Comedy ceased to be the province of angsty and possibly drug-addled white guys making jokes about their needy girlfriends and airplane food. It became (slightly) less exclusionary to women and minorities. It began to ask, and answer, the questions that newfound diversity will tend to bring up—questions about power dynamics and privilege and cultural authority.
As comedy began to do a better job of reflecting the world, it began, as well, to take on the responsibilities associated with that reflection. It began to recognize the fact that the long debate about the things comedy owes to its audiences and itself—the old “hey, I’m just making a joke” line of logic—can be partially resolved in the idea that nothing, ultimately, is “just a joke.” Humor has moral purpose. Humor has intellectual heft. Humor can change the world. We may well deserve, as Schumer said this week, to “watch like no one’s raping.” What she didn’t say, but what is clear from her comedy, is that jokes themselves have a way of getting us what we deserve.
“How Comedians Became Public Intellectuals.” This is a typical crosseyed drooler of a thinkpiece in the Atlantic, following the exact same template as the articles you might have read there several years ago gushing about how social media, or Twitter in particular, were likewise changing the world for the better. Now, leaving aside the party-pooping fact of how injustice always seems to prove more resilient than the shiny novelty of the latest game-changer, I like to think that an actual public intellectual would be wondering if it isn’t just awfully convenient how all these things we would have been doing anyway, like reading fiction, watching stand-up comedy, and dicking around on social media turn out to be the oil lubricating the engine of historical progress, but that only serves to illustrate the unwitting accuracy of Garber’s last sentence there: we are indeed getting the intellectuals we deserve.