Bill Maher’s #Adulting and Comedians’ Obsession With Haters

BFans of ill Maher, prepare to cheer. This is The Live host Real TimeThe new HBO stand up special features starring. #Adulting airs on April 15th, is a self-identified libertarian who loves to criticize political correctness. Seth Meyers has dubbed him “The Seth Meyers of Television”. And it’s made his career.Clapter. As described by Tina Fey, way back in 2008, clapter happens “when you do a political joke and people go, ‘Woo-hoo.’” Donald Glover later explained that the clapping means “‘so true, yes, so, so true.’ But what you did isn’t funny; they’re just clapping and laughing to be on the right side of history.”

Clapter comedy threatened to overtake stand-up during the Trump era, as audiences weary of unintentional black humor in the news turned to pop culture’s clear-eyed court jesters just to feel sane. But recently, catalyzed by a fiery debate surrounding free speech, hate speech, and cancel culture, clapter has metastasized into something even more corrosive—something that goes beyond the actual substance of comedy’s much-discussed woke wars. Like all the other corners in our divided society, comedians default to binary views about right and wrong, our side against theirs, justice fighter versus truth-teller. That impacts all voices.

From provocateurs like Dave Chappelle to progressives like Hannah Gadsby, comics on the world’s biggest stages are allowing the faceless “haters” who criticize them on social media to consume their work. The result? More attention for these celebrities as these conflict escalate. That isn’t just bad for public discourse—it’s bad for a mainstream comedy landscape that too rarely spotlights the many voices doing subtler, gentler, weirder, or more experimental work.

Too many famous people have lost their ability to defend their ideas or their work. Maher is a perfect example of this frustrating phenomenon. As excruciating as some of his opinions are (on R. Kelly: “The music didn’t rape anybody”), what’s most unappealing is the manner in which he delivers them—as though he’s the only sane, smart person in the world. He becomes more self-righteous the more he is subject to public criticism. “We never stand up to the people who wake up offended and live on Twitter,” Maher complains in the special, as though his Actual Time monologues weren’t engineered specifically to inflame that crowd and rally his own social-media surrogates. This sort of sentiment is common among comedians of his cohort: rich, famous, middle-aged, liberal men with ride-or-die fandoms who rail against cancel culture as a threat to their free speech, despite the fact that said culture doesn’t even have the power to prevent Louis C.K. He was unable to win a Grammy just a few years later after admitting to his sexual misconduct.

Maher’s whiteness shields him from a certain strain of unconsciously racist backlash that others might face. But the vagueness of his targets also separates him from someone like Dave Chappelle, the superstar who has become the most prominent face of the free-speech-at-all-costs contingent. There’s plenty to say—most of which has already been said—about the transphobic streak in Chappelle’s comedy. In discussing his style more than his content, I don’t mean to minimize discussions around his attacks on a vulnerable minority that right-wing lawmakers are currently attempting to legislate out of existence. But Maher’s righteousness reminded me of Chappelle, different though he may be.

Chappelle isn’t above pandering to audiences thirsty for provocation, but he’s overall a more complicated thinker. His tone veers between openhearted empathy and viciousness, drawing attention to contradictions in viewers’ own opinions on fraught issues and leaving room for what is often productive ambiguity around what he actually believes. And when he speaks on topics about which he’s “not supposed to” have a take, there is often reason to be glad he did. But in last year’s The closerChappelle describes this as his reaction to the LGBTQ community. A personal anecdote of his friendship with Daphne Dorman, a trans comedian and actor, is demolished by laziness and logic that frequently positions Black and trans identities as being mutually exclusive. “Gay people are minorities,” Chappelle says, “until they need to be white again.”

What has stuck in Chappelle’s craw, as he admits in the special, is the accusation that he’s “punching down” at trans people. That hurts because—since they’ve labeled him transphobic and since he, too, represents an oppressed community—he feels like the injured party. He must first show kindness to trans people if he wants to be kind to them. “Empathy is not gay,” he says. “Empathy is not Black. Empathy can be bisexual. It must go both ways.” It’s a surprisingly sweet joke, but one that fails to acknowledge his long history of painting the trans community, with the exception of one trans woman who met Chappelle on his own terms, as monolithic. As far as Dave Chappelle is concerned, it seems, the most important thing about trans people is that they’re angry at Dave Chappelle. From there, it’s a short leap to responding to critical questions from teens at his alma mater with a reminder that, at least for now, “I’m better than all of you.”

Such sanctimony isn’t limited to comedians bent on offending the politically correct. My personal beliefs, for what it’s worth, align more closely with those of Hannah Gadsby, the Australian comic who broke through in the U.S. with a 2018 Netflix special, Nanette, that connects her experiences in comedy with the trauma she’s suffered as a woman and a lesbian. Gadsby’s particular talent as a comedian is synthesis. She can pull together a seamless set, incorporating a wide range of topics and emotional beats, by weaving in callbacks, refrains, and meta-commentary—and she knows this so well that she flaunts it, outlining at the beginning of both Nanette and 2020’s follow-up Douglas what she’s going to do and how she’s going to do it, like Babe Ruth calling his shot. It’s a neat trick, but one that can slide into the territory of condescension when Gadsby starts explaining to her audience how she expects These are them to react to her material, as though she’s a powerful enough manipulator to override any conceivable viewer’s capacity for free thought.

Her critics latched on to this tone as well as the special’s dark content, protesting that Nanette shouldn’t be classified as comedy. Douglas The accusation was reaffirmed in full. Naturally There are many things that you can do. Nanette was supposed to be funny, Gadsby tells the crowd: “I turned the laugh tap off myself. It was an important decision. That decision is mine. It’s not like I got halfway through the show and though: ‘F-ck, I’m out of jokes, I’ll tell a sad story.’” Elsewhere, she launches into a self-consciously shrill rant about men—just, she says, to bait her haters. The problem with this stuff isn’t that it’s not funny (although it isn’t) so much as that it isn’t insightful or challenging in the way that her other material can be. It’s self-absorbed. It complains too often.

I don’t think comedy specials that address serious themes, in tones that are also sometimes serious, are the problem. The art of stand-up comedy is still relatively new. There are limited ways you can deliver punchlines from a microphone. More fluidity between the worlds of stand-up, spoken word, storytelling, theater, and music should only be daunting to genre purists—who, frankly, need to lighten up. We get to do work that challenges expectations. Nanette to Chappelle’s blistering response to the murder of George Floyd, 8:46, to Bo Burnham’s Inside. Earlier this month, HBO unveiled Jerrod Carmichael’s RothanielBurnham’s deeply personal and intimate film is called “The Conversation”; it plays as a conversation, confession, with a few very funny jokes. It explores the contradictory of being a homosexual, Black man in his 30s.

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I don’t believe, either, that the woke wars are at the core of comedy’s current crisis. What I see is an elite tier of highly paid, internationally known comics who can’t seem to accept the fact that the privilege of performing for an audience of millions—and being treated as not just an entertainer, but a thought leader—carries with it the burden of subjecting yourself to public scrutiny. Stand-up comedy has moved beyond self-deprecation. Gadsby describes the decision in her book, “The Choice.” Nanette(This was conscious.) Now, there’s precious little space left for introspection or humility or self-doubt. The problem of scandal-courting self-smugness is being exacerbated in part by the content-hungry streaming market that encourages comedians to get into the news cycle. When one of their names trends on Twitter, that’s free advertising for the comic And The platform that publishes their specials. It’s no surprise that Netflix has increased its support of Chappelle.

It’s a shame that this is the case, as vulnerability can help to defuse anger towards people who make jokes. Why has Larry David—a 74-year-old straight, white guy who never met a piety he didn’t want to puncture—thrived for long enough to charm millennials and Gen Z? His jokes about others rarely outweigh his jokes.

There’s a difference between using your platform to wring laughter out of the human folly in which we all participate every day and using it to fight petty battles against the haters. Comics that present themselves as perfect are going to be vilified for their infidelities. “Who are these perfect people that we have in America now?” Maher demands in #AdultingIn a skit on Aziz Ansari’s supposed cancellation. “So many perfect people who never make a mistake, never do anything wrong, yet get to judge your date.” Comedian, heal thyself.

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