Did being nice kill our humor? In an interview with the Daily Beast, comedian Nick Kroll discussed comedy in the age of political correctness, saying, “I think you can still talk about anything and be crazy and not feel too censored…[W]e have this ability to listen and communicate with the audience and hear what they have to say. And sometimes, I’m like, I don’t agree with you. And other times I’m like yeah, I hear you, we didn’t get that exactly right. We’ll do better. I’m here to evolve and adapt” (Daily Beast, “‘Big Mouth’ Creator Nick Kroll: We Get Away With ‘Crazy Shit’ Despite ‘Woke Culture,’” 10.22.2019). A Fox article suggested it was an affront for Kroll not to condemn “woke culture,” which involves “canceling”—usually just duly criticizing—famous people for saying offensive things. Devoted readers weighed in: user AlGoresPrivateJet commented on the Fox piece, “Comedy is mostly dead, just another victim of Political Correctness/Communism” (Fox News, “Comedian Nick Kroll dismisses concerns that ‘woke culture’ is hurting comedy,” 10.22.2019).
Some comedians find it trickier to be funny now, with our excessive concern for systemic inequality. But comedy is not dead—at least according to Kroll. He disputed claims from “Joker” director Todd Phillips, who challenged contemporary comedians in a Vanity Fair interview: “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” As the first “Hangover” movie (also directed by Phillips) and its famous baby turn 10, it has become more problematic than enduringly funny. And viewers have considered his second “Hangover” installation cheap and depraved since its release. Shedding any artistic obligations to political correctness, Phillips abandoned comedies altogether and chose to practice the “irreverence” of the genre in “Joker” (Vanity Fair, “‘I Fucking Love My Life’: Joaquin Phoenix on Joker, Why River Is His Rosebud, His Rooney Research, and His “Prenatal” Gift for Dark Characters,” 10.01.2019).
His disputant Kroll is a co-creator of and voice actor on “Big Mouth,” a Netflix cartoon about a group of seventh graders and their raging, monstrous hormones. “Big Mouth” is funny because it practices irreverence the right way—not through homophobia, racism or mindless dick jokes. Season three was recently released after a triple-season renewal in the summer. Despite its popularity, a scene in the episode “Rankings” has been criticized for inaccurate explanations of bisexuality and pansexuality. In the episode, the new girl in school, Ali (voiced by Ali Wong), comes to class and declares she is pansexual. Ali stands in front of the class and explains, “It’s, like, some of you borings like tacos and some of you like burritos. And if you’re bisexual, you like tacos and burritos…But I’m saying I like tacos and burritos, and I could be into a taco that was born a burrito, sure, ’kay, or a burrito that is transitioning into a taco.” First, this analogy suggests that bisexual people are only attracted to cisgender people; Ali rolls her eyes a bit and calls bisexuality “so binary.” This is a gross misrepresentation. Second, by suggesting that a bisexual person cannot be attracted to, say, “a taco that was born a burrito,” it presents transgender men and women as different from “real” men and women. The burrito-taco comparison also excludes nonbinary and genderqueer people.
Three days after season three’s release, co-creator Andrew Goldberg apologized on Twitter for “making people feel misrepresented.” He wrote, “Thank you to the trans, bi, and pan communities for further opening our eyes to these important and complicated issues of representation” (Twitter, @BigMouthAndrew, 10.07.2019). Yes, “Big Mouth” has a ways to go. If they don’t want to get it wrong in the future, the cast of voices and the writer’s room need greater representation. While those who miss offensive comedy may consider this another case of woke culture’s stifling effect, the show simply “missed the mark” because it was trying to be educational and it was wrong.
“The Hangover,” on the other hand, tries to be funny, but ends up being mean and gross. Zach Galifianakis’ Alan is a sex offender, in a funny way: “I’m not supposed to be within 200 feet of a school…or a Chuck E. Cheese.” Convicted rapist Mike Tyson makes a little cameo. The only other Black character is a drug dealer, and Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow is a mincing, lisping gangster. It’s not that the movie is objectively unfunny— there is no such thing—but it chooses to be “irreverent” by being offensive rather than, for example, using the calculated randomness of “Big Mouth.”
The sixth episode of season three, “Duke,” shines with absurd humor and crafty invention. The ghost of American composer, jazz singer and pianist Duke Ellington recounts how he lost his virginity. Naturally, Duke’s ghost lives in the attic of the protagonist, Nick Birch. Duke is promiscuous and wise and sometimes even invites the ghosts of Whitney Houston, Freddie Mercury and Prince over for dinner. Not only does the episode contain a reenactment of World War I with furry penises (and the assassination of Archdick Franz Ferdinand), but it also has some pretty scenes and clever storytelling to temper the lewdness.
Duke’s account veers into the whimsical when, as a child, he sees pianist Harvey Brooks play at a nightclub in Atlantic City, a “spiritual experience” that involves a musical number with bubbly materialized melodic notes. The whole backstory is in sepia tones, and designers even antiquate the theme song to match. After meeting Brooks, little Duke learns piano in what would otherwise be a stereotypical montage training scene, if it were not for World War Cum raging all the while—a juvenile and delightfully whacky subversion of the famous entertainment trope. With its absurdism, lurid humor and obscure pop culture references, “Big Mouth” has always evaded etiquette—in fact, it dances on its grave. It shows no reverence for adults or their ideas of decency. The show also practices irreverence by highjacking cartoon and entertainment structures, like through the World War Cum sequence, fourth-wallbreaking and scenes about sex and sex education (which evidently need more work and perhaps less food metaphors, but are valuable when done right).
Phillips is right when he says edginess and subversion are important to comedy, but rape jokes or racial stereotypes as we see in “The Hangover” are tired forms, and crude. Woke culture doesn’t stifle comedy; in fact, it is invariably tied to the comedic arts. Subversive humor has to consider current standards of decency and normalcy in order to subvert something thoughtfully, creatively. What is offensive or insolent in current times? What has been, or should be, joked about? What have cartoons depicted? Good comedians are creatives, and the creative irreverence of “Big Mouth” makes for many laughs. Even Duke, ever the philanderer, says at the end of his account, “A gentleman never tells.” A lively story need not be grossly offensive.