The Rise of Consumer Comedy

Photo: Paramount Networks

How often do you hear someone excited to talk about how they know how to do lithography? How many people will talk to you for an hour – off the top of their heads – about what they think is going to happen in the next season of Game of Thrones? Over the past 50 years or so, different sorts of writers and thinkers have argued that there has been a fundamental change in how we understand ourselves; a change in who we think we are. We’ve shifted from seeing ourselves primarily as makers of things, craftspeople of one variety or another, to seeing ourselves primarily as consumers of things. As the legal scholar Harry Arthurs puts it, people “now seem to prefer alternative identities: as consumers and investors rather than as producers.” In other words, we take pride in what we take in rather than what we know how to do.

We can see evidence of this throughout popular comedy. A lot of what happens in late night TV, for example, seems to involve things that we consume, namely other media like TV shows, movies, and music. That’s what Lip Sync Battle is. Or, when James Corden and Tom Hanks reenacted moments from several of Hanks’ movies in a segment for the debut episode of The Late Late Show. You can find this sort of thing in many, many places, from sitcoms and standup to copywriting and commercials to conversations with people at parties. And it moves beyond parody, roasting, or rib-poking; it’s something different. It’s comedy by and for people who see themselves as consumers.

Profiling this sort of consumer comedy is important because its prevalence changes popular conceptions of what counts as comedy and, therefore, influences the subtler ways that comedy is made and appreciated. A world of comedy-for-consumers is different than one filled with comedy-for-producers.

The key to understanding consumer comedy is in understanding its relation to references and reference-making. References are a pretty basic and intuitive element of comedy. Simply put, a reference is some bit of knowledge or information that is required to get the joke, or, often, what the butt of the joke is. Take this monologue joke from Late Night with Seth Meyers:

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are reportedly making a movie about their lives. It would be Kanye’s first film.

In order to get the joke, you have to know that Kim Kardashian made a sex tape. This joke involves a reference to pop culture, but, of course, there are jokes that reference something in physics, or online poker playing, or the music of Morrissey, or the history of Australia, or the rituals of 13th century monks. The reason it’s important to be clear about these pretty obvious details is that it helps demonstrate what’s unique about consumer comedy’s relationship to references. Where comedy uses references, consumer comedy is simply just the reference itself.

The comedy of Kathy Griffin helps demonstrate the difference.

Griffin talks a lot about pop culture, including reality shows, pop stars, and celebrity feuds. During her 2013 special Record Breaker, Griffin makes a number of jokes about the oft-referenced Miley Cyrus. Griffin talks about tricking her mom into watching the performance of Cyrus twerking, and the bit includes gems like:

Did you see that wrecking ball?  That wrecking ball…needs to go see one of the few women’s clinics you still have open in Texas.

Griffin then proceeds to give her mother’s commentary of the twerking, and, whether or not you like Miley Cyrus, saw the performance, or even think the jokes are funny, there is one thing that is very clear: There is craft in Griffin’s jokes. Even more basically, Kathy Griffin wrote these jokes – that is, they represent joke-making work. There is something there now that wasn’t there before.

Put that way, it sounds like an extremely low bar, but, during the whole avalanche of jokes about Miley Cyrus and twerking, so many of them were the reference without the craft backing it up. It was just repetition of what was already there. In an episode of Two Broke Girls (“And the Piece of Sheet”), a character gets new pants and shows them off by twerking. That’s it. Just the twerking. In an episode of Glee (“The End of Twerk”), a whole storyline is dedicated to a twerking routine, and much of the episode is simply spent twerk-referencing.

I’m not saying that this sort of referencing of twerking is bad writing or poorly conceived. I’m arguing it isn’t writing or conceiving at all. Unlike Griffin’s jokes, this sort of referencing represents no comedic work. All there is to it is compulsive referencing. As an audience member, it’s nothing more than They’re doing that thing right now that I saw that other time. But it rings true on some level. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense to us. It’s scratching an itch that we have somewhere.

Why is this the case? It’s because we identify as consumers. That’s who we think we are on some level. People take pride in the things that they’re watching and listening to and what kind of beer they drink and the fact that they know where the best Mexican restaurant is. If people weren’t identifying as consumers in these ways, then this type of referencing comedy wouldn’t be happening.

You might think that twerking is an easy target, but I bet, without even trying very hard, you can think of all sorts of examples. In just the past month, how times have you encountered at least one of the following: “like a boss,” “FAIL!,” “That’s a thing?” “Really?! “that awkward moment when…,” and “That’s what she said.” That’s what consumer comedy is: the trafficking of these sorts of references. They’re all references to things consumed elsewhere that are meant to be, and are often found to be, funny. That’s what’s interesting about consumer comedy – it works. Because of the shift toward our identifying as consumers, a type of comedy has developed that is comprised of mere references to the things consumed, which ratifies that identity. And this makes people laugh. It rings a bell.

“Like a boss” is an interesting example that drives home how forceful consumer comedy is. “Like a boss” was something funny before consumer comedians got their hands on it. Like a lot of stuff from The Lonely Island, it was musical, fast, ridiculous, and funny, but do you remember how quickly it just became people saying “like a boss”? Saying it just to say it. Stripped of all of what made the digital short a piece of comedy in the first place. Our consumer identities turned a piece of comedy into consumer comedy within a day or so.

Importantly, it is not an all-or-nothing affair. It’s not like there’s a group of comedians or shows that qualify as consumer comedy and others that don’t. I am not making a distinction between good vs. bad, pure vs. impure, etc. It’s not that clear-cut. It’s hard, and not really helpful, to try to pin a comedian down, or comic sensibility, as one exact thing or another. Is Marc Maron a political comedian? Sort of but not really. Consumer comedy is something a lot of comedians, shows, books, articles, movies, etc. use sometimes. Even within one bit or joke, some parts of it might be consumer comedy and other parts not.

Go back to that Late Late Show segment where Hanks and Corden reenact snippets from 29 of Hanks’ movies. This is a pretty clear example of consumer comedy. In fact, the whole premise seems to be engineered specifically to deliver references. But that’s not all it is. It’s not devoid of jokes and funny moments. One of their reenactments is of a climactic moment from Road to Perdition, unaltered and unchanged, but there are moments of Corden impersonating a French mastiff, a fourth wall-breaking allusion to Matt Damon, and a joke about how confusing Cloud Atlas is and Hanks breaking character to defend it, among others.

Accusations of “joke thief” or “hack” serve as a tidy way of marking what is worthwhile and what isn’t, but “consumer comedy” can’t work like that. It’s culture-wide. Again, what we’re really talking about is “comedy” that results from non-comedic ways of understanding ourselves and, therefore, it is going to be anywhere we are, in a way. It travels with us. If we could back to twerking for a moment – twerking showed up in all sorts of nooks and crannies, didn’t it? The actress from Two Broke Girls hosted the People’s Choice Awards and twerked in a “skit.” How many countless YouTube and Vine videos were there of people twerking? And how many times did you have to hear somebody at a party or a family member or somebody at work just say the word “twerk” at some point and people laughed?

Consumer comedy passes as comedy on a large, public scale and on small, everyday ones. So, if the difference between comedy and consumer comedy is real – that comedy requires craft and consumer comedy doesn’t – this is troubling for those who love comedy. Something is masquerading as this difficult, nuanced thing that we love, and it is masquerading very convincingly.

What about the objection that comedy is subjective? If the audience laughs, the argument goes, then isn’t that what matters? Yes, but the expectations of an audience don’t just come out of nowhere. Audience expectations are shaped, particularly by what they see from popular and well-known sources. Sources like the YouTube channels of The Late Late Show and The Tonight Show, for example. Videos like “Lip Sync Battle,” “Celebrity Charades,” and “Carpool Karaoke” continue to ring that bell inside of us, confirm our consumer identities, and shape our expectations.

Comedians, not innocent of this consumer identity themselves, also naturally start bending their work towards these audience expectations. According to a somewhat romantic view of comedy, the purpose of comedy is to challenge, mock, or just not take so seriously the cultural practices and trends of the day. Traditionally, the comedian observes and comments from afar. If it’s true that the comedian is both affected by consumer culture and wants to make something that appeals to other members of a consumer culture, then it becomes much harder to do this observing and commenting. The comedian will often embrace and/or celebrate the culture they are meant to be scrutinizing, particularly the very trend of identifying as a consumer.

Harry Arthurs, the legal scholar whose quote begins this article, argues that a reshaping of our identities could have important effects. He writes of the future of labor law, but it’s applicable to comedy as well. Arthurs concludes that if workers were to “perceive that they have collective interests,” a more robust field of labor law would emerge and be able to contribute to the “narrative of resistance” being told by “diverse groupings of subordinate people” in this post-Recession landscape. These are projects that comedians could naturally contribute to; comedians are adept at addressing and understanding collectives/groups as well as providing insights useful for “narratives of resistance.” However, we lose these potential contributions whenever comedians see themselves as consumers – or, at the very least, don’t scrutinize that part of themselves from time to time.

This might even seem like an overly romantic view of comedy, the view that supports the mythology of comedians like Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks. The “comedian as teller of harsh truths” mythology. But just like consumer identity is subtle and pervasive, so is comedy that scrutinizes it. Take a joke from Maria Bamford’s album Ask Me About My New God!:

…I do worship celebrities, because they’re very powerful, their moods create weather. I was feeling bad about it, and then I was like, “Well of course, I’m just a tiny, frightened animal. I’m gonna look towards the most powerful and fertile-appearing of our species for information on how to survive. I need to find out what that Jennifer Aniston is doing. She’s a strong, sexy monkey. She’s going to tell us where all the bananas are located.”

If we were all blind advocates of consumption and devoted fans of consumer comedy, we obviously would have never had jokes that are explicitly critical of consumerism, like Hicks’ famous “anti-marketing dollar” joke from Revelations, but we would have also missed out on jokes like this from Bamford, jokes that express a similar sort of sentiment in a very different way. And that’s what we want in our comedy: jokes that give us new ways of looking at the world rather than jokes that just reflect the world back at us.

The Rise of Consumer Comedy