What is the difference between “just a funny guy under a spotlight”, and a comedian?
Previously unrecognised as a journal of semiotics, The Adelaide Advertiser sparked a minor Twitter brouhaha (haha?) this week when it posed this interesting question in a brief, uncomplimentary and otherwise poorly written review of Melbourne “funnyman” Lawrence Mooney’s one-man show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. The piece, penned by hitherto anonymous hack Isabella Fowler, whose previous beat had been News Corp’s real estate section, would undoubtedly have sunk without trace into the seventh circle of search engine obscurity, had it not been for Mooney’s ill-advised reaction on social media.
As more than one amateur media theorist noted on Twitter in real-time, Mooney’s apoplectic, emotionally incontinent response was a case study in how to self-harm in the digital space, and draw attention to a shit review that nobody would otherwise have read. But in one sense, it’s easy to see why Mooney reacted in such a seemingly disproportionate way. Because to be adjudged unfunny, or not in command of the craft of being funny, represents an existential threat to a comedian in the same way that verifiable innumeracy does to an accountant, or impotence to a porn star.
But in addition, as Helen Razer has observed in typically mordant fashion, the exchange illustrates the devaluation of criticism in today’s cultural landscape, with junior, multi-tasking hacks like Fowler being asked to pass judgment on subjects they have little knowledge of or interest in, for the benefit of a dwindling pool of readers who actually look to critics to help them shape their opinions and choices. But I would argue there is an added dimension to Fowler’s question, in that the dichotomy it presents speaks to the demystification and devaluation of craft – particularly in comedy but also in other areas of the arts – that has been wrought by open access to the means of cultural production, online.
For millenials, the concept of a “professional comedian” must be starting to seem rather quaint, given that everybody is now engaged full-time in trying to be funny for an online audience, every day, for free. Whether it’s wittily captioning a bad coffee on Instagram, crafting Wildean epigrams on Twitter or liking shopworn memes on Facebook, we are all constantly trying to be “just a funny guy under a spotlight”: someone who is inherently, effortlessly funny, but who doesn’t feel the need to turn pro. In this world, someone plying their trade as a “comedian” runs the risk of looking like they’re trying too hard. And in a field already recognised as amongst the most difficult in the performing arts – stand-up comedy – this added anxiety must only add to a performer’s insecurities, and is something I’d argue is a discernable undercurrent within the text of Mooney’s meltdown.
Are you deaf or an idiot? You did hear people laughing hard for an hour didn’t you @BellaFowler93 Mooney railed at one point, as he continued to throw post after post on his own PR pyre. But in doing so, he was sidestepping Fowler’s central provocation, perhaps because it was too confronting or difficult to deal with. Because the question of what, in an epistemological sense, separates a comedian from “a funny guy under a spotlight” is one that can’t be answered in an open forum by a practitioner like Mooney, because to do so would be to undermine one of the main tenets of his craft in the post-Lenny Bruce era: its claim to naturalism. And ironically, it’s this sense of naturalism that social media has helped to erode.
As the American comic Rob Delaney (a man who readily admits he owes his career entirely to Twitter) noted at a recent event in Melbourne, the transformative power of the microphone – which is of course integral to Fowler’s notion of “the spotlight” – is crucial to the construct of stand-up. Like a magician disgracing his guild by revealing the tricks of the brotherhood, Delaney made the point that a microphone allows anyone who speaks low and slow into it to suddenly seem funny, or at least funnier than they did without it. And with that realisation, objective “funniness” becomes a whole lot harder to gauge than just through an audience laugh-o-meter.
But what is the existential threat to a media demagogue, particularly one with a megaphone and a loyal audience? The answer seems increasingly difficult to define, partly due to these figures’ mercurial place in the table of media elements. What is the talkback radio shock jock, or tabloid culture warrior’s Cartesian fault line, in the absence of diminished ratings? Should we just accept that they and their audience are completely invulnerable to critique, unlike in the inherently delicate space of stand-up where silent protest is enough to completely derail a performance, and stop liking and sharing outraged “reviews” amongst ourselves? Does the fact that we are all constantly broadcasting our own views about and to the world, whether directly or via the semiotics of sharing and liking, in any way diminish these “performers” in the same way it would a comedian? And in the current environment, are there that many differences between comedians and commentators anyway?
When accused of frothing bias or a lack of sober objectivity, people like Alan Jones will invariably counter that such journalistic niceties don’t apply to them, as they themselves are simply “commentators”, “opinion generators” or even “entertainers”, despite the fact their programs are wholly concerned with news and current events. Political comedians like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher regularly play the “I’m just an entertainer!” card when accused of activist bias. This is true yet disingenuous, given their obvious level of influence in a political paradigm defined almost entirely by notions of spectacle and theatre. Maher regularly makes the acute observation that there are very few prominent right-wing political comedians, as the material they have to work with is so much poorer than that available to those on the left. (In Australia, Ray Hadley continues to valiantly fashion a protectorate for right-wing comedy out of intellectual kitchen twine and bin-liner, via his stream of dazzlingly execrable satirical songs.)
And when accused of xenophobic rabble-rousing, fascist incitement or merely shocking insensitivity, these same figures will produce the sycophantic testimonies of their thought-programmed listeners/readers as evidence that they are merely reflecting the public mood. Alan Jones’ monotonously outrageous statements, for instance, including that Australia “needs more stolen generations”, that Julia Gillard’s father “died of shame”, that Muslims should be attacked in the street, and even the revelation that he accepted money from sponsors to perform corporate payola, have in no way diminished his political capital. In the case of his comments about Gillard’s father, Jones’ position looked momentarily precarious after the withdrawal of some prominent advertisers, but after this brief moment of turbulence he was able to comfortably resume his place in the peanut pulpit, confident that much like the major Wall Street banks, he was considered too big to fail by his corporate owners, who had far too much at stake in him financially.
In the US, Donald Trump has adopted the habitus of Alan Jones and used it to fashion a terrifyingly successful political insurgency. But in an instructive moment, Trump limned the hazardous third rail of contemporary Republican politics during a recent primary debate, when he was booed for foolishly stating a fact. And not just any fact, but one whose enunciation constitutes the ultimate act of heresy in today’s GOP thought-prison: the fact that George W Bush was President when 9/11 occurred, and that he ignored numerous intelligence warnings about Osama Bin Laden being “determined to attack” on home soil. Prior to this, Trump had made statements which in a normal political climate would’ve instantly terminated his campaign: that Mexicans are criminals and rapists; that a persistent female interviewer must’ve been suffering from PMS; and that former presidential candidate John McCain’s status as a Vietnam POW hero was inherently unimpressive because, as Trump baldly stated, he “prefers guys who didn’t get captured”. And yet it wasn’t until he stated a verifiable, indisputable fact that he found himself on dangerous ground with the faithful.
And here, perhaps, lies a possible answer to what might eventually kill off the dinosaurs that bestride our domestic media landscape, like colossi of cloaca. Anger is an energy, as noted emotional physicist John Lydon was moved to title his latest memoir, but the polarity of that anger’s flow can always be reversed back up the line – back to its point of generation – through a careless, recklessly overconfident adoption of a position that at first might seem a natural sequitur, or an accurate sniffing of the mob’s wind, but whose lethality momentarily eludes even the most cunning of reactionary tub thumpers. It will be a position or pronouncement that has little connection to common sense or decency, but will instead be one that in some way gainsays the monolithic edifice of intellectual guano that they themselves have helped to create. But until then, it looks like they’ll be here all week. Try the veal.