In September 2014, when the NFL was embroiled by the Ray Rice scandal, Bill Burr made an appearance on Conan. During this appearance, he ranted about the NFL’s situation and suggested that women shouldn’t watch football because it’s a “guy thing” and they’re only ruining it. The day after, his appearance had made the rounds on the internet, with several websites talking about Burr’s sexist comments on the show. At the time, I happened to be writing for the now-defunct NFL blog Kissing Suzy Kolber. Burr’s comments had caught the attention of the KSK crew, and one of the other writers stated in an email thread that Burr was “just another sexist comic, like Jim Norton.” At that point, I had a tough decision: do I keep my mouth shut, or do I risk alienation by letting them now that I happen to be a fan of both Burr and Norton?
I ultimately decided to say nothing. That’s how it tends to go when you happen to enjoy the rough-around-the-edges comic. The comic who can be brilliant in some cases but cringe-inducing in others. Now, in the case of Burr’s comments about football fandom, I’d like to think he was deliberately exaggerating his point, and that if he had more space to flesh it out, it wouldn’t have seemed so retrograde. Still, this was coming from the same comic who also has a bit where he explains that “there’s plenty of reasons to hit a woman, you just don’t do it!” So, why be a fan of a comic like Burr if some of his material is rather difficult to defend? Because, quite simply, his best material is worth it.
For evidence of this, let’s consider one of Burr’s classic bits, entitled “What Are You, a Fag?” Don’t let the title fool you. The point of the bit is that every time Burr wants to enjoy something like a pretty sunset, or a beautiful flower, some part of his brain won’t let him, because it says, well, “what are you….” This is my favorite bit of Burr’s, and one that I can relate to on a fairly intense level. What he’s talking about is the element of masculinity that makes men reluctant to appreciate things that are unabashedly beautiful. There’s the idea that if we appreciate a perfect, sunny summer day without any reservations, we’re acting womanly, or as Burr puts it, gay. This tendency is a fine example of what feminists often refer to as toxic masculinity. And one of the best explorations of it came from a comic who is often criticized as being misogynistic. Go figure.
If Burr’s more questionable bits show that he’s been negatively effected by that toxic masculinity, wouldn’t it make all the sense in the world that he’d be qualified to talk about how it effects him? Essentially, with Burr, the good and the bad go hand in hand. For some people, his most dubious bits make him not worth it; for me, I’m willing to tolerate them in exchange for his most intelligent insights. That’s basically the trade-off with the rough-around-the-edges comic. Similar things could be said for Norton; he’s been blasted for years for his jokes about women, and about topics like rape. And yet, last year, he was also praised in a piece on this site for teaching its author trans acceptance (by telling stories about sleeping with trans prostitutes, of course). Norton may be known for his “anti-PC” attitude, but his personal experiences gave him a fairly progressive view on trans issues, which clearly spoke to the author of that piece. Despite having several bits that could be described as “problematic,” he still managed to have a positive impact in one of the most important social justice battles going on right now.
The difficulty with liking a rough-around-the-edges comic is deciding when they’ve gone too far. Artie Lange has a lot of bits that have cracked me up, but it was hard to get past his gross comments about ESPN anchor Cari Champion. Likewise, Kurt Metzger has made me laugh both in his standup as well on his RaceWars podcast, but his disparaging comments about a woman who made an anonymous claim of rape against a UCB host were troubling in a way that made me wonder if I could still enjoy his work. He came to my hometown of Buffalo last week, and while I was curious about what new material he’s been putting together, I ultimately felt a little queasy about giving him my money. Likewise, it’s been about three months since I’ve listened to an episode of RaceWars. I may return to his work in the future, but for now, he seems like an example of when the bad outweighs the good. Other people may make that same distinction with Burr or Norton, and I won’t blame them if they do. How much unfortunate beliefs/material you’re willing to put up with from a comic is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.
It’s worth noting that for all of the notorious comics out there, many of the comics who are held up as exemplars of “punching up” probably have their share of skeletons in the closet. Jon Stewart is a favorite among liberals, but in 2004, he referred to trans women as “chicks with dicks.” Likewise, any praise of Louis C.K. as being “woke” has to reconcile with his Opie & Anthony appearance, where he commented that the n-word was invented because “some black guy was just being a n*****.” Amy Schumer’s pre-A-List history of iffy racial humor resurfaced last year, and Trevor Noah’s old tweets reveal something far different from the respectable fake-news anchor we see on The Daily Show. What this illustrates is that the comedy world can not be divided so strictly into Good Comics and Bad Comics. The most controversial “edgy” comic probably has some surprisingly progressive material, while the latest liberal darling probably has a few jokes in their repertoire that would make their more social justice-conscious fans recoil. Ultimately, every comic is something of a rough-around-the-edges comic – some are just rougher than others. Where you draw the line is entirely up to you.