comedians are not public intellectuals

The same day I posted on public intellectuals, Megan Garber wrote on the website of the Atlantic that the people playing this role in our society today are comedians. She cites the popularity of such figures as Amy Schumer and John Oliver as examples of the intersection of two important trends: "comedy with moral messaging and comedy with mass attention." The "combined effect" of these disparate phenomena is that "comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals. They’re exploring and wrestling with important ideas" and "sharing their conclusions with the rest of us."

Amy Schumer

Amy Schumer

I am a fan of those cited in this article, such as Louis C.K., Key and Peele, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. And I am very excited that comedy is becoming more popular and that some of the most attention-getting comedians are those who are making cultural or political points. But I also aspire to be an intellectual. From that perspective, I don't think it is any insult to comedians to say that the idea that they are public intellectuals does a horrible disservice to actual intellectual work.

Comedy can be provocative and immediate in a way that scholarly work seldom is. By the same token, it generally lacks subtlety and nuance. Comedy is not typically about honoring both sides of a debate. It frequently seeks less to refute the objects of its satire than to render them ridiculous and therefore untenable. There is a lot to be said for this approach, but almost everything about it violates the tenets that govern intellectual discourse.

Marc Maron is the host of the nation's most popular comedy podcast, WTF. On his show he consistently characterizes the art of comedy as finding and speaking one's truth. This has always bothered me a bit, because speaking one's truth is not always the same as being funny. To me, it is the latter rather than the former that defines comedy. When Lenny Bruce, near the end of his life, was spending most of his time on stage reading from trial transcripts and ranting about the First Amendment, he was speaking his truth. But he was arguably not doing comedy anymore. In the episode of C.K.'s show Louie titled "A La Carte," the central character, Louie, runs into an inexperienced comic, Bart, who is so terrible that his act doesn't even include recognizable jokes. The younger man imposes on Louie for advice, which he is loath to give. But he finally does, reluctantly explaining that Bart's set seemed to lack actual routines. Bart is upset by this criticism because, he says, the whole point of comedy is to tell the truth. "Well, yeah," Louie responds with compassion, "but...it has to be funny."

On this point, I would side with C.K. over Maron and Garber. Needing to be funny, to me, is a handicap when trying to "speak one's truth." While comics can certainly provide a great service to public discourse, the claim that the public need for an intellectual perspective can be supplied by comics really boils down to a lack of respect for the unique qualities of scholarship.