Saturday Night Live took an unusual step this week -- firing a new cast member just after the announcement he had been hired for the job.
It is often argued that comedians need to be edgy, to push boundaries, to boldly move audiences into uncomfortable places in order to be successful. And that is often true. Some of the best laughs come from an uncomfortable confrontation between something we find familiar and something incongruous or subversive that a comic manages to expose about that familiar thing.
The freedom to make audiences uncomfortable with their familiar surroundings is essential to great comedy, and it's a very good thing that it be protected by the First Amendment.
But Shane Gillis was fired not for being thought-provoking, but for being mindlessly provocative in his use of slurs. The First Amendment, of course, protects the right to be either -- but only one of those two things is worth celebrating.
Comedy isn't always subversive in a George Carlin, seven-dirty-words type of way. Bob Newhart, of the same generation as Carlin, made an exceptional career out of a much gentler subversion of the accepted order. Newhart could have a side-splitting conversation with Abner Doubleday or the Wright Brothers or Abraham Lincoln and not violate a single restriction on obscenity. But by tossing out the conventional and the comfortable, he could nudge audiences to wake up from their passive familiarity with life by poking at notions of self-importance. That's truly the work of a great philosopher.
Comics who live by the cheap laugh are a dime a dozen, and most of them toil in obscurity. A fleeting fart joke to make the audience giggle for a moment, and then it's gone and forgotten forever. It's mostly harmless, even if it isn't edifying. And if it doesn't take laughs at the expense of other people just for the essence of their being, then it's mostly just filler -- like the breadcrumbs or beans in a meatloaf.
But when a comic hangs a hat on being edgy or provocative, then the bar is and ought to be higher for what they produce. There is a difference between telling a joke that falls flat and engaging in dull, tired, and ultimately empty stereotyping and racism just for the sake of trying to elicit a chuckle from someone just like yourself.
That's not an act of making the audience a little necessarily uncomfortable with the familiar: it's using familiarity to poke fun at the unusual. It's not original, it's not a clever use of humor, and it's really not comedy. It's just making fun by laughing at someone for being different -- any ol' dope can do that. It takes a comedian to help us laugh righteously at what is familiar in ourselves.