10 Moments Comedians Made Us Think This Year

One of the benefits of being a comedian during an election year is that you get to rise above the vicious negativity of stump speeches and news soundbites and make your own poignant remarks about the general political culture. Interestingly enough, a large number of those “comedians being serious” moments this year had nothing to do with health care reform, the oil spill or the 2010 midterm elections. The comedy community not only took its own detached, satiric tone, it selected its own discussion topics. So here are 10 Moments Comedians Made Us Think in 2010.

10. Tina Fey receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

When Tina Fey was awarded one of the top distinctions for American comedy last November, the expectations couldn’t have been higher for an acceptance speech. But Fey delivered spectacularly, sneaking in one of the most profound feminist statements of the year, directed at all the press over Fey being the third woman ever to receive the prize. “Apparently I’m only the third woman ever to receive this award, and although I’m so honored to be numbered with Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg, I do hope women are achieving at a rate these days that we can stop counting what number they are at things,” Fey said. “I would love to be the fourth woman to do something, but I just can’t see myself married to Lorne.”

9. Conan’s “People of Earth” Announcement

Without a doubt the biggest comedy news event of the year was the late night war between Conan, Leno, and NBC. But the controversy didn’t explode until Conan released a statement addressed to the “People of Earth.” In the announcement, Conan made his position very clear: If NBC continued with their plans to move The Tonight Show back to 12:05 a.m. (allowing Jay Leno to do a half-hour show following the local news), Conan would leave the network. “My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show,” he said in the statement. “But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.” At the time it was a rare glimpse at Conan’s serious side, and the first instance in which Conan appealed to the populist sentiments of his fan base. “I’m with Coco” was officially born.

8. Abed delivers a baby in the background on Community.

While I love Community, often the show’s “it takes a village” themes get muddled in the not-so-subtle homages and meta dialogue. The series most poignant moment thus far was also its most disguised. The episode “The Psychology of Letting Go” features Jeff worrying about his own mortality, Pierce unable to move on from his mother’s death, and Britta and Annie arguing about feminist ethics while trying to raise money for charity. It’s an episode all about death and conflict, yet there is an uplifting story hidden in the periphery. Throughout the episode, we can see various scenes of Abed interacting with a pregnant student in the background, eventually delivering her baby in the bed of a truck. It’s a beautiful example of the duality of life and death, and the fleeting nature of hope in a world of hostility. Well done, Community.

7. Bill Maher defends the Left.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert eloquently stated with their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear that America is being held hostage by two extremes: the far Right (Fox News and Glen Beck) and the far Left (MSNBC and Keith Olbermann). It was a powerful message, one that it seemed both sides of the aisle could embrace. Surprisingly, the loudest dissenters weren’t Stewart’s conservative enemies, but well-known liberals like Rachel Maddow and Bill Maher. At first Maher sounded stubborn, but his argument provided a level of liberal rhetoric largely missing during the midterm elections. “The big mistake of modern media has been this notion of balance for balance’s sake,” he said. “Liberals … must stand up and be counted and not pretend that we’re as mean, or greedy, or short-sighted or just plain bat-shit as [conservatives] are. And if that’s too polarizing for you, and you still wanna reach across the aisle … try church.”

Bipartisan? Not at all. Needed to be said? Absolutely.

6. Louis C.K. discusses “faggot” on Louie

“The word ‘faggot’ really means a bundle of sticks used as kindling in a fire. Now, in the middle ages, when they used to burn people they thought were witches, they used to burn homosexuals too. And they used to burn the witches on a stake, but they thought homosexuals were too low and disgusting to be given a stake to be burned on. So they used to just throw them in with the kindling, the other faggots. So that’s how you get ‘flaming faggot.’ … You might want to know that every gay man in America has had that word shouted at them as they were being beaten up. Sometimes many times, sometimes by a lot of people, all at once. So, when you say it, it kind of brings that all back up. So by all means, use it, get your laughs. But now you know what it means.”

One of the most exciting new comedy shows this year was FX’s Louie, starring comeback comedian (then again, did he really go anywhere?) Louis C.K. The show felt so different than anything else on television: a dry, situational comedy with very few “jokes,” hyper-realism that isn’t afraid to shatter reality (a coffee shop filled with patrons all speaking a nonsense, mumble language; a date on the pier that ends suddenly when the girl leaps in a helicopter and flies away). But it was brilliant nonetheless, with several non-humorous moments, including a poker conversation about using the word “faggot” in stand-up sets. In the scene, openly gay comedian Rick Crom explains the etymology of the word: In a year when anti-gay slurs had some of the worst possible consequences, this conversation couldn’t have been more appropriate.

5. Jon Stewart’s panel with 9/11 relief workers

Last week the Senate finally passed a bill providing health care to 9/11 first responders, but it wasn’t before Republicans attempted to block the bill multiple times. Jon Stewart was frustrated with the GOP’s obstructionist tactics, especially on an issue he considered a “no brainer.” Fed up with what felt like a mainstream media casting a blind eye to the controversy, Stewart hosted a panel of 9/11 first responders to get their take on the matter. Some criticized Stewart for engaging in the same 9/11 demagoguery that he so often berates his GOP targets of doing, but in the interview he at least allows the guests to do most of the talking.

The night’s most memorable moment came when, after hearing Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) complaining about having to stay in Washington over the holidays to vote, Kenny Specht of the FDNY replied, “You won’t find a single New York City firefighter who considers it a sign of disrespect to work in a New York City firehouse on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.” Pwned.

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4. The Simpsons Banksy couch gag

Just when we thought The Simpsons had lost its touch, the show again threw us a curveball. In an October episode, showrunner Al Jean collaborated with the masked street artist Banksy (featured in this year’s fantastic documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop) and allowed him to create the couch gag. In his signature dark, twisted style, Banksy shows us images of oppressed sweatshop workers creating each Simpsons animation panel by dipping them in a large vat of acid, in addition to workers stuffing Bart Simpson dolls with shredded chickens and creating the holes in DVDs with the horn of a severely malnourished unicorn. It was a memorable moment not just for the blatant political statements, but because it reminded us that The Simpsons’ edginess hasn’t gone anywhere.

3. The “It Gets Better” Campaign

It certainly hasn’t been an easy year for the LGBT community. Despite political victories like a federal judge’s overturning of California’s Proposition 8 (which made gay marriage illegal) and the recent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a series of suicides of gay teens cast a dark shadow over the movement and pointed out how long our society still has to go on the long road towards tolerance. In attempt to reach out to other young LGBT people, there was a huge outpouring of support from the comedy community, organized by Dan Savage. With a simple, powerful message -– “It gets better” -– comedians all over the country reminded young homosexuals that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that if you ever feel under attack for your sexual orientation, hey, you can always take improv classes.

2. Conan’s final words on The Tonight Show

“All I ask is one thing –- I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.”

On January 22, 2010, Conan O’Brien hosted his final episode of The Tonight Show. By this time the “I’m with Coco” campaign was is full swing, and most comedians and media pundits had come out in support as well. Conan had spent his final few weeks making bitter jabs at Leno and NBC, most humorously doing unnecessarily expensive sketches featuring a “Bugatti Veyron mouse” (a character using a sports car costing $1.5 million) with the theme music of “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones (the royalties to which are incredibly high), just to make NBC pay the tab. But when it came to Conan’s final moments at the Tonight Show desk, he gave us one of the classiest sign-outs a burned comedian could give:

1. Jon Stewart’s closing remarks at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

So much has already been said here, so I’ll just say this: If you want to unify all Americans, hitting them with a traffic metaphor is a brilliant strategy.

(Honorable Mentions: Ricky Gervais’ recent comments on atheism in the Wall Street Journal, Splitsider’s own Stephen Hoban’s coining of the term “Colossal Donut Index,” and The Onion, with pretty much everything it does.)

10 Moments Comedians Made Us Think This Year