For Toronto Millennials, Being Politically Correct is Funny
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For Toronto Millennials, Being Politically Correct is Funny

The city's comedy scene is marred with racist, classist jokes—and young people aren't laughing.

It’s a packed night, and G.C. is sitting by the bar, precariously balancing on the now three-legged stool cradling a Molson. It’s a ritual to down a beer every time he swings by. “It loosens out all the kinks,” he chuckles. This week, he is one of the main acts at a small but well-loved Toronto comedy joint in the Yonge and Eglinton area, nestled between quirky bistro patios and high-end shopping boutiques.

“On a regular night this place always has a lot of people. But Wednesday is cheaper so we get a larger crowd—mostly young people who wanna take advantage of the cheaper prices,” he says.

That’s why I’m here. It’s affordable and the audience is, for the most part, in my demographic: they’re millennials. Or, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, those without a funny bone and too many feelings. Word on the street is that millennials are the new Debbie Downer of comedy, finding flaws in every punch line and caring a little too much about how a set makes us “feel.”

“I don’t think it’s a case of too much feelings that kids these days don’t find much of stand-up funny,” G.C. says. “It’s just a different time and people are now caring about different things.”

Brett Easton Ellis, best known for writing the proverbial American Psycho, coined anyone born after 1989 a member of “Generation Wuss.” “When millennials are criticized,” he said, “they seem to collapse into a shame spiral and the person criticizing them is automatically labeled a hater, a contrarian, a troll.”

Millennials, also known by the more favourable #GenerationActivist, straddled Rodney King, 9/11, and the emergence of ISIS—events that captured our minds and set the tone for discussions on racial identity, police brutality, and terrorism. It’s been a difficult few decades, but comedians found among this rubble comedic fodder and pithy one-liners.

Yet, here in Toronto, where diversity and issues of race, class, and identity are treated with a great deal of sensitivity, especially by the young people organizing around the issues, millennials aren’t laughing.

“Some things you can make fun of and other things are just off limits,” G.C. says in between mouth exercises and stretches. “I mean, would you joke about slavery? In a place as diverse and multicultural as Canada, people need to understand that some things just will not be funny. As comedians we can’t really afford to piss off a whole group of people to get laughs from like, 13.”

It’s a different approach, and I wonder if G.C. is aware that his thoughts on the subject veer far from many “respected” comedians who have been running the circuit long before he was born. He refuses to say his age, but I reckon his early teen years were encompassed by Dave Chappelle appearing on Home Improvement, and he hit his mid-twenties when Kevin Hart appeared in Little Fockers.

During our chat, a performer on stage makes a joke about Muslim women, the hijab, “regular women,” and clothing options. He tries to set up multiple punchlines but the hesitant laughter and the audible “oh my God” from an audience member is off-putting to even the most hardened, tomato-hurled jester. “See, things like that just get awkward because now he has to stay up there and finish his set but he knows everyone’s basically tuned him out,” G.C. remarks.

Tess Ridley, Yonge-and-Eg bred and a regular audience member at Absolute Comedy—the staff bring her favourite drink without an order—agrees. She says there is a difference between cultural awareness and sensitivity. “You can’t create humour on the backs of people who are already marginalized. That’s not funny,” she says. “That’s just foolish and distasteful.”

The irony isn’t lost in the fact that it is the millennials—the “sensitive kids”—who are effecting real change in Toronto and beyond. The Dazed 100 list is currently taking nominations for its top spot, ranking individuals who have had a lasting social impact in the past year—and much of the list looks like a high school graduating class. Toronto-based BuzzFeed writer Scaachi Koul’s Twitter feed provides a much needed voice in the white male-dominated, Brooks-Brothers-wearing world of journalism. Students from the University of Missouri brought their school to a standstill, literally, when the football team halted all play and stood on the field until issues of anti-Black racism on campus were addressed. And Amanda Parris, host of CBC’s The Exhibitionists, is introducing Toronto to local art talent typically overlooked and cast aside. Millennials are challenging the status quo and not settling for anything less than mutual respect and representation.

In a 2015 story for The Atlantic on college students and humour, Caitlin Flanagan writes: “Sarah Silverman has described the laugh that comes with a ‘mouth full of blood’—the hearty laugh from the person who understands your joke not as a critique of some vile notion but as an endorsement of it.” If done well, comedy can be used as an incredibly powerful tool in calling out inequality and vocalizing the thoughts of the marginalized. Wordsmiths, like Richard Pryor and Bernie Mac, used comedy to speak on social inequality affecting Black people living in America, and also as a much needed salve to Black Americans. Their comedy letting the community know that they could see their pain, they could relate to their pain, and they were going to speak about it on the world stage.

Are millennials missing these critiques by being too focused on the negative connotations attached to the humour they consume? We cannot be sure that comedy is critiquing societal flaws, but we also cannot be certain that it isn’t. Jokes about race can be funny, but racism isn’t, and the nuance lies in the comedians’ ability to grasp what is and what isn’t harmless fun.

“For me personally people being more sensitive has made comedy more exciting,” G.C. says. “Now I have to be really creative with my material because people aren’t falling for the a ‘Jewish guy, a Black guy and an Asian walk in a restaurant’ anymore. I’m honing my craft and also learning as I go along. It’s really not that bad.”

Maybe Jerry Seinfeld should dust off the old comedy how-to and give it a rewrite. Millennials might just laugh with you along the way, because funny has changed, and yada, yada, yada.

Comments

42 Responses

  1. Greg Smith says:

    What’s “proverbial” about American Psycho?

    I’m glad that young people are less prone to find racism funny. If older comedians (or comedy club patrons) fear making a misstep, they should work harder and dig deeper in search of funnier material arising from these topics. If they’re dead set on finding something funny about another race, culture, religion, etc., there are likely ways to express their observation without being racist… often the scenarios in which racism and discrimination arise, for example, can be morbidly funny in a fascinating way, and reveal things about *ourselves* – our own flaws, mindsets, unexamined prejudices, etc. – that are worth exploring for comedic value, but it’s not that funny to just make fun of victims and marginalized people as such. Comics who are lazy or mean-spirited enough to revel in others’ suffering without providing any deeper insight into the human condition deserve crickets (or worse) on stage.

    It strikes me as ironic that some of the same entertainment industry people who complain about feeling less free to explore their creative impulses due to “PC culture” also resent and attack the concept of “safe spaces”. In a way, it seems like they want stand-up to be a “safe space” for them to explore any idea they wish, free from social sanction (except perhaps from other comedians with sufficient prestige to qualify as their peers). If you want a place where you can spew whatever’s on your mind, without judgment, find a nice therapist – not a comedy club.

    • lemmykins says:

      Hilarious. Thanks for setting the boundaries of free speech for the rest of us!

      • Greg Smith says:

        I didn’t say such things cannot or must not be said – I said it’s not funny (implied: to *me*) to do so. Overall, comedians have probably never had more freedom to produce and distribute whatever message they want to the world, thanks to the internet. What they don’t have is protection from the audience’s reaction, and I don’t think that’s something they should ever be guaranteed. Comedy in isolation from an audience’s reaction is just someone talking to themselves.

        Comedians are pretty free to say all the stupid crap they like. This article (I think) and my comment above (I’m sure) are about how unfunny crap is increasingly getting the reaction it deserves, ostensibly because younger audiences need more than puerile bigotry for amusement. Like I said, there’s plenty of material in and around prejudice, but simply reflecting or projecting prejudice under the guise of a bit, instead of developing it into something with an actual perspective, is lazy and boring.

        Free speech means being free from restrictions imposed by the government on expression. It doesn’t mean freedom from a crowd’s groans, boos, or just strained silence when a stand-up fumbles over a shitty joke that just isn’t funny because it’s based on hatred, ignorance, or (gasp) a hack premise that contributes nothing to anyone’s understanding of the human condition.

        • tyrannosaurus_rek says:

          “What they don’t have is protection from the audience’s reaction, and I don’t think that’s something they should ever be guaranteed.”

          They never have. It’s called heckling, and it’s older than stand-up itself.

          • Greg Smith says:

            They never have, really? I guess you’ve never seen a heckler ejected from a comedy venue. Which isn’t to say I think hecklers should be allowed to straight-up ruin a show, either. But within reason, feedback from the crowd is an integral part of the performance.

          • tyrannosaurus_rek says:

            Being ejected for it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

          • Greg Smith says:

            I said comics shouldn’t be protected from an audience’s reaction; you said they never have been. I pointed out that hecklers are often ejected. That ejection is a form of protection, which you suggest has never existed – which is clearly false. Where, in that exchange, am I suggesting that “it [heckling] didn’t happen”?

            I’m starting to remember why I gave up commenting here years ago.

          • CaligulaJones says:

            “That ejection is a form of protection”

            I hope you don’t make bullet-proof vests for a living…what you are saying is that removing the bullet from the corpse is a form of protection.

          • Nzube E. says:

            “what you are saying is that removing the bullet from the corpse is a form of protection.”

            You’re equating firing a gun at a comedian with heckling them, so let’s just go with that insane analogy. Removing the bullet is not protection, but removing the shooter is. So yes, removing the heckler is a form of protection and clearly insinuates that there’s no heckling allowed, else you’ll be forcibly removed.

            *sigh*

          • CaligulaJones says:

            “removing the shooter is”

            Yeah. AFTER he shoots.

            Some protection. If ejecting hecklers were “protection”, there would be signs as you go in that it isn’t allowed.

            Have you EVER been to a comedy club? Yes, sometimes hecklers are removed (as they are from NBA games – who knew NBA refs were that vindictive…), but most of the time THEY ARE NOT. Its usually when they are disruptive and disorderly. Not for their words.

            Its part of the act.

            My son learned that when the comic once hit back his heckle about the comedian not having a real life with “yeah, but at least I’m not out on a Friday night with my daddy…”

          • dsmithhfx says:

            Can’t take the heckling?

          • tyrannosaurus_rek says:

            Kicking someone out doesn’t retroactively stop them. Causality.

      • OgtheDim says:

        Free speech means people have the right to call crappy comedians crappy, for whatever reason they choose. And if they are calling them crappy for being privileged know nothings who think what was is still good, then its up to the comedian to do stuff that people like and appreciate.

        The world has changed – comedy has and will change with it.

        • dsmithhfx says:

          What’s changed, exactly? People x disapprove of comedy y? Don’t make me laugh.

        • dsmithhfx says:

          A few Toronto comedians (or ‘comics’, as they call themselves) took umbrage with the author on her TF, for her inaccurate (in their view) smear of the local industry. So Torontoist took down the offending piece for a few hours, the author deleted her twitter account, then the article reappeared unattributed, (apparently) unedited, comments nuked, and no editorial explanation of this rather mystifying turn. Hackery indeed.

          • tyrannosaurus_rek says:

            And so far no editorial acknowledgement.

          • dsmithhfx says:

            And there you have it…

          • TorontoistEditors says:

            The story was removed in error, and was restored as soon as we noticed it. The author’s byline was removed and comments were closed as we were made aware of social media posts that threatened the writer. If you have any questions or concerns about our editorial policy, feel free to email us: editors[at]torontoist[dot]com.

      • srcto says:

        The definition of free speech has not changed, yet many try to to redefine it, there are limits.

  2. LeMule says:

    “So an Irishman, a Jew and a millennial walk into a juice bar…”

    • Captain Canuck says:

      Wherever this joke goes, Greg Smith is bound to disapprove of it. LOL! ;-)

    • ZippyButter says:

      I know this one! – they create a safe space and with the appropriate trigger warnings, discuss the cultural hegemony of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

  3. Dusty Ayres says:

    This is why many comedians refuse to go to college campuses anymore, and have called off gigs on campuses.

    It’s sad that the younger generation has no funny bone, and has nobody among it that can express humor the way it wants to.

  4. ZippyButter says:

    “And people still laugh about as much as they ever did, despite their shrunken brains. If a bunch of them are lying around on a beach, and one of them farts, everybody else laughs and laughs, just as people would have done a million years ago.”

    Kurt Vonnegut, Galapagos

  5. tyrannosaurus_rek says:

    “…ranking individuals who have had a lasting social impact in the past year…”

    Shouldn’t it take more than a year to tell if someone has made a lasting social impact?

  6. dsmithhfx says:

    Well, this is interesting.