IRL News: In Which We Publicly Distance Ourselves From An Embarassment To Our CraftMarch 4, 2010
It seems the time has come to address the elephant in the comedy-magazine room. Those who follow the news, particularly the depressing news, are surely aware of the baffling brouhaha brewing at UC San Diego. For those who haven’t: some frat or other decided to throw a “Compton Cookout” party at which guests were encouraged to dress and act like black people. Evidently it was on behalf of a rapper who uses racist imagery in his act, but in any event actual black students were understandably upset. Shoe number two dropped when our counterpart at UCSD, the Koala, performed a segment on the university TV station about the incident that was, shall we say, less than tactful. I belive a phrase that rhymes with “inflateful chiggers” was used. Again, anger and befuddlement followed, and they got booted off the air. Now, when a comedian is accused of racism, he or she faces a choice of how to respond: one might earnestly explain why the joke in question was not really racist, which may not be funny but clears one’s name quickly. Or one might do the same in a humorous manner, using one’s comedic talents to both prove one’s innocence and earn some goodwill. The Koala chose, well, neither. Instead, they followed up their apparently racist skit with a jaw-droppingly racist special issue, filled almost exclusively with attacks on the Black Student Union and UCSD’s Chancellor. I’ve read it, but I’m not linking to it because I don’t like linking to awful things. You can find it yourself if you really want to. Suffice to say it does nothing to improve their reputation.
Now, I’m not writing this to join the growing chorus of commentators condemning the Koala’s racism. If they need to be told that racism is bad, then it will take someone more eloquent than I to get that message through. No, my goal is to point out how their actions are a betrayal of the spirit of the comedy magazine, oxymoronic though that might seem. We at the Squelch actually care about what we do, and it makes us alternately angry and sad when we see people wasting the creative opportunity that the medium provides in favor of laziness, self-indulgence, or in this case petty mudslinging.
I’m not saying that anger isn’t a valid source of comedy. Outrage can be a great wellspring for satire, particularly for political material. But though the Koala may be angry about their removal from the airwaves, that’s not what comes across in their special issue. What I see is spite. Spite at the Black Student Union for making demands despite not being a majority of the student body. Spite at the administration for listening. Spite at anyone who would dare call them racist for hurling an ethnic slur on TV. And spite is fundamentally a terrible basis for comedy. It colors the mind and clouds judgment. If a joke is to be made at someone’s expense, it should not be because they’ve wronged you personally. A comedy writer using their medium to attack their enemies is like a newspaper columnist doing the same: it’s a violation of their craft’s purpose. Comedy exists to make people laugh, not to make the comedian feel like a big man.
The real problem that lies behind the racism is that the Koala broke two of the most important rules of political comedy: never assume that you are always right, and offensiveness is not a joke in and of itself. Comedy is by its nature a medium vulnerable to negative criticism. To borrow a line from the Joker, you’re always taking shots from people who just don’t get the joke. Comedians as a result tend to develop thick skins, but the danger is that it can lead them to think that all their critics are equally wrong. The little old lady who thinks you shouldn’t be using all those bad words becomes conflated with the reviewer who thinks your latest routine relies too much on imitations. All critics become The Man, unfairly oppressing you and your daringly provocative comedy. And so looking at an incident like the Koala’s, I tend to see a group of comedians circling the wagons and lashing out at people who must only be critical because they just don’t see the brilliance of the joke. Unfortunately, the critics are right.
Error number two: thinking offensiveness is itself a joke. I can begin to see the thought process behind this. The Editor-in-Chief lists himself as “White Supremacist,” and the other bylines follow suit. The Koala seems to be saying, “Oh, you think we’re racist? Okay fine, see just how racist we can be.” That’s a tricky gag to pull off, and the Koala fails miserably. Fact is, just about everything in this issue is racist, except for the repeated attacks on the female Chancellor for “not having the balls” to stand up to the Black Student Union, which brings in some out-of-nowhere misogyny. The whole mess bears the unmistakable tone of that kid in middle school who swore all the time to impress his friends with how edgy he was. And that’s a mentality that really doesn’t belong among people who theoretically are intellectually competent to vote. Considering the reputation college comedy magazines have, this is going to sound strange coming from me, but it has to be said: some people need to grow the fuck up.
Strange as it may sound, I’m more saddened than outraged by the Koala’s bonanza of bigotry. Outrage is what they want. The cover itself says “Baiting you into a race war since” whatever year. The Koala wants more protest, more anger, so they can retreat into victim mode some more and play the underdog against the big, bad, Black Student Union whose tininess they repeatedly mention in their pages. To use a professional term, this is weak shit. The Koala needs to look themselves in the mirror and ask if their snickering revenge was really worth abandoning their mission as a humor magazine. No matter what agenda you have, you’re not a good comedy magazine if you’d rather fill your pages with hate than with jokes.