Comedy doesn’t belong to the a**holes anymore

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This week, comedian Artie Lange hopped on Twitter and unleashed a deeply disturbing, sexually explicit, violently racist overshare on ESPN host Cari Champion.

The tweet below should give you an idea. (You can read the full Storify here.)

It was typical male entitlement—“hello, sex-thing, let me tell you about my boner”—and also typical of Lange’s comedic persona: Artie drinks too much, Artie eats too much, Artie reveals too much, Artie feels too much, Artie is too much. Artie is monetized disaster, self-loathing personified—and this cycle of being disgusting and then feeling disgusted, perpetual self-reflection without self-reform, has kept him on the radio and touring comedy clubs for nearly 30 years. What Artie said to Cari Champion was not far from the norm for him, and for decades the response he’s gotten has been: “Oh, Artie, you’re so bad.” “Oh, Artie, you’re outrageous.” Artie’s edgy; Artie calls it like he sees it; it’s OK for Artie to be weirded out by gay people and black people because he hates himself even more.

But this time, it didn’t go down like that.

This time, Artie lost a job. This time, Artie felt some consequences. This time, Artie heard from the people he hurt. And, in response, he tweeted what, to me, was an astonishing acknowledgement:

“It’s a different world.”

You’re right, Artie. It is.

• • •

Last night I gave a talk about Internet culture to a group of parents at a local private school. I presented an argument I’ve made often: that Internet trolling is not random, it is not inevitable, it is a deliberate force with a political agenda—a strong-armed goon of the conservative status quo—whether every individual troll realizes that or not. 

There’s a reason why the most violent, sexually explicit, long-term abuse is reserved for people who agitate for diversity in traditionally white-male-dominated spaces: video games, comedy, atheism. Internet trolls (or, more accurately, the agitators who whip them into a frenzy) want to control who gets to talk, because their dominance is threatened by what’s being said. We really have no way to gauge how many voices have already been silenced, and how many will be too afraid to ever speak up in the first place. 

It’s important for parents to be vocal with their teenage kids about what agendas they’re furthering—what real-life consequences they’re fomenting—when they jump into online harassment campaigns for lulz or because someone disingenuously told them they need to “save video games” or “save comedy.” White male gamers and white male comedians are not beleaguered underdogs whose needs are falling by the wayside; they are, in fact, the only group whose tastes and desires are catered to on any sort of large-scale, cultural level. And “catered to” doesn’t even begin to describe it. “Catered to” implies that they exist within a larger framework, that there is a culture outside of them. But, rather, they are the framework. They are ambient. They are oxygen. And they become very, very angry when that monopoly is threatened, or even critiqued.

It’s a disheartening paradigm, and afterwards, during the discussion, someone asked a hilariously dismal question: “Do you think… and obviously you have no way of knowing, but… do you think… it’ll ever be OK?” 

I laughed. “Will what be OK?”

“Just… everything? Will we… win?”

I thought about it. How should I know? What would “winning” even look like? But I said yes. Because, though it might be imperceptibly slow, I think we already are.

Comics of Artie Lange’s scene and generation have spent their entire careers being able to say literally whatever the fuck they want, no matter how racist, misogynist, or homophobic. They say it in public, with minimal pushback and no consequences (often with great financial success, in fact). I’m obviously not talking about legal consequences (go take a nap, free speech brigade), I’m talking about social consequences, consequences in the marketplace. I’m talking about marginalized groups setting a firm boundary. This world is mine as much as it is yours, and I don’t have to eat shit and say thank you anymore just to be allowed in the club. I am tearing down this framework and building a new one, and I do not need your permission to do so.

• • •

For years, when he was still on terrestrial radio, I listened to Howard Stern every day. I knew that Howard made me feel like shit for being fat, for not being what a woman was supposed to be, but I loved Howard. I loved Artie too, to be honest. I wanted to be a part of the club. And, as I wrote in this essay about my break-up with Ricky Gervais, I was adept at rationalization:

“When I was younger, when a comedian I loved said something that set off alarm bells for me, I’d think: It must be OK, because he says it’s OK, and I trust him. I’d tell myself: There must be a secret contract I don’t know about—where women, or gay people, or disabled people, or black people agreed that it’s cool, that this is how we joke. But that’s not true, of course. There is no contract. And it is a much bolder comedic statement to say so—to mock the powerful and stand up for marginalized groups—than it is to conduct your career with all the nuance of a frantically rationalizing 19-year-old fan.”

It’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve realized I shouldn’t have to compromise my self-worth so that these communities will let me hang out on the sidelines. They should have to stop being oppressive shitheads if they want my money and time.

Because it’s not about being “offended.” (And, by the way, if male comics want to play the “offended” game, I can’t think of anything more embarrassingly pee-pants than throwing a tantrum because someone didn’t like your fucking joke.) It’s about tangible harm and the perpetuation of structural inequalities. Or, if your brain shuts down at the first sign of social justice language, I’ll put it more simply: Every single black person in this country is still tangibly harmed by the legacy of slavery, and every single white person, Artie Lange included, still tangibly benefits from it, socially and financially. Every woman is harmed by the cultural expectation that women are decorative possessions, sexual objects to be acted upon; and every man benefits from having been socialized to be the actor. And for a white man to exploit those dual injustices for profit (Artie Lange’s public persona makes him money), while furthering the sexualization and objectification of black women—this absolutely warrants critique and dissent from people who care about equality.

That has always been the truth. Artie’s “joke” would have been as harmful to Cari Champion and black women in general in 1994 as it is in 2014. The difference is in the world—how emboldened we are to speak up, and how receptive are institutions of power to actually listen. The world is different.

In one small way, the world is better.

Photo via Artie Lange/Twitter