The War on Humor

One of Jonathan Swift’s most endearing and successful practical jokes came at the expense of a wildly popular fortune-teller.

Swift circulated a prophecy of John Partridge’s death by fever amongst Londoners and then published an account of the death. Partridge scurried around London, insisting to deaf ears he was very much alive. The fortune-teller became a laughingstock and had to leave town forever.

Chris Rock is in a febrile mood, prancing on stage like a cat with a bird between its fangs.

After Will Smith, whom Rock dubbed “the softest n— in rap,” slapped him before millions at last year’s Oscars, Rock has kept schtum until his latest special, which premiered on Netflix earlier this month.

He wastes no time. With the hallucinated chagrin of a friend over whom the mushroom soup has taken hold, Rock lays into modern sensibilities. Our culture, the one in which we “type out woke-ass tweets on phones made by child slaves,” he says, has two indelible features: one, everybody is scared, and two, everybody is full of shit.

He bumps into his old friend, Fred, and asks him how his new job is going: “Oh, I love the job. It’s a safe space. I feel seen, I feel heard,” says Fred. “There’s a lot of diversity.” To which Rock replies: “N—, it’s me. What, you think I’m wearing a wire or some shit? What the fuck you talking about, safe space? N—, you did eight years for manslaughter. Nobody’s safe around you.”

That observation gathered a cacophony of laughs because it is unspeakably true. Much of modern culture, at least that directed by a coterie of social profiteers, plays pretend with such kabuki theatre. Nobody really cares about diversity—least of all those who obsess over diversity. Check out where cultural elites choose to live. Park Slope, New York, and Beverly Hills, Los Angeles are whiter than Ben Affleck entombed in a silo of double cream.

The Culturati do not care about diversity. Neither do their woke foot soldiers: richer, more homogenous, and much whiter than those over which they lord.

Armed with this unarticulated truth, Rock struts across the stage at Baltimore’s Hippodrome theatre.

“The biggest addiction in America,” he says, “is attention.” And there are four ways to get it: showing your behind, being infamous, being excellent, or being a victim. Fact check: true.

He lands a few on Meghan Markle—winner of the “light-skinned lottery”—writing off her ludicrous claims of racial victimhood as familial warfare. Meghan used to identify as white, only to identify as a woman of color when doing so proved profitable. Fact check: achingly true.

Cosmic acres of “Selective Outrage” isn’t so much funny as they are bracingly subversive. Rock the “controversialist” says what the vast majority says between bar stools and kitchen tables when sealed off from the pettifoggers, prudes, and profit-seekers.

Apparently, this is rather controversial.

Rock breaks into the marrow of the moment. For those readers who loathe this kind of thing, I’ll be quick: Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars after the latter joked about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Smith and his wife are in a very public open relationship. Well, that’s one, rather charitable definition. Anyway, a few years back, she plastered all over paper and pixel this entanglement with her son’s friend. Visibly and audibly melting, Will is totally fine with this most agreeable accord.

Rock goes for it. Freud has entered the chat. Will Smith slapped Rock, not for a joke about “G.I. Jane,” but in anger at his wife’s permitted and very public infidelities.

Let’s not play pretend. Every unbound male I know agrees with this contention. Will Smith pretends it’s an “open relationship.”

Will, mate, if she’s doing all the extramarital shagging whilst you sit at home penning a list of postcoital questions for the post-romp review, that’s not an open relationship: she’s taking you to the cleaners, son.

Chris Rock nails it: “She hurt him way more than he hurt me.”

In 2023, uttering things that daily-breaders agree with, and making no bones about doing so, is not in vogue.

The writer Roxane Gay was less than impressed. But not for the reasons one would imagine. It appears Gay watched Rock’s comedy special expecting a sociology lecture.

Writing in the New York Times, Gay said: “Mr. Rock discussed the tribulations of dating women on a transactional basis (having to buy shoes or pay for car repairs) as if it never occurs to him to date women from his socioeconomic milieu.”

Perhaps distinction is not Gay’s strongest suit. Chris Rock wasn’t outlining his chipper little thesis on “the acquisition of sexual intercourse through the prism of economic imperialism.” As a man employed to make people laugh, Rock was trying to make people laugh. Granted, Rock is a third-rate sociology professor, but this isn’t gender studies at NYU; it’s Chris Rock at Netflix.

For what it’s worth, the audience got the gist of what a comedian is and does, evidenced in their peals of applause and laughter; laughter of the guttural variety one derives exclusively from hearing someone say something of which the witch-burners would not applaud.

In her defense, Gay is an accomplished writer, versed in many wonderful things—but not, I am sure, in humor, comedy, laughing, or smiling.

Gay has form. In a review of “The Whale,” an acclaimed film about a troubled man eating himself into oblivion, Gay mistook the editorial direction for yet another sociology lecture.

In precis, “The Whale” failed to reflect or validate Gay’s fears and desires and was therefore unappreciated and unworthy. “The Whale” depicts an obese man literally eating himself to death, an affliction which, for all the phony empowerment and recantations of “healthy at any size,” is one of America’s biggest killers.

Such is the straitjacket of our prevailing culture of narcissism. Because our cultural personality is structured around self-importance (designed to stiffen shaky self-esteem), our culture holds reality at arms-length and filters information to conform to our desires.

Like an addled doctor, identity obsessives diagnose the ailment, then poke around every orifice for the correct symptoms.  For the nouveau-raciste, the pool of reality must reflect what they wish it to reflect. The problem? Sooner or later, one falls through one’s reflection and into the ankle-snaring weeds below.

Among this cadre, comedy struggles to register even a grin. Why? Comedy—messy, revealing, organic— is the antithesis of identity politics—exacting, concealing, metallic.

Although desperately maligned by our sensitive age, Freud’s maxim that the “essence of neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity” explains much of our current aversion to humor.

The appeal of humor lies in the indelible fact we are born into a game we cannot win.

As Freud had it, wit and humor help remove our inhibitions, which “combat such forces as reason, critical judgment, and suppression.” For Freud, the appeal and pleasure of humor lie in the “evasion of the censor.”

The psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler thought the difference between our ideal nature and our true, imperfect nature disturbed us at the most fundamental level. Laughter, then, is an expression of our pleasure in the revelation that others, too, are flawed.

Perhaps that illuminates why those who believe they can perfect human nature have a severe aversion toward humor.

After all, the essence of satirical humor lies in the revelation of the contrast between reality and pretense. Is it this revelation of which the censorious cannot abide?

Such humor accepts our flawed reality. Not only that, but such humor embraces it, indulges it, laughs at it, and crucially—revels in the hopelessness of those with designs upon altering it.

Which I why I say what I think. The humorless are betting against nature.

If that’s not a license to say what you think and laugh at the hopelessness of the prudes, the prigs, the maunderers, and the malingerers, then, I ask you, what is?

Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared originally at Christopher Gage’s Substack, “Oxford Sour.” Click here to subscribe.

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About Christopher Gage

Christopher Gage is a British political journalist and a founding member of the Gentlemen of the Swig. Subscribe to his Substack, "Oxford Sour."

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

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