Tolerance, by Robert Hornak

1 Feb

lenny bruce

Whether or not you are Charlie Hebdo, current events make it obvious that comedy can be a lightning rod for dubiously justified anger.  It’s always been so, as Mike Celestino’s ambitiously-scoped documentary That’s Not Funny illustrates, but the shock is that these days the expression of that anger can run the broad gamut from heckling a comedian to storming the offices of a leftist humor magazine with automatic weapons.  Perhaps perversely, one aches while watching the film, which was produced before the Paris attack, wishing Celestino had just waited a few more months so he could include that most tragic of examples.  But there’s enough grist for the mill in the history of American comedy to help him preach his sermon, and Celestino covers it all.

That’s Not Funny begins as a celebration of Celestino’s comedy heroes and influences – Andy Kaufman, Freaks and Geeks, Steve Martin, the Marx Brothers, Patton Oswalt, The Simpsons, etc. – and a bit of a street-cred bio, describing his own ventures into improv, auditions and stand-up.  In this way, Celestino positions himself not as an expert on anything in particular, but as just a life-long comedy fan, insinuating a self-effacing everyman stance (right down to his feature length baseball shirt – offset, as it is, against an Alvy Singer backdrop) that affords him the right to earnestly kvetch over the general population taking the entitled criticism thing too far.

The bulk of the movie has Celestino tracing the history of comic offence, from Vaudeville’s “blue” streak, through the self-imposed censorship of Hollywood’s Hays Code, to the season of Supreme arbitration vis-à-vis the likes of secular martyr Lenny Bruce and his contemporaries in envelope pushing, Pryor and Carlin, through several iconoclastic decades of religion-challenging tv, film and stand-up personalities (from Monty Python to Matt & Trey), and into the era of political correctness, the internet, and the mass hyper-democratization of ill-informed, knee-jerk opinions – from both political ends – where a joke about race, gender, or religion can be seen simultaneously as destructive and healing, depending on every bad thing that ever happened to you leading up to the moment you heard it. 

And here is the heart of Celestino’s film, as he unfolds his quiet, impassioned plea for joke tolerance.  The balance Celestino must achieve in earlier parts of the film to describe what’s funny without draining it of its life is as frightening a prospect as the balance that must be achieved in the end to explain the flexibility of the First Amendment without falling down the rabbit hole of politicized cultural exceptions.  Thankfully, he keeps the argument focused squarely against the subject of comedy, although in nearly all its conceivable forms, and comes out the other side essentially saying the obvious – that we should all just try to get along – but in a unique and approachable enough context that it comes off as a fresh take on a thrashed cultural punching bag.  Some might dismiss the entire effort as a rambling version of the more succinct, “Hey, if you don’t like it, turn it off.”  But I’m grateful someone’s flipped that tired brush-off into a reasoned, formal, history-nested argument for the notion that one man’s hurt feeling is another man’s potentially helpful ticket to self-awareness and change.

Above all, the documentary assists you in penciling in your own barriers.  I could feel myself resisting, among many other examples, the idea that Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” (sung by him at the 2013 Oscars) is another justified satire on current mores, or what have you, when it seems so clear to me that MacFarlane, in particular, simply enjoys getting away with the profane for its own sake.  To that example and others, Celestino at least makes the point that intent matters: Andrew Dice Clay is such an ambiguous character, from a moral center standpoint, that it’s hard to hear anything other than rank sexism in his act, whereas more nuanced performers like Sarah Silverman and Louis CK, when they give voice to purely id-driven observations, are more obviously mocking those impulses – or at the very least relieving us of the feeling that we were the only one thinking it.  I also think that characterizing Gilbert Gottfried’s too-soon Twitter jokes after the 2011 Japan earthquake/tsunami as intended to simply provoke laughter, and that his folly was merely in the timing of the jokes, without mentioning that, even worse, they were just terribly written and lazily aimed at the cheap seats, is a dereliction of documentary duties.  Jokes like Gottfried’s remind me of a line by, I think, Seinfeld, after someone makes a lame joke aimed at Jews – when asked if it offended him as a Jew, he said no, it offended him as a comedian. 

As an aside, I hope it’s not unfair to mention that Celestino’s earnest tone sometimes bends too much into unintentional sanctimony, as when he states, “I’ve seen my share of unhappiness in my life, and comedy is my safe space. There’s a chance it might not be yours.  But you’re welcome to join me there if you like.”  It’s a deeply personal sentiment, but by the end of the sermon he’s preaching, after which one assumes most still watching would at least partially agree, the tone he strikes while saying it can feel a mite cloying.  But never mind – the fact that someone’s grabbed hold of this lightning rod at all and suffered it in such a thoughtful, challenging, observationally-rich, and entertainingly clip-heavy way is enough to make the documentary, and its montage-heavy presentation of jokes that are likely to make you blurt out “that’s not funny!”, worth it.

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