Why It’s Funny When Comedy Fails

Lots of comics enjoy watching comics bomb. The funniest part of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the audience’s response to the awful play performed at the duke’s wedding. This scene is funny because of the irony. We have watched these passionate but unexperienced actors preparing for this night throughout the play and it is exactly how wrong they were that makes it so funny. 

When we first meet these aspiring thespians, they are gathered in the woods to rehearse and from the very first moment they get it wrong. It is a failure of leadership, due to a lack of experience that summons the fearful critic among them to point the ship in the opposite direction. They start out concerned that the subject matter is too disturbing for the women in the audience, showing a double misunderstanding: they don’t get theater and they have a false idea of women.

This concern over the violence leads them to horrible stylistic decisions that then shape the rest of the play. To avoid offending the ladies, they invent a prologue to explain that the violence is only symbolic and that nobody is going to be hurt during the play and that the lion is not a lion, etc. To work, a play must create the tension needed to get people’s full attention so that it can then reverse their expectations and surprise, delight, or otherwise entertain. Afraid that the ladies in the audience would not understand how to suspend their disbelief, these actors choose to violate the 4th wall and bring the audience into the show.

This device makes it impossible for the audience to take it seriously, though, and so they are left to critique the choices and to laugh at their unintended buffoonery. The players lack of understanding how they are perceived causes them to botch their shot, and this flat-footed clumsiness makes it even funnier when Bottom is turned into an ass by Puck at the service of Oberon to trick Titania, queen of the fairies. They turn bottom into an ass and give Titania a potion so that she falls in love with him.

To take the stage, in order to win the affection of a fairy goddess you have to have some belief in self, and it is Bottom wrestling with his insecurities and his delusions of grandeur that is so similar to what the path of an aspiring comic likely entails. Bottom is a phase, a stage that must be overcome grown through.

The process of finding out just how funny you are, of seeing an audience respond to you in real time makes for some vicious therapy and it is no wonder that actors and comics have a hard time sometimes making sense of where their act begins and ends. You must love anyone who attempts the feat and give thanks to those who succeed, because it makes our world a much more pleasant place to live. Long live the failure of comedy.

Stoners Only: Jakespeare’s Rule

I am studying Shakespeare to become a better writer. Being a writer is great because you get to make your own rules. You can process your own thoughts and feelings and share what you want and edit out the rest. The better you are at writing, the more control you have over how you tell your story.

The point of humor is to make people laugh, to release some tension, and to lighten the mood and to inspire hope. The point of tragedy is to provide us with an outlet for our tears. If you want to help people, if you want to entertain or inspire them, then you must learn how to do that.

When I become Jakespeare, I’m going to have one rule: you must be a stoner. If you want to be a part of what I dream up, you must consume cannabis daily. I will not tolerate failure in this department. This is a cannabis fueled operation and non-stoniness will not be permitted. 

Cannabis only makes you paranoid if you’re being a jerk. If you aren’t smoking often enough, you might have developed some real POS habits and then when you do finally smoke it will all come crashing in on you. It’s not the cannabis, though; it’s the stupid things you did when you weren’t stoned. 

Smoking weed regularly ensures that you won’t walk around unaware of your bad vibes. If you don’t consume cannabis and you don’t think that you are a real jerk, then smoke a little cannabis and see what you think. Cannabis reveals us to ourselves. It points to the work we have to do. 

Cannabis, Comedy and Caliban: The Tempest and Magical Racism

The Tempest is a very strange play. It’s best to consume some quality cannabis when you set about solving the puzzle of its meaning. You must have the right mindset to understand what is going on in this play and the psychoactive effects of a fire sativa will get you on the level where you can begin to try to understand the character Caliban. The son of a witch, slave to a wizard, attempted and unrepentant rapist: he’s the Luis J. Gomez of Shakespearean characters.

If Luis J. Gomez were to play Caliban, it would only make sense for Big Jay Oakerson to be Prospero and Dave Smith would be Ferdinand. Nobody does moral ambivalence better in comedy right now than the Legion of Skanks and this play is very evenly fucked up. There is nothing about it that is unequivocally good.

Cannabis can help us to suspend our disbelief. In fact, it’s so effective at allowing us to believe in metaphysical things that the stoner has a bad reputation for being gullible. The stereotype of the stoner is that they are dumb to the world and therefore able to be duped. Find us in the woods looking for Bigfoot or watching the stars hunting for UFOs. It’s the goofier side of cannabis, but it’s good innocent fun. 

Why does food taste better, why are jokes funnier, why do you get in the zone easier when you are stoned? I don’t know, but I practice what works and for me being stoned enhances my experiences across the board. There’s almost nothing that I don’t enjoy more doing stoned. 

Cannabis is the comedy of drugs. It is the drug with the most positive benefits. It alters your mind in pleasurable ways and the side effects are minimal. Of all the drugs, it is the only one I want to do because it is overall uplifting and beneficial to the things I love to do. The fact that it does alter your mind, change your mood, enhance your performance, etc. makes it easy to see it as a kind of magical thing.

The Tempest is full of literal magic. Prospero creates a windstorm with his powers and uses it to cause a fleet of ships to wreck on his island. He controls the spirit Ariel and his slave Caliban with spells. He threatens Ariel to keep them confined to an oak tree and he constantly hounds Caliban with physical ailments and pains. Prospero is a jerk, but he is powerful at manipulating people with his magic that he derives from his studies, from his books.

Prospero is part nerd, part wizard, part victim, and part weirdo. If this is a self-portrait of Shakespeare as many people think, then it is a brilliantly self-deprecating one. Because Prospero is a racist, a manipulator, a power tripping bully. He’s an outcast, an outlaw but the little bit of power he acquires he uses to control everyone around him. Let’s face it: Prospero is a DICK!

He calls his daughter a wench, does some bizarre shit to set her up to fall in love with an heir to the throne of Milan. He’s a manipulative bastard. He’s a victim of his brother’s ambition but he leaves a lot of bodies in his wake. Even though he was betrayed by his family, sent to his death only to escape with his daughter by the kindness of strangers, he has no gratitude for life, only disdain for the people he interacts with. Prospero is fucked up.

It’s easier to empathize with Caliban. He was born on the island. His mother was exiled there, and she was a witch. Sycorax had enslaved the spirit Ariel prior to Prospero. She had set a precedent on the island for being banished and then taking it out on the innocent. Still, she was his mother. Caliban is the most clearly victimized by others in the play and his response to his abuse is malevolent hatred. He tries to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter and declares that he wishes he had succeeded. 

You kind of get Prospero’s anger towards Caliban once you understand that Caliban tried to rape his daughter. It’s not clear if that is a result of rebelling against Prospero’s rule, or if that is just Caliban’s way. How is this a comedy?

Of all the plays categorized as comedies, this one lacks a strong female character. Miranda is the ultimate fantasy of the virgin. She has been raised on an island with no other people besides her father and their slave Caliban. Until she meets Ferdinand, she has only ever seen two men. Ferdinand immediately sees the freakish value of this uber virgin and is ready to marry her from the first moment.

The Tempest is a thought experiment dramatized. Even though there are weirdos power tripping everything works out in the end because the magic is overall good. Comedy is like cannabis because even though it is not going to solve the problems of a world set in motion by betrayal and narcissistic violence, it’s at least going to give us some respite.

Responsibility of Speech

One of the most important debates taking place in our culture today is about the 1st amendment. The so-called Freedom of Speech is being reconfigured and reconsidered in a digital context. What exactly does our constitution protect? When does speech become criminal? The power of speech creates its limits. A responsible use of speech is the only way to protect and preserve the first amendment rights pertaining to speech, but what exactly does that mean?

Comedians have been caught up in the center of this debate and for good reason. They work at the extreme edge of the acceptable. Comedians like Andrew Schulz with the Flagrant Podcast are self-consciously pushing back against Woke Culture’s tendency to censor honest opinion. Luis J. Gomez, Big Jay Oakerson, and Dave Smith all push way past the accepted norms for speech and they live or die based upon their ability to use offensive speech responsibly. Is this simply a niche in comedy or is this the battlegrounds of our free speech debate?

If we think about the Freedom of Speech along the lines of our consideration of the Right to Bear Arms, then the idea of the responsibility of speech becomes clearer. The right to own a handgun doesn’t give you the right to rob a liquor store. It gives you the power to, but not the right. You have the right to bear the arms but using them in a violent way requires very specific conditions. The same is true with speech. For example, if someone were to use their words to get someone else to do something illegal, then they are also breaking the law and are subject to the penalties. Charles Manson didn’t use his hands to murder; he used his words.

The classic example is that you can’t yell “bomb” in a crowded airport. Other examples include sexual harassment, terroristic threats, or hate crimes. Racially motivated harassment is not protected speech. Inciting violence of any kind is not protected speech. Yes, you can buy and own a .45 revolver but if you shoot your neighbor’s dog, you are going to jail. There are so many examples of speech that are not allowed, it is curious what exactly the first amendment protects. Or what is it supposed to protect? It is the entire basis for dissent. It is supposed to protect a responsible critique of the government, but not a call to arms to show up and murder the congress.

The context of comedy is supposed to provide an outlet for the responsible expression of unacceptable ideas and beliefs. Just like when we watch a play or a movie and we suspend our disbelief and go along with the make believe of the show for the sake of entertainment, when we consume comedic content, we do so with the understanding that it is not to be taken seriously. Back to the analogy with guns, comedians are performing trick shots at a shooting range. If the comic respects the context of comedy, they remain responsible with their speech.

Probably the riskiest thing that comics do is roast people. Think of a circus act where an archer shoots an apple off the top of someone’s head, or they throw knives at someone standing against a wooden wall getting as close to flesh as possible. This is also target practice. The intention is not to hurt the person, but to come as close as possible. Because the chance of hurting the person is so high, the tension it creates is also elevated and when the person leaves the scene unscathed the sigh of relief is that much more fulfilling. This kind of act takes us on a thrill ride of almost experiencing something violent happen, but because that was never the intention, and the weapons are used with such precision and skill there is not a drop of blood shed.

This type of act also requires active participation between both the knife thrower and the person standing against the wall. If that person moves unexpectedly, the act could end disastrously. Good performers will play with this by pretending as though the person is uncomfortable standing there and they will move around, but in a choreographed way. Both actors must be perfectly attuned. This happens all the time in comedy when people successfully roast each other, and it is funny.

I agree with comics who are fighting to protect the freedom of speech within the context of comedy. This also means having a conversation about how the whole thing works. You know, like letting people know that they shouldn’t try this knife throwing act at home. Unskillful comics can hurt people inadvertently. You see it all the time on Twitter. Without the context of an agreement that we are trying to entertain the public a joke can easily become an attack. We need to be smart enough to protect the sphere of comedy as a place where target practice is happening. It is a danger zone, and you should proceed accordingly.

Words are powerful in a different way than weapons. Language can influence people to do all kinds of different things, including to act violently. Comedy is a risky business. Andrew Schulz compared it to bullfighting. It requires skill and steadiness of nerves to be able to perform comedic material. It is a highwire act, a slackline adventure in speech, and we don’t want to witness a tragedy go down. We go to comedy for many reasons, but is it to witness people being hurt? 

Responsible speech is the way to increase our ability to explore risky subjects. Through the discipline of our considerations, we will build a trust that will allow people to relax and to trust both our intention and our skillfulness to follow through. I don’t have the answers, but I am pursuing the questions about free speech and its limits and how to responsibly engage in this debate.