seduction, Richardson liberates Picasso from any wrongdoing. In his language, Richardson implies that Walter did not fit in the Fox News “average girl” category. The problem with this language and logic is that Richardson is talking about a minor. The phrase “conventional age of consent” downplays the fact that she was a legally underaged individual, unable to give consent legally. The fact that their affair was secret — so secret that Picasso would take Walter to have sex in attics in various estates or in the garden shed behind her mother’s house — was not for modesty’s sake, but due to its criminal nature.

We do not cast Picasso as a sexual predator or a power-abuser using his age and fame to manipulate young women, but rather as a man dabbling in his appetites and finding muses to provoke his artistic genius. Gadsby discusses how Picasso justified the fact that Walter was not even half his age by claiming that they were both in their prime: his art career was flourishing, and Walter had youth and beauty. Perhaps the reasons that Walter “offered Picasso little on an intellectual level”—as Hudson claims—is due to their 28 year age difference and her limited life experience.

Similarly, Picasso’s affair with Walter parallels the power discrepancy between Lewinsky and Clinton.“[Clinton] was the most powerful man on the planet,” Lewinsky recalls. “He was 27 years my senior”—an age gap that is just a year shy of Picasso and Walter’s. She continues, “He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college.” The media and comedians slandered Lewinsky’s decision-making, failing to spotlight the judgement of the 49-year-old man with the job of making decisions for the future of a powerful nation. By adjusting our perspective from the innately patriarchal lens that so often filters the story to a rational and sympathetic approach, a different narrative arises out of Walter and Picasso’s and Lewinsky and Clinton’s affair.

Walter’s place in history melds with Picasso’s representation of her sexuality. We see her through his eyes, and she lives in the shadow of Picasso’s reputation. Hudson’s article provides a summary of each Picasso girlfriend and model at the end: after a sentence about she and Picasso met, Hudson summarizes “She gave him a daughter, Maia, in 1935, at about the time she was supplanted in Picasso’s affections by Dora Maar. She hanged herself in 1977.” This barebones synopsis of her life provides the only mention of her suicide.

Instead of analyzing the unhealthy strain of Picasso’s manipulation on two of his mistresses, Hudson describes the two women—one who would later have “suffered a complete mental collapse” and the other who would eventually kill herself—with reductive nonchalance and a sort of humor: “When Maar and Walter later met in his studio, the ensuing argument degenerated into an all-out catfight between the two women, an incident Picasso later described as one of his ‘choicest memories.’” With this kind of degrading diction, these two very young women’s suffering becomes solidified as self-serving entertainment for Picasso — who sought control over both women.

Hudson titled his article “Pablo Picasso: women are either goddesses or doormats”—a quote that the 61-year-old Picasso told a 21-year-old student and mistress, Françoise Gilot. Hudson affords Gilot the most flattering summary even though it relies on backhanded compliments: “This young aspiring artist – just 21 when they met – seems to have handled Picasso’s cruelties and perversities with amazing deftness, and was the only woman to leave him entirely voluntarily, with her dignity more or less intact.” Even though she does fit into the “virgin” category in the art historical narrative, affecting her “dignity” as Hudson hints at, Gilot earns Hudson’s approval through her ability to endure Picasso’s torment.

Deeming Jacqueline Roque as the last of Picasso’s mistresses and “the one most in control,” Hudson also credits her because she “finally got Picasso to behave, and created a tranquil base for his last years.” Roque married Picasso in 1961, but Hudson does not linger on the fact that she also eventually killed herself. About Roque, Hudson’s article ends on the idea: “Like the other six women, she had collaborated in what is arguably the greatest artistic oeuvre of all time. Whether it was worth the pain, only she would be able to say.” Despite the clear suffering that they encountered in their relationships with Picasso, these women reached the peak of traditional women’s involvement in art historical memory: model to the founder of Cubism.

Was Picasso’s Woman in Hat and Fur Coat worth Walter’s life? Was preserving Clinton’s approval ratings worth Lewinsky’s public shaming and humiliation? As Gadsby says, we need to stop prioritizing a man’s reputation over a woman’s potential. Khokhlova, Walter, Marr, Gilot, Roque, Lewinsky, the upwards of 80 women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual predation, the 18 women—according to Time—who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, and all the women who have been shamed, silenced, and prevented from speaking out against a powerful man deserve justice. “A 17 year old girl is just never ever in her prime. Ever,” Gadsby asserts. “I am in my prime. Would you test your strength out on me?”

My series on Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette will continue in my next article, in which I will analyze two of Picasso’s most revolutionary works, his Portrait of Gertrude Stein and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. I will address the question of whether we can truly separate the man from the art and if that objectivity would be more harmful or beneficial.  

 

The Unexpected Tension of Netflix’s Nanette

photograph of a microphone and a dark background

“I don’t feel comfortable in a small town. I get a bit tense. Mainly because I’m in this situation,” Hannah Gadsby, a gender non-conforming comedian, says, airing her hands over her navy T-shirt and open blue blazer with a black lapel. “And in a small town, that’s alright. From a distance. People are like, ‘Oh, good bloke.’ And then you get a bit closer and then it’s like, ‘Oh no, no, trickster woman, what are you doing?”

Released on Netflix June 19th, Nanette has reached international attention. Gadsby’s opening string of jokes that introduce her comedy show at the Sydney Opera House seem like a humorous introduction to her life and the small Australian island of Tasmania where she comes from; however, they actually foreshadow the whole show. From a distance, comedy seems safe. You know what you are getting out of the genre. If you get offended by a joke, you’re too sensitive or don’t have a good enough sense of humor.

Ironically, Gadsby, the comedian running the show, says that people tell her all of the time, “Don’t be so sensitive.” I’m sure that many of us have laughed at jokes with which we were uncomfortable just because everyone else did. Maybe we have even walked out after a comedy show a bit sick to our stomachs about some offhand humor. But Gadsby’s show is unlike any other because she liberates us from the groupthink and easy laughter, raising her expectations for the audience. In fact, it would be inappropriate to laugh during the serious portions of her show. She brings a question into the mix that you would never expect out of a comedy show: “Why is insensitivity something to strive for?” She challenges her audience to think critically, and her show navigates humor and heartbreak.

Gadsby jokes about people apologizing for calling her sir: “I love being mistaken for a man because just for a few moments, life gets a hell of a lot easier. I’m top shelf normal, king of the humans,” she shouts in a deep voice. “I’m a straight white man.” Just like her initial physical appearance to passing strangers, her comedy show invites the audience in with disarming self-deprecating humor before challenging the genre and making people consider the price of her jokes. Trickster woman.

An audience member complained after her show once that there was “not enough lesbian content,” which becomes a refrain that she repeats in a sarcastically bitter voice throughout Nanette. Gadsby jokes, “I cook dinner way more than I lesbian. But nobody ever introduces me as that chef comedian, do they?” In her profession and life, her sexuality becomes a marker for her person: a label to boil down her comedy. She does not identify as transgender nor believe that lesbian is an appropriate identifier for her, but other people are eager to categorize.

A comedian would not be introduced as that straight comedian. Comedians would not be described as male or white. The expectations for their content are not qualified. People with intersectional aspects of their identities become “not normals”—to use Gadsby’s words—while the people who trump them in race, sexuality, class, ability, and gender privilege become the baseline normal with the top of the privilege ladder being simply: a comedian.

Another refrain throughout the show is her announcement that she has to quit comedy. Reflecting on her career as a whole, she says, “When I first started the comedy over a decade ago, always, nothing but lesbian content.” She tells her humorous tale about coming out to her mother and a joke about a young man who was about to fight her at the bus stop because he thought that she was a man flirting with his girlfriend. The jokes work. The audience erupts in laughter.

Halfway through the show, Gadsby says, “Let me explain to you what a joke is.” She continues, “a question that I have artificially inseminated with tension. I do that. That’s my job.” Gadsby can control tension so well because—as a gender non-conforming woman—she has been familiar with it since childhood: “I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension.”

Contributing to why she wants to quit comedy, she explains, “In a comedy show, there is no room for the best part of the story. Which is the ending. In order to finish on a laugh, you have to end with punchlines.” Sharing the third part ending of her coming out story, she says, “The best part of that story is that mum and I have a wonderful relationship now.” She pauses, shrugging her shoulders and looking around. “Look what I’ve done to the room. No tension. You all just go, ‘Eh, good on you.’”

With a happy ending, the tension dissipates. Through comedy, Gadsby cannot share full stories, especially the ones that skyrocket the tension and fail to conclude in a punchline that eases our worries. Revisiting the story that she told about the young man at the bus stop, she says, “I couldn’t tell the part of the story when that man realized his mistake. And he came back. And he said, ‘Oh, no, I get it. You’re a lady f**got. I’m allowed to beat the sh*t out of yous,’ and he did. He beat the sh*t out of me, and nobody stopped him.” She did not report him to the police or go to the hospital, explaining, “[B]ecause I thought that is all I was worth.”

Leaving us hanging, Gadsby does not give us the antidote to tension. She does not offer us the relief of laughter that she has been providing audiences for over ten years, proclaiming, “And this tension is yours, I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like because this, this tension, is what not normals carry around inside of them all of the time because it is dangerous to be different.” Gadsby carries that third part of the story every time that she relives the tension of the first two parts that make up the joke, but this time she uses her platform to share the whole thing.

Gadsby shares that her mother once told her that she felt badly for raising her as if she were straight, telling Gadsby, “I made it worse because I wanted you to change because I knew the world wouldn’t.” Well, in this revolutionary show, Gadsby quits playing into the same humor that has launched her career all of the way to the stage at the Sydney Opera House. Instead, she uses the genre to upend it. Trickster woman. And instead of an hour of changing herself, she spends it changing the world through genius, humor, heartbreak, and sensitivity.

From Minstrel Shows to The Simpsons: Racism in American Comedy

Image of plastic figures of Simpsons characters sitting on a couch

For nearly 30 years, The Simpsons has been making tongue-in-cheek jokes and chronicling, albeit satirically, the American way of life. As the longest-running cartoon in American television history, the show has had generational range in its influence, which is a rare feat in a modern, Netflix-binging society. In many ways, The Simpsons set the precedent for satirical cartoons and sitcoms to come, with its exaggerated depictions of the stereotypical American family. But it is not only the American family that The Simpsons has stereotyped in the last 29 years; they have also targeted characters ranging from CEOs to clowns. Continue reading “From Minstrel Shows to The Simpsons: Racism in American Comedy”

Is it O.K. to Watch Louis C.K.?

A photo of Louis CK at an awards ceremony

Allegations of Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct—as well as his published response—came out this week, hot on the heels of similar allegations concerning Kevin Spacey. Leaving aside the morality of C.K.’s actions, there is the question of the general public’s response in regard to the media he has produced. HBO has already dropped him from the Night of Too Many Stars and removed his shows from its service in order to distance itself from his work. Was this an ethically informed decision, and, if so, should audiences respond in kind? Even if HBO hadn’t pulled his shows–and considering that they are still available through other services–are fans of the comedian obligated to cease watching C.K. because of his actions? In broader terms, should the morality of an artist be taken into account in the consumption of their art?

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Is Ivanka Trump Really “Complicit?”

Since the general election, the popular comedy show, Saturday Night Live, has had a Trump-themed segment every week. These segments are not just about Trump himself, but also poke fun at many of his family members, including his wife and children. Though Alec Baldwin has played a recurring Donald Trump and Cecily Strong often plays Melania Trump, Scarlett Johansson impersonated Ivanka Trump during the March 12 show. The skit, which took the form of a fragrance ad, portrayed Ivanka as complicit in her father’s wrongdoings. Though many found the skit to be hilarious and accurate, and even feminists applauded the portrayal of Ivanka, is it fair to assert that Ivanka is in part responsible for the actions of her father? Does Ivanka have a greater responsibility for the actions of her father because they negatively affect women?

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Is It Acceptable to Joke about North Korea?

On November 4th, it was reported that two Australian men caused quite a stir in North Korea. Morgan Ruig and Evan Shay were already in China on a polo trip when they found out about the North Korean Golf Championships and decided to enter the competition. Though the pair did not explicitly claim to be members of the Australian team, they did not correct the North Koreans who assumed as much. While most are finding the men’s antics entertaining, others are concerned about their underlying mocking the North Korean people and government.

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Open Mike Eagle, Race and Getting the Joke

Not many understand Open Mike Eagle’s humor on its face. The rapper says as much on the opener to his 2014 album, Dark Comedyrapping that he needs to “Add a lol cause nobody seems to know when I’m joking.” Indeed, Eagle’s deadpan style, as well as the density of cultural references and wordplay in his work, can make parsing out a verse’s punchline an exercise in literary interpretation upon first listen.

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