Despite my statements last week, I did wind up finishing David Cross’s book ‘I Drink for a Reason’. I finally found a way into it by reading it as an educational study in why “edgy” comedy seems a lot less funny to many people than it used to, and why it’s growing gradually less popular. (I’m sure that comedians like Cross would say that it’s because “society is getting too PC”, but I’m a big believer in the fundamental truth that only assholes use “politically correct” or “politically incorrect” in anything other than an ironic manner.)
The conclusion I’m coming to is that the central joke behind “edgy” comedy is the conflict between the societal expectations for behavior and the way that the comedian treats their open defiance of those societal norms as commonplace and unexceptional. So the humor comes not so much from the fact that they’re being racist, misogynist, transphobic, homophobic, and generally terrible as human beings, but that someone would stand up on a stage and act that way and not expect to be criticized for their horrible behavior.
Example: There’s a photo in the book of two women I don’t recognize, with the caption, “I fucking HATE these two cunts!” The joke is that nobody would simply drop that admission into a random conversation, because nobody is that openly hateful and misogynist.
The problem is, though, the advent of the Internet has given a voice to a number of people who actually would and actually are. You can no longer assume, as an “edgy” comedian, that people can detect the irony in your vicious misogynistic insults, because there’s no difference anymore between what you say as a joke and what Roosh V says every damn day of his life as a serious statement of purpose. You’re essentially trying to argue a form of special pleading, saying, “If you really knew me, you’d understand that this is all deeply ironic,” but you’re saying it to a crowd of strangers who only know you as the fictional persona you present…and who can compare it to any number of real people saying that shit for real.
It’s especially problematic when some…probably a lot, let’s be honest…of these “edgy” comedians are kind of assholes about some things, like, say, women in comedy (they’re generally agin’ it) and who try the Cousin Larry move of giving their honest opinions about some things, their “just kidding” opinions about other things, and waiting to see your reaction before they reveal which is which. ‘I Drink for a Reason’, to once again use the book as my punching bag, has sections where Cross makes fun of anyone who believes in a religion because they’re spending their lives chasing down a delusion about a non-existent god. He also makes fun of Midwesterners for all being crystal meth addicts. And he expects people to just “know” when he’s being ironic, because it’s obvious to him, so why isn’t it obvious to us?
Basically, “edgy” comedy is running into Poe’s Law like it’s a brick wall. How can Daniel Tosh claim that it’s a joke when he says that he hopes someone gets raped when there’s a guy running for city office in New Jersey on the GOP ticket who said the same thing to a reporter writing a story on him? How can David Cross differentiate his smug, alienating anger about “PC liberals” from the smug, alienating anger about “PC liberals” displayed by an actual major-party Presidential candidate? “Edgy” comedians really need to up their game to stand out from the crowd these days.
It’s not to say that it can’t be done–Sarah Silverman manages it by constantly tip-toeing up to the line of admitting that she’s putting on an act, then undercutting her admissions with a fresh round of absurd and callous ignorance. Colbert in his old Comedy Central days used his material to constantly make himself the butt of his joke. Even Cross and Odenkirk, when they worked together on ‘Mr. Show’, signposted the premise by starting their act with an open admission that they were just doing it to get hate mail. But the days when you could just say something racist and give people an “aw shucks” grin are gone. Don’t blame the PC liberals, though. Blame the guys like Vox Day who never understood that it was a joke in the first place.