On March 30th, Trevor Noah was named successor to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. On March 31, Noah found himself under fire for tweets he called "jokes that didn't land." The situation underscored a facet of modern life most comedians are still struggling with - the idea that the mic is always on, and any statement, joke, can be searched, retrieved, and recirculated on a whim. ("You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched," Chris Rock told New York Magazine last autumn.) But what kind of environment does our hyperconnected present and easily searchable past create for the world of comedy? Fusion asked five prominent comedians to weigh in.
W. Kamau Bell - Host of the United Shades of America on CNN; former host of Totally Biased with Kamau Bell on FX. Watch: "The War on Women, Gay Marriage, Obama, Romney, Religion & Atheists."
Laurie Kilmartin - Stand up comedian and writer for Conan on TBS. Watch: "How to Make a Man Weak"
Aparna Nancherla - Stand up comedian and former writer for Totally Biased with Kamau Bell on FX. Watch: Nancherla's five minute set on Conan.
Jim Norton - Author, stand up comedian, and cohost of the Opie with Jim Norton showon Sirius XM radio. Watch: "Monster Rain"
Aamer Rahman - Stand up comedian, creator of the solo show The Truth Hurts. Watch: "Reverse Racism"
On Being a Comedian
W. Kamau Bell: We all became comedians is because we like to say inappropriate things - but what is appropriate is in the “ear” of the beholder. The fun of comedy is that we didn’t expect this person to say that.
Laurie Kilmartin: I think we all go through a stage where we want to be the darkest voice in the room. Maybe it's because you're new, you're trying to impress other comics, or you don't have much of a real life to talk about. As long as you don't die, your actual life will get interesting and dark, and if you're truthful about it, you will have the gravitas to pull off the edginess.
On Social Media
W. Kamau Bell: When I see what’s happening with Trevor Noah, my heart goes “Oh no…my tweets are next!” Twitter - and social media, really - mean that almost everything is out of context. I mean, how much context can you have in 140 characters? We’ve started holding up tweets about things as if that tiny statement or piece of statement is representative of someone’s total position on the issue.
Aamer Rahman: YouTube has completely destroyed the mystique of comedy being spontaneous - if you can watch the comedian telling the same joke in five different places, people kind of know that this process is scripted. Twitter is terrifying. I think there’s more tweets that I haven’t sent than I’ve sent. Because once a tweet is out there, and anyone misinterprets or is offended by it, the only viable course for you then is to apologize immediately - no one cares about what you meant, or what your intentions were. So it is kind of scary. I have seen people apologize genuinely on social media - it’s rare, but it happens. If it's not done straight away I don't think it's seen as sincere.
Aparna Nancherla: Does the freedom of all speech mean one never needs to reflect on or even stop to reconsider anything one says? And what exactly do the Internet-termed "outrage" crowd want in terms of concrete goals? If it's just to start a conversation, who is that hurting? Besides the status quo? Social change doesn't occur through pretending biases and power structures don't exist in society.
Laurie Kilmartin: It's crazy that an entire person can be reduced to a few cherry-picked tweets. I think in the early days, comics treated Twitter like an open mic, but clearly it's not. I worry that I'm gonna die after a lame or poorly worded tweet and then that will be my epitaph.
On Growth and Older Material
Aamer Rahman: Jokes have a shelf life. Comedians are always jealous of musicians because audiences come to hear the same songs over and over again - but people will not pay to hear the same jokes over and over.
Aparna Nancherla: I think comedians, like any other artist or human, are going to make mistakes and push boundaries in the process of growth. It's unavoidable. But in the culture of "no censorship" there needs to be accountability between what someone says and the fact that there may be a response to it.
Jim Norton: You slowly weed the material out over time as you grow and get better. You also keep your fingers crossed that some shithead doesn't pull up things said years ago as a joke and act like you sent them yesterday at a rally.
On Offensive Material
Jim Norton: it's the same tension we have had forever with comedy. Comedians are going to always say things that upset some people. Instead of just being offended and getting on with their stupid lives, people like to behave like a jilted spouse and demand something be done.
W. Kamau Bell: Sometimes, the only way to know if something is offensive is to say it out loud. Comedians are going to cross the line - it’s part of the gig. If you haven’t made at least one "oops," you’re not really trying.
Laurie Kilmartin: Offense is a reaction from the audience. I don't think about it. I just want laughs. I wish people understood that you never have to get "offended" while you're sitting in the audience, just get silent. Many great jokes start out as ugly thoughts that you hone and craft for months or even years.
Aamer Rahman: The fear of the 'PC police' is basically this - it’s "I used to be able to say horrible things about minorities, but now if I do that, they all have twitter accounts and they can spam my mentions."
On Comedy's Bro Culture
Laurie Kilmartin: If a booker books ten white 30-year-old single male comics, by the time the eighth guy hits the stage, it's probably gonna feel like a "bro show." There are so many good comics of all races, genders, sexuality- it's laziness on the part of the industry.
Jim Norton: If it does, I've never been invited to one of the meetings. And any good comedian would involuntarily projectile vomit at the term 'bro culture.'
On the Social Contract between Comedian and Audience
Laurie Kilmartin: Be funny.
Jim Norton: A comedian's job is to be funny and original and hopefully honest. The audience's job is to laugh or not laugh. End of contract.
Aamer Rahman: The contract between an audience and the performer is changing rapidly - you aren’t just accountable to the person in the room, but also the people who will eventually encounter the material. And this is changing whether comedians like it or not.