October 21, 2021

DESTROYING COMEDY: David Zucker, the co-writer and director of a little-known and rarely watched comedy film called Airplane! on the state of comedy today, and those who are attempting to eliminate it:

Humor happens when you go against what’s expected and surprise people with something they’re not anticipating, like the New York Jets winning a game. But to find this surprise funny, people have to be willing to suppress the literal interpretations of jokes. In Airplane!, Lloyd Bridges’s character tries to quit smoking, drinking, amphetamines, and sniffing glue. If his “addictions” were to be taken literally, there would be no laughs. Many of today’s studio executives seem to believe that audiences can no longer look past the literal interpretations of jokes. Fear of backlash rather than the desire to entertain seems to be driving their choices.

I admit that their fear of audience retaliation is not entirely unwarranted. There is a very vocal, though I believe small, percentage of the population that can’t differentiate between Glue Sniffing Joke and Glue Sniffing Drug Problem. It is these people whom studio executives fear when they think twice about rereleasing Airplane! on its 40th anniversary, when they put disclaimers in front of Blazing Saddles, or when they pressure writers to remove jokes that are otherwise perfectly offensive. As a result of these fear-based decisions, some of the best contemporary comedy minds are abandoning laughter in favor of admittedly brilliant but serious projects such as Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, and Chernobyl, written by Craig Mazin. These men collaborated on two of the Hangover pictures, which struck gold at the box office. Phillips summed up the general plight of the comedy writer when he said, “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it. So, you just go, ‘I’m out.’”

Or you can go the Dave Chappelle route: “When Sticks and Stones came out…a lot of people in the trans community were furious with me and apparently they dragged me on Twitter. I don’t give a f***, ’cause Twitter is not a real place.” But then, Chappelle’s The Closer special, as brilliant as it is, was likely a much cheaper proposition to produce than most Hollywood films: Fillmore Hall in Detroit was sold out; a three-man camera crew isn’t all that expensive for Netflix; much of the initial editing was likely done by the video director as the tape hard drive rolled. The highest expense was likely Chappelle’s salary. Compare that to the multiple star salaries, and massive committees that produce even medium-budget films in Hollywood.


The truth is, I still don’t fully understand why there’s a problem with making a joke that gets a laugh from an audience, even if it is mildly offensive. Why cater to the minority who are outraged when most people still seem to have a desire to laugh? Is there a way to determine what exact number of America’s population is killing joy for everyone? Is it 1 percent or 10; 3.3 million Americans or 33 million? Since I can’t seem to find one, let’s go with Phillips’s estimation of “30 million people on Twitter,” which computes to roughly 9 percent of America’s population.

What I often wonder is, why do studio executives feel as if they have to cater to these 9-Percenters? In all fairness, 9-Percenters are not a new segment of society. Historically, they’ve always lived among us. The difference between now and then, however, is that social media amplifies the voices of even the smallest subgroups while the anonymity of the Internet removes all consequences. This means that today’s 9-Percenters can hide behind screens and social-media handles as they attack any person on the Internet whose jokes offend them. The 9-Percenters of 40 years ago had to think twice about what they were sharing publicly, because at the end of the day, they had to sign their names to their reactions. Without this type of accountability, it’s all too easy for today’s 9-Percenters to attack and shame comedy writers into giving up on the genre.

And that “nine-percenters” number assumes that everyone on Twitter disagrees with something when the outrage mob finds its target. As the recent meltdown over Chappelle proves, it’s nowhere near that size, but the media loves to amp up the hype: ‘Netflix may become a stigma brand:’ PBS NewsHour says the backlash against Dave Chappelle’s special ‘is at a tipping point.’

Not a chance — the outrage will find its next target, and completely forget about this story.

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