In which I sit here and explain what comedy is

screenshot ripped off of Jeff Malone

Instead of working or sleeping, I got sidetracked watching an outstanding video essay on YouTube comparing and contrasting Tim Heidecker's comedy special (which I have never seen) to Rob Schneider's web series (which I have never seen). The video's creator struggled to find an ending, however, and she asked viewers to comment with their own conclusions. OK, the video is over two years old, but it’s never too late to write a good ending! I lost my nerve before actually posting. Still, here's what I typed out:

I’m bad at writing conclusions, but... I really agree with you about Heidecker’s role in Us; I thought he was the ensemble’s mvp. It shouldn’t have been so shocking to me, since all of his comedy is a type of ‘character work’ I guess, and much of his comedy is indeed unnerving or uncanny, a type of horror. I’ve never enjoyed Tim & Eric, but I’ve also never interrogated why—and I’m realizing it’s because I was in extreme physical discomfort and struggled, at the time, to really sit with that discomfort. If I’d reframed the show for myself as ‘horror’ I think I would’ve liked it!

I appreciate a wink and a nod—the Colbert Report always felt ‘safe’ because of Colbert’s knowing, impish grin, a reminder that we’re all in on the same joke—but I always admire when men are willing to dive to dark places, without a trace of irony, to be unlikable and even scary when it’s in service of the writer or director’s commentary about patriarchal norms. Here I’m really thinking of Ike Barinholtz—who, incidentally, has also collaborated with Jordan Peele in playing an explicitly dangerous person (Twilight Zone)—and who has really mined and explored this hostile guy’s psyche elsewhere, sometimes compassionately.

I do agree about the limits of usefulness of ‘satire’—at what point is an ironic performance just an unhelpful facsimile of the real thing, and is it enough to laugh in recognition—but even just from these clips I think it’s apparent that Heidecker is actually doing something?? I think it’s a lot more carefully constructed than it feels, a really close observation of a real person, and I find it very revealing. For instance, I don’t think I ever noticed before, or would have ever eventually noticed on my own, that the ‘thin-skinned hack’ is on a certain level just a garden-variety fascist, “king for a day,” thinking of his audience as his subjects and exerting his very limited power onstage because he feels alienated and disempowered in his everyday life. Power-tripping on people who aren’t supposed to speak, in other words. And I think Heidecker’s act is probably very ‘true’ in that everyone bombs, some people do get upset, and here is what that looks like: a sputtering dysregulated mess, a tossed microphone, a little tantrum.

In sharp contrast, Schneider is giving us a really curated and filtered idea of what his anger looks like, what his righteous indignation looks like, with speeches and soliloquizing and grandstanding and almost always getting the last word, the last laugh—a guy who somehow manages to always say the right thing at the right time. It feels like Rob Schneider is tired of being the butt of the joke, and he will be embarrassed NO MORE. And it's cringe because it reads as l’esprit d’escalier, a social power fantasy.

Larry David is hilarious because he’s constantly being humiliated and punished, fortune’s fool, a mess who says the exact wrong thing at the worst possible moment. Even when he’s being incredibly offensive, it’s still relatable on a base level, because we generally share a desire for social acceptance that we’ll never receive. We laugh in pained recognition, even when David is being monstrous. Or even Seinfeld! Seinfeld does observational humor, grandstanding, but at the end of the day, Seinfeld and his pals still can’t win, even when they’re “right.” Every episode seems to conclude with this idea that money, fame, and beautiful women still can’t save Jerry from being an outsider, a loser, a stranger in a strange land—and while this may not be true in his private life, it feels true on TV, and no one would ever confuse the two.

I’m sure you weren’t really asking viewers for their thesis statements, but I’ve already come this far, so I might as well close out: I think I am realizing, only in this moment, that the reason conservative comedy kind of sucks—the reason it just doesn’t hit right—is because it’s self-aggrandizing, swaggering, on the offensive instead of defensive. There’s a complete unwillingness to play the fool for a gag. The mission isn’t to reveal, but to further conceal; it’s a bid at being ‘cool’ at the expense of being relatable.

And that’s not cool! It comes off as transparently insecure, because it raises questions already answered by the shirt.