Saturday, March 6, 2010

I take it back about Daniel Tosh.

I have, on this very blog, previously lauded the comedic genius of Daniel Tosh. Specifically, I have tried to encourage my readers to watch his Comedy Central show, Tosh.0.

I don't know if I've changed or the show has, but I recently decided to boycott Tosh.0 because of its disturbing tendency toward humiliating vulnerable people and groups. Tosh's genre of comedy focuses on exploiting cultural stereotypes for humor and societal critique, and if this is your chosen genre you have to be aware of the fine line between humor and bullying.

Tosh has become a bully. He picks on traditionally marginalized populations, including ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, and the LGBT community. Which isn't in itself offensive--except that he does it in such a way that these people's words and actions are twisted and used against them as weapons of ridicule and humiliation. Then, to deepen the humiliation, these moments are compiled and broadcast in a show whose very design is intended to silence the people who are the targets of ridicule: in the format of a tightly edited program featuring only the views of Daniel Tosh and his crew. Even when Tosh invites guests on his show, producers make editing decisions clearly designed to humiliate the guests in every way possible.

If this were a stand-up show, audience members could respond, could heckle or boo or applaud: They could have a voice. Even a TV program can find creative ways to toe the humor-bullying line and avoid silencing the targets of its ridicule. Part of what I thought was so fantastic about Tosh.0 in its first season, for example, was that Tosh was as likely to ridicule himself as he was to ridicule others. This is one strategy for diffusing the power differential inherent in giving one person a broadcast platform through which to humiliate other people. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart ridicules politicians but also bring them on as guests, treating them with respect and deference.

Comedy is hard. Every comedic act is an act of creativity; it's the creativity, the cleverness, that action or phrase that subverts our expectations, that surprises us and makes us laugh. We also laugh, sometimes, at crude, vulgar, and sometimes even cruel actions. This is why so many comedians mistake vulgarity and cruelty for cleverness, even though they're so often worlds apart.

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