This piece originally appeared in The Age
In July, American comic Tig Notaro was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. This was just the latest splash of fate’s bilge water: in previous months, Notaro had suffered a break-up, a bacterial disease and the sudden death of her mother.
Just days after her diagnosis, Notaro walked onstage, throwing away the jokes about bees and traffic jams. Their banality was now rancid. ”Hello! Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” And so began one of the great sets of comedy.
She described her diagnosis, cathartically playing with the c-word. She counselled the audience—their laughter punctuated by gasps and sobs—and they counselled her. She paused on the fact that her mother had been sent a questionnaire on her time in the hospital she had died in. This bureaucratic error, and its melancholic piquancy, was made uproariously funny, if only for the flood of tears the laughter kept at bay.
Never have I heard—not even Richard Pryor at his best—a routine so filled with mirthful sorrow, the marrow of the best comedy, the quality of the Irish wake.
Notaro hadn’t had time to properly absorb her diagnosis, much less script a comedy set on it. She improvised her shock and sadness with a charitable willingness to mock death, if only to be fully alive.
The host of that night, comic Louis C. K., called the routine masterful, and it was. So why am I telling you this? On any given week our columns, airwaves and social media feeds overflow with the latest outrage du jour. These notes of outrage are often loud and unmusical, a humourless cacophony of approbation and ideological piety.
A recent outrage concerned rape jokes and comedy—when and if they were ever appropriate. The criticism came in waves: it was insensitive, juvenile, trivialising—it could help normalise this unforgivable trespass.
Louis C. K. defended them, as he had made unpopular defences of comics before. C. K. was alarmed that an increasingly censorious din wouldn’t stop jerks being jerks, but comics would find it harder to practise their serious art.
Louis C. K. is a dark and transgressive comic. He is also a soulful one. He knows, as Notaro knows, what English novelist Howard Jacobson defined as the chief preoccupation of comedy: ”That we resemble beasts more closely than we resemble gods, and we make great fools of ourselves the moment we forget it.”
Oh, but I hear you say, ‘Why do comics need to trade off the misery of others? If their art is so serious, why stay in the mud’? Because comedy—like any art—shouldn’t have to do anything. It’s a witless and unworkable demand. Comedy is superb at persuasion and works very well when directed at the powerful or vicious. But comedy shouldn’t have to do this—it doesn’t have to be political or cerebral. It’s a sterile and fearful mind that seeks to circumscribe human expression. Freedom is indivisible.
All of this started not with Notaro, but a tweet by a feminist commentator. The tweet said that as much as we might dislike the Catholic Church, making child abuse jokes was always a low road. Don’t do it.
It bugged me for two reasons: one, the implied double standard decreeing it permissible to speak incautiously about people’s faith, while demanding we speak cautiously about sexual abuse.
Second, that someone else might determine for me what I find funny or offensive. I’d always suspected I might be among the first to know what I found amusing. It’s an anti-democratic instinct and, when the logic is unfurled, leads to a Byzantine mess of pseudo-regulation.
Two of my favourite jokes are dark, and space and taste dictate I leave them untold. But they’re both about sexual abuse, something I unfortunately know a little about. Might I need to approach a psychologist for a joke exemption? Permission to laugh at and tell jokes about sexual abuse in regulated accordance with my history? Perhaps a Ministry of Humour could be established, issuing joke credits within a cap and trade market?
I’m not making an argument for insensitivity. I’m saying that insensitivity is subjective, and an unavoidable residue of our freedom to laugh at ourselves. Louis C. K. knows this. If you were tempted to dismiss him as a farting exhibitionist, all irreverence and no heart, consider his promotion of Notaro’s set. C. K. saw the highest expression of comedy, and it’s only possible by allowing the lowest.