That is how my friend and comedian Brandi put it to me.
Brandi was responding to my drive-by reflection on the latest comedy drama.
Brandi knows how to speak my language. In “Thick”, I have a lot of fun with columnists at elite publications. I use these columnists as a proxy for cultural hegemony. Whether we think they should matter is irrelevant. They do and one of my jobs is figuring out how they matter for different groups of people.The comedy drama that got me going went down with Kevin Hart but, like those elite columnists, there seems to be a larger point to make.
Kevin Hart went on a new social media platform today to argue with people who say his latest special isn’t funny. They may also have been arguing that Kevin isn’t funny. I am getting this all second-hand because I am never going on Clubhouse, the social media platform in question.
I am never going on Clubhouse for the same reason I got to wondering about why comedians melt-down: I want to always know my lane. Clubhouse is not my lane.
Dave Chappelle recently did a provocative Saturday Night Live monologue that manages to be both brilliantly incisive on race and pedestrian as hell (and bad) on gender and culture wars. Dave has joined many comedians in loudly, repeatedly bemoaning that “political correctness” and “woke” are killing comedy. Dave has been careening wildly lately between his lane and lanes best reserved for Reddit moderators. He isn’t the only one. Kevin isn’t in the same atmosphere as Dave. At his best, Dave is the very definition of a social critic. However, this week they share the honor of being comedians who really get *it* in some ways while not getting it at all in other ways.
I wondered if comedians have the same built-in reality checks on the natural limits of their creative lifespan that athletes or singers or dancers have. Creative lifespans are idiosyncratic, but are often special in the same ways. We can create forever but few of us will do so. It takes time to learn your craft. If you are lucky, your craft eventually meets your ability and you find the much-heralded state of flow.
If you are more than lucky, you are in service. That is when your craft meets your ability and your flow meets the zeitgeist. You are in the DEEP. No one can hang out there forever. You have to come back to the shore, if only to eat and maybe have some babies or pay a light bill.
Or, you have a wife and you do not have to do any of those things. That is when a critic or an audience or an editor or a new, bigger power forward shows you that it is time to go back to the coastline. No harm, no foul. You will still create but maybe your ebbs and flows are on a different schedule.
Dave and Kevin might need an editor as much as the guys who are all quitting Vox and The Intercept, that’s what I’m saying.
Maybe this happens in every creative endeavor but comedians seem to struggle in a particular way with the zeitgeist moving on. Or, it could be that I think of really good comedians as supremely tuned into cultural nuances. When they are so crudely blind to a pretty significant nuance — like, hey, trigger warnings aren’t a real thing — maybe I meet one of my natural limits.
Roxane Gay and I talked with Claudia Rankine on Hear to Slay recently. Claudia told a great story about Richard Pryor that got us talking about great comedians as social critics:
White Women Are Mad at Me
How do we talk about race with white people? Poet and dramatist Claudia Rankine on how to have those necessary…
That interview prompted us to plan a whole show about comedy’s social function. Just wait until you hear about our guests. It is going to be good.
This book came across my Twitter feed recently:
Laughing to Keep from Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century
African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century How African Americans have infused satire with a potent new…
There may be a special role for Black satire by Black comedians at play in my expectations and in Dave and Kevin’s blind spots.