You can’t explain a joke because that ruins it. That’s logical and simple, but it’s also very powerful, and actually has far-reaching implications, especially in regards to how comedy ages. Even if I don’t agree with it, I understand the temptation to think we’re not moving in a direction, as a society. Things are lost, but there could be ways to hold onto what the outdated parts of ourselves appreciate.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was the show I’ve been waiting for, now for a long time. It answers a startling number of conceptual problems I’ve had with society and progress, gaps in how things will click together in the near future. And one such problem I’d like to talk about here is at the heart of the show, and hopefully, in all of our hearts — comedy.
Now, comedy was never supposed to be a problem, but something happened in the mid-to-late 2000s. Something changed. Comedy and, let’s say, diverse sensibilities, converged on a battlefield, and this bloody conflagration saw the deaths of careers, second looks at old definitions, it affected the ways of business, and it even raised questions about Freedom of Speech.
And so, let’s return to that time, to the age of South Park and Family Guy, and stand up comedians who are banned from or stop performing at college campuses. I know that’s not that long ago, and in fact, all three of those things are still going on. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is very new, and so its impact is only beginning to be felt.
In that time, the idea of taking offense to jokes was starting to become too hot to ignore. And in response, I remember the line: “We’re not offending anyone in particular, we’re offending everyone.” What might’ve been a marketing platitude in a bygone time was now a defense. Notice, please, that Family Guy pokes fun at Christians and atheists, gay people and straight people, black people and white people. You’s kindsa people and me’s kindsa people.
While that does beg the question, “why not just offend nobody?” offensive comedy is a reasonable shorthand for Freedom of Speech because it’s testing its integrity, pushing the envelope. However, I believe this is flawed logic, and it comes from an invisible evil many of us have to face at some point within our lifetimes, that our off-hand definition of society, our evaluation of who counts… is limited.
“We’re offending everyone” ignores at least two things: implicit bias, and the uniformity of minds doing the offending, people who might have a different definition than the offended party. Not all jokes are equal; that would defeat comedy. And with Family Guy in particular, they indeed poke fun at everyone, but the show does have this disproportionate streak of sexism running throughout. It’s true that women work on the show and write those jokes, but those images and ideas are brought into being and that’s not nothing. They’ve been experienced. The question of who put the piss in a swimming pool doesn’t alter the fact it’s there. And what’s more, all the writers exist in a cultural context where such things are acceptable and laudable.
This was a time when we discovered that the world of comedy, like so many spaces, was exclusive, and we could invent all manner of reason to keep it that way, because status quo is the easy one to back. I mean, just open up Twitter right the fuck now and see the process in realtime, for whatever’s in need of change.
In 2011, people flipped out over the movie Bridesmaids, because the prevailing wisdom, surviving even to the day, is that women are not funny. Women comedians face an uphill battle, and the resultant, singular nature of comedy we received went on to affirm that this is the only kind of comedy that works. The success of gross-out cartoons and Daniel Tosh came with the absence of anything truly different, family-friendly comics and ventriloquists notwithstanding.
A comic or a sitcom writer will make observations about the world, and it’s not a long walk till those observations are founded on othering, pointing out differences, playing into stereotypes, and sharing in an audience of like-minded people, furthering the boy’s club. We didn’t think there could be people not in on the joke, because we didn’t think there could be certain types of people. Now, it is impossible to imagine an Asian-American person before you hear about one, but once you do, holding to the original absence of imagination turns not knowing something into willful ignorance.
When you fight for Freedom of Speech, you’re fighting for everyone, because everyone deserves the Freedom of Speech. But when you’re writing and performing jokes, there isn’t that simplicity or reduction of audience. A joke where the punchline is that the comedian is ignorant about trans issues could be well-received by most people in the audience while at the same time making a trans person watching feel fundamentally other. That those two things, the American people and your audience, got confused, it revealed an unsettling scope of ignorance, but one we should look at as guidance, more so than shameful. It was simpler when it was that boy’s club, for sure, and so when different kinds of people arrived, there was friction. Such a natural occurrence, it almost feels blameless, but there are people who just refuse to be cool.
Because what it comes down to is we may not know how to talk to everyone in that audience. And even that quandary comes from introspection, asking questions like, what if we’re not prepared to joke about everything? Emotionally, intellectually?
Would you make that joke or repeat that idea if you cared about the person on the receiving end? And that’s the problem with Freedom of Speech, we see the word freedom and free our minds of accountability, but more relevant here, self-awareness. In our lives, we check our speech constantly, moving between spaces where the culture shifts slightly. We don’t curse around our parents, we don’t talk about politics at Thanksgiving, we don’t call our boss bro or sup grrl, and we don’t make one of our friends feel bad for the enjoyment of our other friends. We think about those decisions as our call.
I get that it’s hard to imagine abstract strangers in an audience as friends, we’re not trained to think that way. So that’s where a show like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend comes in, and why it’s exciting by itself but also as part of an evolution on TV. If fundamentally exclusionary humor was the defining trait of a prior era, then inclusion is a theme being pursued by a next stage. Shows like Jane the Virgin, Steven Universe, Insecure, which are at once dispatches from individual pockets of the world we never paid attention to, but also seem to explore diversity in culture as a matter of course. It’s like, you don’t even have to do that, but they do anyway.
Now this is interesting, because isn’t this PC culture the antithesis of humor? I mean, if it was the thing keeping the prior era of comedy in check, then that’s the natural conclusion to draw. So then, how do these shows, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in particular, do the impossible? How do they make inclusive comedy work? Well, I guess it’s time to proverbially and literally explain the joke.
Comedy as Storytelling
When we think about video rental genres, you know, action, drama, comedy, horror, and foreign, because that fucking makes sense, there might be a reason why action and horror movies are sometimes underappreciated. Generally speaking, the elements of action and horror exist for themselves — the big shoot ‘em up scene, the jump scare. That’s what people came to see. But the action and horror movies that quote unquote transcend their genres, they approach those elements as storytelling tools.
And that’s what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does, its humor is often facility and expression, it exists for a purpose beyond simply making you laugh. And making you laugh is a hell of a thing, it’s very powerful, and so that power can be tapped into. This is a story is about inclusion, and the humor comes organically from the storytelling, the two are inextricable. So for example, humanization can come through pratfalls, Rebecca’s brand of crazy is as absurd as it is relatable. She tries really hard to accomplish everything, and she has to keep this double identity, and she’s rushing around.
And I think there’s also some playing into what’s kind of taboo in culture, which is to say, the things that make Rebecca look dorky or strange. (French fry off the floor, you were eating a mac and cheese sandwich, I thought it up in the shower this morning) What this does is normalize rather than exoticize this strangeness, because Rebecca continues to not only be a functional adult, in that these things aren’t what cause her dysfunction, but also completely acceptable in other ways — as an always viable romantic lead, for example, no matter the Old Timey voice. Because she works out, in whatever regard this is, she takes all of her weirdness over that normalization threshold, if we want to call it that.
And this normalization is so crucial because in large part the show is about mental illness. I mean, we were all worried going in that a show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend wouldn’t be real about it, that it would encourage us to laugh at someone with mental illness, but it instead encourages us to partake in a criticism of shared behaviors. This comes from the design of the experience, which is at once high-level storytelling and unmistakably humanitarian. (just as a side note, since this comes up all the time — I really do like the title of this show, I just can’t 100% pronounce it, if you’ve noticed. So, just to set the record straight, because it gets a lot of flack, and I understand why)
So in this case, sometimes it’s a matter of characterization, that Greg breaks into this really self-aggrandizing song that’s funny because self-centeredness is funny, but this song is really about insecurity. Hooking into psychological reality, and trauma, and depression, and Jewish heritage to find humor that isn’t offensive is Herculean. I don’t know how the fuck they do it — I’m spending all these words in a mad quest to puzzle it out.
And so there’s also that matter of tone, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can be an emotional bruiser, but it’s never deliberately mean-spirited. I have seen Rachel Bloom take some heat on Twitter, like one Twitter tweet, about something in The Math of Love Triangles, I would guess the line about her learning disability, but all a creator like Rachel Bloom would have to do in response is learn from that new perspective, which isn’t disqualified simply for being individual. At the very least, it’s entered into a conversation and maybe it’s disqualified after a discussion, but honestly, it doesn’t take much to consider it.
So other than that, when characters look bad, they’re usually on their way to recovery or redemption. When we laugh at an overly-excited Rebecca or Steven, maybe it’s because they’re being so adorably nerdy. (He loves me! — Lion 3) That’s so different, it makes me want there to be this greater movement toward sensitivity, even if it’s just my imagination, because we don’t have to laugh at people for being different, or hurting themselves if other things can be funny too.
For the Rest of Us
Again though, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is very much a story about inclusion, so what about for the rest of comedy, or for a story that isn’t necessarily, or rather, outwardly, political? Because as always, everything is political. Even the network sitcoms that are not designed to be consumed but merely to exist. What about for those things? And what about for all of us?
Well, comedy as utility in storytelling is one thing, and another thing is something I hold near and dear, and it’s something called political correctness. That was not a throwaway note earlier. To me, the push against the concept of political correctness is mounted on the grounds that we share in the best possible culture at this moment in time, forgetting even that we also thought that a hundred years ago, and 50 years ago, and seven years ago, when I used to say things like what are you, retarded? This video-game is gay. And now I don’t say those things anymore.
That process of reducing my vocabulary wasn’t effortless, but for whatever cost it incurred, it was greatly outweighed by the value, because it’s a value decided by other people, by people whose pain I will never fully know. Okay, but at that point, we think, when does it stop? Where do I draw the line? Well, I don’t. They do.
But that still doesn’t answer the question, does it? Surely anyone can enter a word into this consideration and say: this affects me. I do want to say that the English language is vast and infinite — there’s always another word, but then, this isn’t really about words, is it? It’s about ideas.
Put another way, randos entering words for deletion could only come from a wider diversity of voices being heard, and listened to, and hashed out. That’s the evolution of culture — shaped in agreement, or forged in fire, anyway. We’re gaining and losing these words and ideas all the time. When we reach that point in ourselves where people’s feelings are more important than certain privileges we’ve had since birth, and never thought about, it’s a kind of liberation. And I think it’s an intellectual exercise reflecting on the whole of your engagement with the world through speech — when you think about how your words affect people, you speak with precision, and that goes beyond offending and opens up into persuading, sympathizing, educating, entertaining, impressing, manipulating, anything you need.
It takes a lot to think that a conversation isn’t over just because I’ve stopped talking. That is literally the epic journey of men all across the globe. Listening… is essential. And you know, don’t take it from me. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is all of this in action. This is a huge part of where my fandom comes from. Is it an entertaining show? Yes. Is it great to be represented as an Asian-American man? Yes– well, this guy’s you know, not 120 pounds with glasses, but yes. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend really feels like an ambassador from the future, as well as a hand in extension.
This whole thing, it’s trial and error. I may be so egotistical to publish this manifesto in a video, but by no means am I close to the end of a journey. It’s possible this journey never ends, so long as society continues to evolve. You know, it wasn’t until last month I learned it’s more accurate to say a transgender woman was assigned male at birth, rather than saying she was born male. That was embarrassing. But even that specifically comes from peeling back something I’d learned earlier and replacing it with an update. The mistake we might be making here is thinking that language and values are fused to our identities. Again, thinking we’re the best possible, making improvement a sign of weakness. People who lament PC culture and the softening of America would be thought of as millennials by their own forebears — I mean, a house with heat! Houses shouldn’t coddle you, how are you gonna be prepared for the world! It’s just a matter of keeping things in perspective.
And that’s not always easy. But trial and error could also be liberating — the ability to fail and learn something new, and become a better person in the eyes of someone else. That’s on everyone involved — for one to screw up and learn something, and for the other to forgive. That asks a lot of the other, that asks for discretion, sorting motives, and maybe that’s not fair. But if you have the capacity for that discretion, you might be surprised one day, and there’s no better feeling, that I had patience long enough to see someone’s heart. Because people may lead with their political views, and those may be offensive, but who knows what’s behind the posturing?
Political correctness is just another facet in furthering conversation between people. There’s nothing more important. That’s why I love art, not like fine art, but like images and ideas exchanged between creator and audience. Before it even takes shape, it’s a beautiful thing.
Video published on 04/16/2017