That’s Not Funny! : Cultural Capital and Comedic Critique

Curator's Note

It’s often said that the best way to kill comedy is to analyze it and that feminists can’t take a joke. Indeed, this was largely the online response to the debate between Lindy West and Jim Norton over comedy and rape jokes, which took place on FXX’s late-night sociopolitical comedy talk show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell (2012-2013) in May 2013. Humor scholars frequently use Mikhail Bakhtin's (1984) notion of the medieval carnival as a way to theorize the ideology that stand-up comedy is a space in which hierarchies are inverted, social codes are disrupted, and polite behavior is thrown out the proverbial window. As Jim Norton argues, “if you’re trying to be funny,” no subject should be off limits. But who has the cultural authority to decide what counts as funny? I use these clips (which I’ve edited from the extended sixteen-minute segment) as an example of the ways in which cultural and social capital (Bourdieu 1984) determines who is permitted to set limits on comedic speech. In the intro to the debate, Jim Norton is framed as the expert on comedy, while Lindy West is framed as a “staff writer” and “feminist,” despite her being a comedic writer as well as a fan and performer of stand-up comedy. Because what counts as comedy is still largely defined by masculine norms, Jim Norton is able to freely comment on the craft of comedy while Lindy West is seen as an unfair critic and humorless feminist trying to spoil everyone’s fun. Ironically (but unsurprisingly) after Jim Norton argued that comics shouldn’t be harassed for saying funny things, that it is “selfish” for people for people to try to silence speech, and that comic speech has never led to violence, his fans overwhelmed Lindy West with online death and rape threats to the point where she quit watching and performing stand-up comedy (West 2016). Notably when Patton Oswalt, a well-respected white, male comic, came out against rape jokes months later, he was largely praised by the critics and left alone by comedy fans. As evidenced in this debate, the authority to critique comedy still resides with comics who adhere to a rigid set of standards set by the historically male comedic sphere, while those who seek to shift comedic standards are often forced out of conversations about comedy and out of the comic sphere altogether. Works Cited: Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press, 1984. Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard University Press, 1984. West, Lindy. Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman.


This particular debate wasn't on my radar. Thank you for posting about the clip, Stephanie. It's interesting that you bring in Bakhtin here because there seems to be an unequal inversion happening. What I mean is that male comics can invert social codes--take illegal, unethical behavior that victimizes women and make light of it--but Lindy West's treatment demonstrates that it is much harder for her to invert the gendered hierarchy and still be funny. The debate is positioned as comic vs feminist (not hegemonic comic vs. feminist comic), making it seem that feminist and comic can't coexist (because that gendered hierarchy is sacred). I really like this Women in Comedy documentary and show it to my Humor and Media class. (It also addresses "crossing the line") Next time I teach the course, I'll remember to show the debate Bell facilitated as well.

You are spot on with regards to Bakhtin and the inversion of social norms. I've long been interested in the double standard there: who is "allowed" the freedom to invert the norms are whose behavior is policed. Only certain comics seem to be allowed to actually "play" within a carnivalesque space, so I think it's important to question and critique the paradigm. Debates like this one, and others regarding the so-called "PC" police in comedy, really bring that to the forefront. Also - thanks for the documentary rec! I will make a point to check it out.

Stephanie, your use of Bakhtin to enter into this debate is really intriguing. Another aspect of the "carnivalesque" is an active, unruly crowd, which social media and Twitter in particular seems to have reconstituted in the digital age. Following the logic of Tosh's infamous retort, I imagine most if not all netizens barraging West with rape and death threats imagined themselves as the vanguards of bad taste. This is the prevalent theme when writers for "Family Guy," for example, answer for the frequency of violence against women on their show: it's shuffled into the grab-bag of beyond-the-pale that is supposedly chosen from indiscriminately when finding new ways to tell jokes about everyday depravity. Assuming that the dominant culture does already abhor violence against women, then, a carnivalesque "billingsgate" (abusive language) would indeed include rape jokes. The feminist critique articulated at least in part by West is that, on the contrary, rape jokes reaffirm dominant power structures rather than invert them, and that the "safety valve" function of Tosh et al's extreme blue humor thus fails. EDIT: This clip of Norton discussing the debate on Opie and Anthony is illuminating. Although he doubles down on his position, he also dismisses concerns about free speech, and seems especially focused on the craft aspect. Your post really has me thinking about gender and cultural capital in comedy. That the NY scene is a boy's club is a pretty uncontroversial assessment, so the question that follows naturally would be: Do women comics like Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman, who regularly collaborate with the likes of Norton, Kurt Metzger, and Nick DiPaolo, all NY comics and all outspoken critics of feminist critiques of rape jokes, gain power in this scene by being "one of the guys?" Much of their comedy, especially more recently, would suggest otherwise. Rather, the kinship with their male counterparts seems to subsist more in mastery of a double-coding practice that these comics all, to some degree, have in common, and that Schumer in particular has harnessed as a feminist praxis. But then, another question remains: is double-coding itself gendered, by virtue of being the only way for women comics to articulate experiences of sexism/misogyny while also accruing capital in their male-dominated habitus?

Thanks for the post, Ben, you've raised some great questions for me to think about. Gender and cultural capital is the crux of my dissertation, so this type of feedback is so helpful. In her book, West mentioned that she continues to get violent threats from Norton's fans, and his response is usually to shrug and say that comedy doesn't influence people to be violent. I think the point she makes in her debate is important -- why is it that comics who think that comedy needs to be a protected space because speech is important simultaneously argue that speech can't cause violence? That tension is something I'm interested in exploring. Your point that rape jokes reinforce hegemonic hierarchies instead of flipping them is one of the impetuses for the paper I drew this post from (which I wrote soon after this debate happened) -- I kept reading work on comedy relating it to the carnivalesque, and it seemed to me that there was an assumption that the carnivalesque space works similarly for all comics and all audiences, when it seemed to me more complicated. For me, Bourdieu's framework has been more useful to me in thinking through power dynamics within the comedic sphere. Your last point reminds me of Beck Krefting's book -- she might argue that Schumer gained capital by adhering to masculine comedic norms, and now that she's accumulated enough, she can start to be more outspoken in her social critique. At the same time, she still seems (in interviews at least) to see herself as a comic first and a feminist second, while there are many female comics who fail to gain traction in mainstream outlets because they see their feminism as more important than getting the loudest /easiest laugh. Schumer has said that she got a movie deal because Judd Apatow heard her on Howard Stern and thought she was funny, and she's become mainstream through outlets like Comedy Central and Last Comic Standing that cater to a male audience.

I missed this conversation as it was happening and just stumbled on it. I wrote a piece on the Norton/West debate and Tosh's rape joke (with Raul Perez) a few years ago really appreciate this discussion. There's much to say about the debate and I agree wholeheartedly with your point, Stephanie, about comedy's masculine norms and Norton being funny (to some) and West appearing as humorless (to others), and how irritating it is to see debate framed as "feminist v. comic" (as though one can't be both). Notably, the studio audience laughs with Norton and claps/cheers with West. But it's the Bakhtin piece of the discussion that really intrigues me here... Humor scholars frequently invoke Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque in their discussions of comedic performances that engage with social and cultural issues, but in many cases I see examples of comedy that are grotesque inversions of Bakhtin’s category. (Daniel Tosh does *not* displace hierarchical relations thru a display of excess, but rather gleefully mocks society’s least powerful groups.) Is there published work that addresses what Ben alludes to above: how 4chan users, Twitter trolls, and the Alt-Right might be understood in light of the carnivalesque? My students consistently love the idea of carnival when I teach it, but I always point out that it sounds like a very unsafe place to be, esp for women and women of color (definitely very rapey)--and so it is for many on social media, where billingsgate, grotesque realism, etc flourish. Anyway, if any of you have written about any of this (or related issues), or know someone who has, or maybe would like to, I'd love to know. [I know Stephanie through SCMS, I'd love to read your work, Ben, and I've been teaching your Chappelle audience study for years, Lisa!]

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