Review: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
US comedian and writer, Lou Perez’s new book, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, was always going to end up on my bookshelf. As a Smith’s fanboy, both the title of the book and the cover graphics, are borrowed from The Smith’s second studio album, ‘Meat is Murder’ (1985). Perez wrote the book during the pandemic. It is part biography, part Exocet intervention into the increasingly deranged and hysterical world of the Culture Wars in the US. It is also funny.
For Perez, this is not an academic exercise so much as a necessary intervention into the Culture War from the mind of a comedian. It is surely not a contentious point to make; comedians see the world differently from the rest of us mere mortals. So, it is with insight and wit, along with an engaging ability to craft a good story that Perez sets out to advance his central claim in the book: the Wokerati have captured culture. But the absurdity of this situation is an opportunity for comedians, rather than sounding the death-knell for their craft.
Of course, Perez is dealing with a serious subject, but he does so with a comedic eye, unlocking the absurd in the depths of identitarianism. One of the successes of the book is that even the most nauseating and terrifying examples of the worst excesses of identity politics (and there is a barrel load in the book) Perez had me laughing out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of the individuals and issues he chooses. His prose is easy-going and carries you through the book seamlessly. He also does something I have never seen before (demonstrating the confidence that he has in his argument), by referencing videos that can be found on YouTube and urges his reader to watch them, right there and then, “Do it now. The next paragraph will still be here.”
It is an all too familiar picture in the UK too. Back in the 90s, I organized comedy shows for an anti-racism campaign (when anti-racism actually meant being against racism). I briefly considered it as a possible career move until I met the comedians that I’d booked. Suffice to say I didn’t like them much, they were priggish (or prickish?), needy, and full of self-doubt. But sadly, I also didn’t think they were all that funny, especially those posturing as alternative comedy “educators”.
These were the ones railing against what they saw as the old Degenerate Art: the racists, misogynist, and homophobic comedians that preceded them in the 60s and 70s (Bernard Manning, Roy “Chubby” Brown, Jim Davidson, etc.).
While we might argue over the legitimacy of their “critique,” what was evident was that many of the new wave comics sought to prioritise their political messaging over simply “being funny”. The cultural shift in comedy was apparent. It was championed on Channel 4 (“alternative content that challenges the status quo”), the music press and independent magazines. The children of the Counterculture were making their move, and comedy was a useful vehicle. So, it is no exaggeration to say that up and down the land in the 1980s, Student Union comedy nights, were awash with “alternative” comedians pushing the same-old Alexei Sayle schtick.
The 80s and 90s generation of alternative comedians had a pretty easy time of it. Where their predecessors had to fight for laughs and the attention of their audience in huge, noisy, and often hostile working-class social clubs – who, at least initially, demanded to be entertained – the next generation of comedians worked student unions and benefit gigs and played to an expectant and already devout audience schooled in Political Correctness. Alternative comedians mopped-up. Thirty years ago, Rob Newman and David Baddiel (who they?) were the first comedy act to play the 12,000-seat Wembley Arena. For many, the uncritical transition from the student union, via fandom, to television was seamless.
Where once there might have been a sort of pluralism in comedy, from – politically-correct, or family-friendly, to blue and offensive – no longer. Comedic variety has been blown out of the water by recent events.
The shrill demands of Netflix employees to cancel American comedy giant, Dave Chappelle because they were upset by his Netflix Special “The Closer” and the actual cancellation by those who own the theatre where UK comedy legend, Jerry Sadowitz was playing at the Edinburgh Fringe, illustrates that no one is safe from the new puritans who have captured our cultural institutions. Certain comedy is now considered so “unacceptable” that the defence, “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it,” is proving increasingly inadequate. Instead, the demand to drive “offensive” comedians out of polite society are becoming ever more shrill and, crucially, they are coming from theatres, staff and moral activists – not the audience.
That this is happening to established and well-known comedians illustrate the profound crisis that affects stand-up and comedy more generally. If the big guns of comedy are in the firing line and being cancelled, one can only imagine the as-yet unseen, impact that this climate is having on the next generation of comedians.
This book is a mixture of sure-footed polemic, biography and comedic insight. It is clever, and a joy to read. The intermingling of biographical detail, keen cultural insights and an apparent quick wit kept this reader engaged and wanting more.
But of course, a book written by a comedian will first be judged by how funny it is. The measure of its success will surely be based on the ratio of “laughs per page.” For me there were many, but the book is much more than that. It is insightful, well-written and urgent.
The themes and individuals that Perez takes expert aim at, provide a Who’s Who and What’s What of the Culture Wars. From “White Privilege” to “Ibram X. Kendi”, from “The corruption of the English language” to Abu (from South Park), “Colorism”, and “Jussie Smollett”; it is a reminder of just how degenerate, even insane, identity politics – and its evil twin “censorship” – have become.
You don’t have to be a professional comedian to notice that even describing the real events is quite funny in the telling: an actor who faked a homophobic hate crime, an actress who thinks she is a man, a white academic who convinced herself (and almost everyone else) that she was black, another celebrated academic who thinks babies are racist! Come on, it is hard not to conclude that these people are ripe material for comedy. Why are more comedians not mining this seam of comedy gold? While, the Culture War is undoubtedly a serious matter – for some, the defining and most dangerous issue of our time – it is weird that too few people are willing to find it funny.
As Perez would have it: “Whatever your activism is, nobody wants to be force-fed it. Especially if it’s a humorless, joyless, anti-life dish that sucks the taste out of everything.” The same is also true of comedy. Whatever the politics of the comedian, they really have to stop forcing personal morality and social policy down the audience’s throat. Maybe work harder at telling funny jokes. That would be a start.
Alex Cameron is a design and cultural critic based in Madrid. Visit his blog here.
“That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” (Bombardier Books) and is out now. Buy it here.