The Double-Edged Sword of Comedy

Comedians rip up our everyday perceptions. That's good and bad.

This is Part 3 of a series on language. The piece stands alone if that’s what you want out of your reading life, but for best results read this and this first.

Warning: the arguments I’m making here are far from inflammatory but some of the comedy I like is dark, and I talk approvingly about material that will upset some people.

In my previous couple of posts I argued that we create our lives and surroundings with our words. Describe something in shallow, flat language and that’s what it is. Describe it with wonder and reverence and you’ve produced something much larger. We think of flatter descriptions of things (‘there’s a forest’) as truer than more fanciful ones (‘there’s a beautiful wonderland of green’), but neither is “truer” than the other: they’re both linguistic constructions. The real difference between the two is that one is more boring but more widely agreed upon, whereas the other is more interesting but only appeals to a certain type of person.

It seems that some people just see more layers to reality than others. One person says existence is very simple: that’s a tree, here’s me, I’m born, I die. Another reframes everything in more mystical, heightened terms: there’s a wonderment of bark; here I am, a soul caught between time and eternity; I’m temporarily embodied; I transcend my body and embrace the infinite. Person A thinks Person B’s adding a bunch of stuff to reality that isn’t there, which may be comforting but is fundamentally dishonest and a little silly. And Person B thinks Person A is missing the point of everything, that they just don’t get it, that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy”.

I’m fundamentally a B person but I have a strong dose of Person A, so I’m in a position to let the two have good faith conversations with each other. Person A is right to sometimes bring Person B down to earth, pointing out that if you let your language get too carried away it can sever its connection with the brute physicality of reality and lose touch with common sense. But that’s very different from calling the entire mystical outlook wishful thinking or spiritual comfort food. Person B’s not making stuff up — that stuff is in them at the deepest level, and they can’t help engaging with it. It chose them, not the other way around.

Like everything else in life, it’s a matter of two extremes and a bunch of compromises in between: you have cosmic hippies and full-time mystics at one end, diehard rationalists at the other and people in the middle who believe in spirits but take a nuts-and-bolts approach to life, or who don’t believe in them but are perfectly happy to rhapsodise over a beautiful vista or write love poems. In my first post I used sex as an example of something that basically all of us agree has several layers to it, each of which require language to navigate and make sense of. Whether you define human sexuality as a simple matter of agreements (‘Do you want to?’) and negotiations (‘What do you like?’) or call the act a “portal to the energy flow of a loving universe”, you can’t say ‘It’s just biology when it comes down to it’.

In fact, it always interests me when people say things like ‘x is basically y when it comes down to it’ or ‘Isn’t x just y when you think about it?’ Sometimes these are genuine tautologies, so that the only possible answer is ‘Never thought about it before, but yes’. But frequently A people use arguments like this to rip down all the extra layers that B people see in the world around them.

The thing is, this ripping-apart isn’t always bad. It’s a double-edged sword.

Use it the wrong way and you strip away all the things that give life meaning and dignity. The ‘Isn’t a song just someone making funny noises for five minutes?’ level of argument fetishises a misguided notion of literal truth at the expense of the point — like the child who says ‘Why are we all being so quiet?’ at a funeral. But the Sword that Hacks Away Layers of Language (SHALOL) can also be used to rip apart the complacency, error and hypocrisy that accrue around our everyday speech. And that’s where comedy comes in.


The people most likely to say “x is just y when you think about it” are comedians. A comedian’s job is to strip away society’s layers of meaning, ritual and custom — and all the specialised, heightened language that goes with them — and point out what’s really going on under the surface: the emperor’s got no clothes!

So maybe you have a certain way of describing something that you take for granted, but is actually kind of ridiculous when you think about it. Seinfeld’s the ultimate example of the “observational comedian” who takes this kind of everyday speech and shows it up for the silliness it is. (On mobile-phone-speak: ‘“You’re breaking up”…what is this, Apollo 13?’) Or take Bill Bailey’s description of a footballer’s job as ‘shepherd[ing] a bit of leather into an outdoor cupboard’: a nice bit of estrangement for people used to describing the game in terms of rules, loyalties and aspirations.

These are harmless jabs, and they won’t stop people watching football or using spaceship-speak on the phone.

But sometimes the language we use to describe reality is so inadequate and hypocritical that it becomes actively harmful. Bonus points if most of our ideas about life are solid but some ambiguous wording here and there has allowed bad ideas to sneak their way in, making it almost impossible to point out the bad bits without threatening the good bits as well. Sort of like when termites get into a wall and threaten the structural integrity of the whole house.

In these cases comedians who wield the mighty SHALOL are performing a kind of public service. You may not agree with everything they say, but the fact that they’ve made you look at a previously settled issue again and question your presuppositions about it makes their work valuable and even necessary. The most skilful comedians can take subjects as sensitive as the value of the teaching profession or even domestic violence and pick at the conventional wisdom around them a bit, so that even those in the audience who don’t like what they hear are encouraged to dig out their attitudes and examine them. This is uncomfortable but an essential part of maintaining robust belief systems.

Where comedians like Bill Burr mount strategic assaults on everyday language without calling themselves critics of language, George Carlin spent his career openly going for the linguistic jugular. He was so perceptive about words — the way they shape reality, the way the people who shape the words get to shape our reality, the way that’s so often Not a Good Thing — that it’s a shame he isn’t writing this post for me. Here he is on the hypocrisy of “soft language”, which attempts to deny our shared pain by pretending it’s not there instead of honestly confronting it in all its horror: ‘Now the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities!

Heavyweights like Burr, Carlin and Dave Chappelle are the reason comedians are so often called modern philosophers. They share Socrates’ love of taking our cherished concepts apart piece by piece and forcing us to build a better language from the ground up. Of course, stand-ups have two crucial advantages over philosophers — they like small words, and they use a spoonful of funny sugar to help the conceptual medicine go down.

Comedy’s relentless questioning and undermining also make science, atheism and liberalism its natural bedfellows. It’s not hard to see why so many comedians are loud atheists: the Bible encourages people to take life highly seriously and often criticises “scoffers” and “mockers”. It’s possible for religious people to have a sarcastic side, but sarcasm as a way of life — a perpetual ‘You won’t fool me’ attitude — is just fundamentally incompatible with traditionally religious attitudes like awe, wonder, reverence, obedience and humility.

Then there’s the fact that religion generally tells us to accept things with serenity, while comedy invites us to criticise them with more or less concealed anger.

You can see the Great Divide between the Person B mentality (“Life’s journey is full of small miracles”) and the Person A mentality (“Let’s just get on with it, will we?”) in stand-up routines like this (2:43–4:37). Dara O’Briain’s outraged that the person giving his maternity class can’t stop peddling pseudo-science and talking in New Age-y metaphors long enough to tell the mothers how to have a baby. Her tone of voice alone tells him there’s a chasm between her mentality and his that practically nothing can bridge.

And this Billy Connolly routine — one of my favourite stand-up bits by anyone — highlights how just two words, said in a certain tone of voice, are enough to indicate a whole world of Person B-ness that 99% of comedians are guaranteed to find insufferable. Connolly can’t stand Nigel’s floatiness. His piety. His lack of grit, or strong emotion, or interest in what’s actually happening in front of him (‘Tottenham Hotspur I believe, they were playing another bunch of chaps’). The football match is just raw material Nigel can use to float himself back to his Person B world via his ‘You know…’ And he’s determined to drag his son along with him. (Incidentally, don’t miss the final few seconds — that’s the level of anger that fuels all Connolly’s observations here.)

For decades now the church has tried various strategies to keep itself “relevant”, but it’s failed to win comedians over. Priests and pastors seem to have hoped that if they ditched the fire-and-brimstone approach and took a softer tack they’d win over a public that no longer took the threat of eternal damnation seriously. But unfortunately for them, a large chunk of the population doesn’t take anything to do with the Person B mentality seriously. Their biggest issue isn’t with judgmentalism, but with the basic idea that reality has a bunch of mystical layers that you can’t touch or see. Where people like me experience those layers as adding richness to life, comedians feel they take away from everything that makes things vital, fun, themselves. So insisting on the existence of those layers in a gentle way is just as mockable an offence as insisting on them in a stern way.

You just sound like Nigel.


And that takes me to the dangers inherent in the SHALOL. Once you start stripping away the everyday language we use to describe the world, it’s but a short step to ripping down layer after layer of life’s meaning, dignity, value and worth until all you’re left with is some hopelessly impoverished conception of the way things “really are”. The worst-case scenario is abandoning all empathy, nuance and cooperativeness until you end up here. And the best-case scenario is Seinfeld. Seinfeld’s a genius-level sitcom centred around the premise that people are nothing but selfish, shallow and egotistical. Because there’s a lot of truth to that, the show works.

But there’s an important line between ‘Hmm, a lot of human behaviour does boil down to this’ and ‘Y’know, we’re all exactly like George’.

I think the SHALOL explains why comedy is so often the subject of controversy. Often what’s really going on when someone calls a comedian “crude” or “offensive”, and the comedian’s defenders reply that the material’s being taken out of context and what’s the harm in it, and the uncomfortable party replies that the tone just feels off, and the debate just rages on and on until you never want to watch a comedian again, is that the uncomfortable party senses that the comedian’s just ripped away about a dozen of the layers that give life dignity and grace. This offends their sense of beauty and rightness in a way that can’t be rationally justified, meaning they can never out-logic their opponents and win the debate.

(It’s telling that critics of offensive comedy don’t use vague terms like “bad taste” any more. Instead, they argue that edgy humour does concrete harm to people: such-and-such a joke is offensive because it hurts vulnerable people’s feelings, endangers minorities, props up an exploitative system, etc.)

For me, what it comes down to is that some people’s experience of life is just more delicate than other people’s: rain winds its weary way down a windowpane, love brings souls together in connection, etc. People like this are so attuned to life’s extra layers that they find comedy’s cynical dismissal of them — its inherent reductionism — too jarring to take. If they have a strong enough stomach, they may be able to put all these layers of meaning and beauty on pause while their favourite comedian lays waste to everything in sight, then press “play” on them again as soon as the set’s over. If they don’t have a strong stomach, they probably shouldn’t be in the room when a stand-up says…well, this sort of stuff.

Personally, I used to find the more brutal side of comedy highly threatening and distasteful, but I’ve warmed up to a lot of it over the years. It appeals to my inner cynic. I compartmentalise.

Ultimately, the job of the more sensitive is to appreciate that some people — even fellow poetic souls — have stronger stomachs than they do and can watch a vulgar comedy show without turning into terrible people. And the vulgar comedy lovers need to appreciate that not everyone who finds the stuff too strong for their tastes is a joyless Puritan who needs to lighten up. If the tragedy of Lenny Bruce taught secular society anything, it’s that the sensitive-minded and the strong-stomached are just as obliged to tolerate each other as the Christian and the Muslim are.

I have plenty more thoughts on the “edgy comedy” phenomenon, but I’ll save them for another post. And if you thought I’d have a lot more to say about the connection between religion and the poetic layers that B people apply to the world, you thought absolutely right. This post is dead, long live the language series.