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.