Discover more from Glenn Loury
Comedy and Cancellation
TGS live at the Comedy Cellar
In previous episodes of The Glenn Show, I’ve made the distinction between uttering a word and using a word. This distinction often crops up in discussions about the N-word, where we regularly see people face public blowback not for hurling a racial slur at someone but merely for uttering the word in the context of quotation or by way of example. Any use of a racial slur to dehumanize another person should obviously be condemned. But to ban the word entirely or attempt to force anyone who utters it out of public life is censorious and irrational. How can we discuss our history and culture seriously if we suppress the very words that comprise it?
Likewise, how can we have a serious political discussion when some legitimate questions are treated as taboo? If we can’t even utter certain ideas without facing public recrimination, how can we test their merits? How can we know our own minds?
Last month, we held the first ever live TGS at the Comedy Cellar in New York. Its purpose was to ask whether stand-up comics could find a way to couch the “unsayable” in humor and thereby to open up discussion of otherwise effectively suppressed ideas and topics. So Roland Fryer, Coleman Hughes, and I took the stage, along with a host of excellent stand-ups, to ask how much truth comedy is capable of conveying.
The results were wild, unpredictable, and quite funny. I wouldn’t have guessed that some of the comics themselves would voice doubts about comedy’s capacity for truth-telling, but that is exactly wha happened. In the following excerpt, I open with a “provocation” that puts some unspeakable statements on the table. Then, the comics T.J., Andrew Schulz, and Sam Jay offer their takes on what comedy can and cannot do, and on how to speak freely when cancellation could threaten your career and livelihood.
This video also features appearances by Shane Gillis, Noam Dworman, Judy Gold, and Rick Crom.
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Note: Comedy is all about timing. Accordingly, this transcript may not always accurately convey the tone and tenor of the conversation. If you want to understand the speakers in proper context, please watch the video.
GLENN LOURY: In the house at the Comedy Cellar! I mean, I'm just a professor, you know, they didn't teach us this in graduate school. But good evening, everybody. Glenn Loury, Brown University. I am with Roland Fryer, Harvard University, Coleman Hughes, extraordinary musician, podcaster, and writer, Columbia University graduate, and our host, Noam Dworman.
We've got some talented comics in the audience. The theme tonight is “Comedy and Politics.” Now, I came to this from many years of trying to write about race and racial inequality issues in America and finding that there was stuff that you couldn't say. There was a lot of political correctness. There's a lot of self-censorship. And I have this idea. My idea, and we'll see what my colleagues here think about it, here at The Glenn Show. I don't think I said that. That's my platform. That's my podcast, a newsletter at Substack, and you can find the YouTube channel.
But trying to talk about these issues in a way that opens up some space for exchange of ideas, for grappling with the stuff that we really have to grapple with if we're going to get to be in a better place, and for letting some air into the room. The stifling suppression of debate and open discussion leads to a limiting of our own ability to think about the issues that we're confronted with.
And I see comedy—I mean, again, I don't know what my esteemed colleagues will say about this, and I certainly don't know what you comics out there are going to say about this, we're going to find out—I see comedy as a way out, as a way to open up the room, as a way to get some honesty into the discussion, as a way to have some debates. Now, my mouth is not a prayer book, but I do have some ideas. Here's some things that I wish comics would help us talk about.
Male-female cooperative and non-exploitative relationships in the workplace have been undermined to women's detriment by the #MeToo movement.
ROLAND FRYER: I don't agree with that.
Wait a minute. I got it from you.
ROLAND FRYER: Fair point.
Trump wasn't wrong about everything. There really are some shithole countries. You'd remember if you'd never been in one. And the Democrats have been running some of the cities where a lot of black people live into the ground for decades.
Here's another one folks, and brace yourselves, I'm sorry. Putin has some legitimate grievances which we have ignored in part, at our peril, because of the Russia collusion hoax. Yeah. I know, I know.
You see some black guys up here, right?
COLEMAN HUGHES: We're only like 5% into this list, so ...
ROLAND FRYER: Buckle up.
Blacks suck at IQ tests. Jews don't. It really matters.
ROLAND FRYER: Mazel tov.
Here's an easy one. Our collective response to the COVID pandemic has had elements of an irrational moral panic. Yeah. Now, an English professor whom I know and respect told me there's a difference between when you say something and they clap and when you say something and they laugh. He said, remember, you're in a comedy club. So I'm going to try to keep that in mind.
Okay, maybe one, well, maybe two more. Major elements of Black Lives Matter are full of shit and undeserving of the mantle of the civil rights movement. Yeah, I know. I know. It's hard.
And by the way, all I'm suggesting is, let's talk about this stuff. This is not really my opinion. I'm not actually saying this. These are just things that I think only a comic could get away with saying.
We need to talk, along with Dave Chappelle, about whether the transgender rights movement is normalizing mental illness.
Here's my coda. Mind you now, I'm not actually saying these things. I'm just saying that if one were to say them, it could be done most effectively in the voice of a comic. “Smile when you say that” has a deep meaning. My challenge to the real comics in this room is, whether they agree with me or not, and I suspect they mostly don't, find ways of bringing considerations of these issues into the public consciousness.
T.J.: Okay, can I add something to this? I don't know if people have gotten ... People want to be good people, right? Which means sometimes you get dumber, because you want to be a good person. You just want to follow whatever people tell you is the good thing to do. So you do it. So now I think there's an idea out there where, if you joke about something, people would think that means you endorse that thing. You know what I mean?
Like Bill Cosby wasn't known for rape jokes. He never joked about that. But he fucking loved rape. So just 'cause you talk about a shitty thing in the world, it doesn't mean you endorse that thing. It just means it's out there. We gotta talk about it. 'Cause the only way we have is fucking comedy. You know what I mean?
ANDREW SCHULZ: Like we shouldn't even be on the stage together. You guys and us should never talk.
COLEMAN HUGHES: Why is that?
ANDREW SCHULZ: Because you guys say things that are true, and we say things that are funny. And when those things bleed into one another, the stakes get too high. Like you asking about black IQ? Now you're implying the joke that Shane or I'm going to make is how I actually feel about black IQ. I'm just going to say the funniest one.
T.J.: Right, right.
ANDREW SCHULZ: And that's often wrong. So if you want to talk about #MeToo shit, the funniest joke is wrong.
ROLAND FRYER: But we are social scientists, so we're wrong all the time, too.
T.J.: What is it? What's the funniest joke?
ANDREW SCHULZ: The funniest joke about #MeToo is that the #MeToo movement stopped during the pandemic when women started making banana bread.
JUDY GOLD: I don't think that's the funniest.
ANDREW SCHULZ: And they realized what they really wanted.
ROLAND FRYER: I don't think that's funny.
ANDREW SCHULZ: Which is to stay at home all fucking day in the kitchen and clean. They were forced to stay inside, and they loved it.
JUDY GOLD: Alright, that's funny.
ANDREW SCHULZ: You had to let me tag it.
JUDY GOLD: That is funny.
ANDREW SCHULZ: But that's not right, right?
NOAM DWORMAN: It really does sound like you believe that, though.
ANDREW SCHULZ: I have conviction.
ROLAND FRYER: That's why it's dangerous. Because he believes it.
ANDREW SCHULZ: My wife has never been happier.
SAM JAY: Am I afraid of getting canceled? Sometimes. I mean, I think if you do anything now in the public light, there's this kind of inherent fear. In this world that doesn't seem to understand nuance anymore, I think there's an inherent fear of people running with something and fucking your life up. And I think, as an artist, it's super scary because a part of your job is vulnerability and just to be rawly honest in your mistakes and in your victories.
And to do that, you have to say where you went wrong. And when we're not entertaining the gray and we're not entertaining the nuance and there's just these very hard lines drawn in the sand of what is and isn't okay, and no one's equating life and experience and baggage and emotional shit and everything else that plays into a right and a wrong, as an artist, you become afraid to create art. And in that, we'll be stilted as a society because the conversations won't move and be pushed in the necessary way.
So, yeah. Is it a fear? A little bit. But then there's this other side of me that's like, I don't know, the masses have always been fucking stupid. Not for nothing. I think individually people are reasonable, and in groups people are fucking idiots. And if you bend to the will of the mob, then you're always bending. And the other responsibility of artists is to say, “Fuck the mob.” And sometimes when you say fuck the mob, the mob persecutes you. They burn you at the stake. They fucking take away your shit. They try to deny you the right to do the thing you love to do, because the mob also usually is a group of people who hasn't tapped into their own potential yet and hasn't tapped into their own truth and hasn't tapped into their own own fucking access to happiness. So they don't know how to process seeing a free motherfucker. Because they're not free yet.
ROLAND FRYER: Wow.
SHANE GILLIS: Glenn, are you Sam's older Pokémon?
T.J.: How long you been sitting on that one?
SHANE GILLIS: I was waiting that whole speech. I was like, how do I work this correctly?
GLENN LOURY: Call me wrong if you must, but don't you ever call me humorless.