In 2002, at a coffee shop in one of San Francisco’s less-charming neighborhoods, I stood in front of 10 or 12 people and told a joke about AIDS. It got a laugh. After I delivered it, as I segued into a searing analysis of Destiny’s Child, I noticed a guy at a table with a Kaposi’s sarcoma on his forehead. When I was writing that AIDS joke, I figured since I was gay, it was fine for me to talk about AIDS, but in context, looking at the joke through the eyes of my audience, I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do again.
I had learned a lesson about my voice as a performer, and I am very grateful that then — a year into my comedy career — no one was there to see it but the folks in that coffee shop. And they weren’t even all paying attention.
Today, I don’t have to go to a small, poorly lit room to try something new. I can open the Twitter app on my phone and test a premise that way. Does America agree with me that “30 for 30” documentaries are just Lifetime television for women for men? Apparently not.
Twitter changed comedy. The microblogging service that has toppled governments also allowed my fellow comics and me to ply an audience of strangers with our jokes without having to gain the approval of anyone at a comedy club or TV network. Other social-networking platforms have built comedy stars, but the simplicity of Twitter has given it a central place in the democratization of success in comedy.
Which means every kid who thinks he’s a comic is tweeting garbage, constantly. The glory of Twitter is that it’s unmediated and direct, but the absence of gatekeepers also means that everyone is free to put their worst work up as easily as their best. And it has created a static, continuing record of that work.
Trevor Noah learned that this week, when his announcement as the new host of “The Daily Show” drew scrutiny to his nearly 9,000 tweets posted over the past six years. People found a handful of mediocre jokes with hack premises about women, Jews and fat people, and questioned the appropriateness of Noah’s selection.
Twitter is a river of content quickly flowing past. It feels like a safe place to toss out an idea, see if it succeeds or fails, then move along. In that way, it feels very much like an open mike. Forums where people can try out jokes and ideas are key to development as a stand-up. No comic is good at the beginning, no joke begins perfectly polished, and our art form is unique in that it cannot be practiced in private. For stand-up to get good, it requires a fair amount of public failure. Traditionally, that failure was ephemeral, but in a world of camera phones, blogs and Twitter, comedians’ growing pains can now be well documented.
Social media democratized criticism as well as comedy. So, just as we got a solid documentary record of comedians’ evolution, people also got the power to publicly scrutinize this dangerous, transgressive art form. That combination has been rough.
Good stand-up comedy cannot be safe; it must shock or surprise an audience. Some comics can do it magnificently with insights about socks, but the best do it with bracing commentary about the stuff that really matters to us. Sex, race, politics and religion have been the source of some of the best comedy I’ve seen, but the process of figuring out how to talk about difficult issues is going to involve errors that are potentially painful for people in the audience.
It is also true that good comedy can’t just echo tropes from the past that have a semblance of danger. Bad impressions of gays and Asians, complaints about unattractive women, brutal insults to trans people and mockery of African-American names have become the tired rubric of too many standups’ acts. These jokes aren’t just bad and hurtful; they reinforce a mostly white, straight, male power dynamic within the comedy world.
Social-media critics challenged these tired premises, and comics unused to having their perspectives questioned have replied that social awareness will destroy comedy. But it won’t. American audiences used to laugh at blackface, Mickey Rooney as Mr. I. Y. Yunioshi and any number of other caricatures. We grew out of those jokes.
At the same time, we can’t blame comedians for taking time to learn. Any critic of comedy who believes that he has always, universally, been on the right side of justice is engaging in a hypocrisy that is itself a joke.
The great thing about comedy is that it generally doesn’t take itself too seriously. It can toy, it can explore; today that happens, a lot of the time, in 140-character bursts. Noah has gotten a clear message about cheap jokes at the expense of marginalized groups, but so far it doesn’t seem as if that response will cost him the job. And it shouldn’t. Because, in the process of a comedian’s learning how to say the right thing, he needs the chance to say the wrong thing.
Guy Branum is a Los Angeles-based comedian who has written and performed on “Chelsea Lately.” He wrote this article for the New York Times.