Comedy’s Authentic Lies

Since (not entirely voluntarily) retiring from screenwriting, I wrote Funny: The Book / Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Comedy. When sales skyrocketed into double figures, a university invited me to a conference about ethics in standup comedy. But really, what kind of humorless, self-important asshole would go to something like that?

I landed amidst 50 philosophy professors from around the world, plus one other non-academic; a critic who gave a talk on “authenticity,” which seemed to say that the idea of authenticity in comedy is – and I hope this academic jargon isn’t too thick – bullshit.

He quoted Louis C.K., who has what I think is the best joke about standup comedy in history, the definitive statement on the question of authenticity: “I went to a bar the other night. Where isn’t important, because I’m lying.”

Beat, huge laugh. But think about it… Of course he’s lying – we knew that. Where doesn’t matter because it’s a setup, a premise, a “gimme.” There’s a contract between artist and audience: we suspend belief and you give us pleasure. When no one yells “Hold on, what’s the name of that bar?”, the contract becomes enforceable. Comedy, like all art, doesn’t give a shit about accuracy. But art cares deeply about the truth.

Of course, everyone’s “truth” is different; standup truth is one the audience either shares or comes to share by dint of the comic’s comic persuasion.

You could say comedy is similar to religion: in one, accept the premise and get a laugh; in the other, accept a higher power and get eternal life, emotional support, and answers to all questions. (This may explain why there are more religious people than standups.) Accepting a premise means suspending disbelief.

In Chewed Up (2008), Louis talks about a comedy club waitress who comes to his hotel; they make out, she stops him; he tries again, she stops him; she leaves. The next night she says, “What happened? Why’d you stop?” Louis is baffled: “’Cause you weren’t into it.” “No no, I just like to be forced.” Louis is astonished: “Are you out of your fucking mind?! You think I’m gonna rape you on the off-chance you’re into it?!”

Hilarious. And it makes a point. But doesn’t “authenticity” – believing it really happened – play a role in that point? I asked the critic if it mattered whether Louis made up the waitress and he said no.

I respectfully disagree. The bar joke is brilliant, playing off the truth that all comedians, like all artists, lie. But its truth – the location of the bar – isn’t important.

It’s different for waitress rape; what’s the truth being exposed there? “Some women are like that”? If that’s the “insight” we get and the story is a lie, then, I’d argue, Louis is taking advantage of the trust and good will he’s earned (which allowed him to get away with his 2015 SNL monologue about child molesters) to make an unearned point. We’re encouraged to think “Yeah, sure, there are women who expect men they barely know to give them sexual pleasure even if it means being arrested for rape.” Which may be Louis’s truth but is, arguably, one that’s a smidge shy of universal.

Standups who make social commentary – Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Lewis Black – usually represent clear moral points of view, and audiences who embrace them usually embrace their perspectives. The counter-argument seems to be that comedians’ personas have no relationship to who they actually are. But isn’t that classic cake-having and -eating? Successful standups shouldn’t be judged on the personas that make their fortunes?

I was a comic for a few years. Not a great one (although, throat clear, The New Yorker called me “witty”), but one night I was killing and discovered I felt uncomfortable – the audience “loving” me was weird; the false intimacy of the moment turned me off. I quit because I shrank from the love of strangers, which most comics lust after, for purposes both artistic and nefarious.

Nefarious? Imagine a legendary, genial, storytelling comedian, considered a paragon of paternal wisdom, who turns out to be a ruthless predator of women. Isn’t that a betrayal of trust? I would think so, though no real-life example comes to mind. At least not till he’s convicted and I can’t get sued for libel.

While most comics speak in the first person, almost all say they perform as characters. But most “character” examples – Andrew “Dice” Clay, Gilbert Gottfried – use affected voices to signal they’re acting. Other personas are slippery; Amy Schumer’s stage character relates to who she is but is exaggerated. Still, even false personas provide no cloak of ethical invisibility – no one claims they can say anything on stage (like “Let’s kill all the Jews”) (which would, of course, decimate the ranks of comedians) because it isn’t “really them.”

I agree that the idea of authenticity in a standup’s persona is bullshit, but subject matter is a different matter – specifically, when a comedian moves from personal observations to cultural critiques. Wouldn’t we feel betrayed if we found out that the political routines of Bruce, Carlin, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor (then), John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers (now) didn’t reflect their beliefs? Being Muslim-American is central to Hasan Minaj’s identity as a standup – wouldn’t we feel differently about him if it turned out he was Baptist?

The vast majority of comics’ acts are based on their lives. We know everything they say isn’t literally true but we expect that it’s at least truth-adjacent. Take the comedian who invented “truthiness,” perhaps the most prescient comic concept in history. Stephen Colbert, now freed from his Comedy Central mock-conservative character, revels in what seems to be personal political judgments. His routines get at least some of their impact from our belief that he’s talking to us (and Trump) from the heart as well as the writers’ room. If we learned that wasn’t true, Colbert would lose a lot of his comic force.

When Bill Maher used the N-word, some of his TV audience reacted with astonishment and he said, almost contemptuously, “It’s a joke.” But they knew it was a joke; they reacted because it was offensive. Something being a joke doesn’t buy you that ethical-invisibility cloak.

Amy Schumer challenges her audiences with sexual, cultural, and occasional political edginess. But sometimes her outrageousness masked problematic material, getting easy laughs from cultural stereotypes: “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.”

There, authenticity isn’t the point; if she’d actually been raped by a Hispanic guy, would the joke be less racist? And how is it different than Trump’s referring to “some” Mexicans as rapists? Not very… and among the people who agree is Schumer: “I used to do dumb jokes like that. Once I realized I had an influence I stopped.” Tossing the cloak aside, Schumer admits that her persona – raunchy, but feminist and inclusive – requires a higher degree of responsibility.

Sarah Silverman talked about an ex-boyfriend who was half-black, then chided herself for “being such a pessimist. He’s half-white.” Then, when the audience reacted, the capper: “I don’t care if you think I’m racist. I just want you to think I’m thin.” Which played off her (sometimes) persona as an oblivious, narcissistic white chick, commenting on racism from a faux-naïve perspective (that’s actually left-wing).

At a club, Daniel Tosh talked about rape jokes, a woman called out “Rape jokes aren’t funny!” and he said “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by five guys right now?” The internet exploded, Tosh apologized. (And The Onion headlined, “Daniel Tosh Chuckles Through Own Violent Rape.”) But most standups defended him, if not the joke, because he was responding to a heckler with an ad-lib. Sure, it was a failed ad-lib but what’s the punishment for that?

Comedians have the right to be tasteless or offensive, accidentally or on purpose. Criticize Tosh (or Maher or Kathy Griffin), boycott, but to prevent experimentation is to prevent art. Standups need to fail to learn how to succeed. (Noted comedian T.S. Eliot said going too far is the only way to find out how far you can go.)

And, by the way, Tosh’s joke could be more complex than it appeared. What if his question wasn’t rhetorical? “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped?” No. Which could have been Tosh’s wry, subtle – far too subtle – way of pointing out the difference between rape jokes and rape.

Bill Cosby (who I’m mentioning for the first time) became famous telling stories about his childhood. While Mr. Cosby’s reputation for probity is, let’s say, diminished, in the 1960s no one wondered – no one cared – whether his stories were true, because they felt true. People knew (or were) Fat Alberts in school and could relate.

That’s how most standup works: think up a joke then pretend it’s part of your life. But “authenticity” is the key; stories are more effective when they feel like they could have happened. Yet a successful joke depends not on its “realness” but on the artfulness of its construction and delivery. Which is as it should be; standup is about being funny, not having a funny life.

“Authenticity” doesn’t require truth but it does depend on whether a joke reveals truth or is just there for a cheap laugh. Now I’m all for cheap laughs (my own oeuvre contains the occasional fart joke), but the calculus for every standup is how much a cheap laugh costs for her relationship with the audience.

Picasso defined art as “the lie that reveals the truth,” but we all have our own truths. When Louis C.K. asks us to take significant moral leaps, we have the right to expect that his stories, the points he makes, the insights he has, reflect his beliefs.

So what meaneth the waitress joke? This: if it’s wrong to extrapolate a cultural insight from an anecdote (Spoiler Alert: it is), then it’s even worse to do that from something which never happened.

Fake authenticity is fine if used in the service of a comic’s actual world-view, but not just to make an “edgy” joke work; that, I’d argue, is deceptive to the comic’s fans and destructive to his persona. If standups ask audiences to make a leap of faith based on a premise, they have to accept that audiences may look back after they leap. (Risking serious neck injury.)

As for Louis C.K.’s bar, the answer is very simple: I saw Louis at a club that night. It’s in Soho.

David Misch is a screenwriter (Mork and Mindy, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Saturday Night Live), author (Funny: The Book, A Beginner’s Guide to Corruption), teacher (his own comedy courses at UCLA and USC), speaker (The Smithsonian, Oxford, Austin Film Festival), and recovered standup.

Comedy’s Authentic Lies