Not all comedians use puppets, not all comedians use props, and not all comedians speak without nuance about insignificant subjects. There isn’t anything wrong with a comedian simply seeking laughter by doing or saying something ridiculous with no intentions beyond it - but there are others who provide that and so much more.
When a comedian comes to mind you might think of the stand-up spouting the stereotypical “aeroplane jokes” or the self-deprecating fat jokes. But what lies beneath the superficial and obnoxious film of the joke is something that contributes to discussion about social and political issues. There are many comedians who are just there to be funny and don’t necessarily have anything to say, which can be a brand of funny that really doesn’t require an audience to stress their brain folds or face an unsavoury truth.
On the other hand, when looking at the best of the best: George Carlin, Louis CK, Barry Crimmins, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Burr, etc. - these people are skillfully precise in comically articulating their insights. They courageously say what you or I “can’t”, and say it better than we ever could. Not everything these comedians say inherently has an elevated purpose, but when people are given free rein to say whatever they want and expect an exemption from ridicule because of the subject matter, many of these comedians show that they have carved out a different role for themselves. It’s one that uses comedy as a vehicle for a change in perception and direction of discussion. This is certainly true in the controversy surrounding offense and political correctness.
Challenging Political Correctness
Comedians work in a free speech testing ground. They think of ridiculous, obscene, and/or controversial ways to approach subjects and convey them to an audience. Since they are talking to audiences and baring their souls on a daily basis, they quickly discover not only what is funny but what crosses over the arbitrary line.
No matter who you are, if you speak long enough you are going to eventually offend someone. However, just because there may be people that are offended by something doesn’t mean they have a right to stop disseminating the joke, demand apologies, or to punish the mere conversing of such "appalling" subjects or opinions.
Some of the best comedians contribute to these discussions of political correctness and the supposed merits of euphemism over precision. The best example of this is in the words of one of the greatest comedians ever, George Carlin.
Political correctness can leave us stunted in society and fill our vocabulary with cryptic words that are so far gone from the originally used word, it feels like we’re speaking in riddles. It’s the idea that certain groups can’t be criticized the same as others, because it makes people angry or uncomfortable to discuss and defend it. It’s about being extremely vigilant in what and how we communicate for the sake of protecting feelings over productive discussion. We need to have people who are willing to be controversial and point out irrationality, double standards, and the unproductive nature of offense. Sometimes the easiest way to convey these important messages is in a subtle or sometimes blunt comedic way.
In all cultures, there are certain opinions and words that are condemned, for the simple fact that some people don’t like it - even if it doesn’t harm them or anyone. This idea often pushes comedians into larger discussions, if they weren’t there already, in order to respond to criticisms on these talk and news shows. The big concerns are often about the right to freely express their art form, which leads to combating the practice of unnecessary censorship and political correctness, often by having to explain the point of their joke.
Only a few comedians take this very seriously- and succeed, like Bill Maher. After all, his first program was called “Politically Correct” before it was cancelled for politically correct reasons. In that show and his current show, Real Time, he primarily mocks and turns the heat of the spotlight onto unacceptable behaviors of political figures in American politics. Whether he is personally right or wrong, he is creating a unique forum for discussion about important conflicts and seeks to better understand the reason for their inception and the merits of so called solutions. He is often criticized for not being sensitive about what he says or who he says it to, but he nonetheless accumulates a following of proponents. These proponents and his critics create a good discussion and simultaneously offer nice television shows. Bill Maher and other comedians use their humour and their stage to present to people, important issues they may have otherwise overlooked.
Comedy is certainly seen as a form of entertainment, but the best comedians form jokes from real experiences and cultural observations. It is still enjoyable after all - delivering happiness in the most instinctual way- laughter. But it is such a special thing that provides so much more to society than button popping belly laughs.
Philosophy, at its basic definition, is about understanding the nature and meaning of life and ultimately the pursuit of wisdom. The greatest comedians’ work could nestle into this definition of philosophy, though some may argue that comedians offer the philosophy of the mundane. Their contribution, however, shouldn’t be diminished because it’s not as overtly serious as true philosophy. Comedians and philosophers start by doing the same thing, asking questions about the world - they just progress and end up in different places.
Some of the most prominent philosophical minds busy themselves by bathing in the deepest, darkest, and most cynical places. Comedy is at its best in these dark crevices of the human experience and it exists for that exact reason. The best comedians take life as it is, however depressing and tragic, and churn it into a smile. They deliver a more accessible and ubiquitously connected strain of unofficial philosophy.
Comedians also fit into this idea of a pursuit of wisdom. However ridiculous that might seem; comedians are often cerebral - they live in their own minds, take the time to observe the world, analyze it, ask questions, and derive meaning. Their entire careers are about developing an understanding of the world around them and sharing it.
Why it Works and Why We Need Them
The best comedians are just clever, cheeky, and impassioned individuals that speak to experiences much like our own. They most likely didn’t get a degree in comedy or study for years to get their PhD in fart jokes, nor do they necessarily have a degree in anything that “legitimizes” them. They are people with a gift for words and a mastery of satire, they have the same concerns as anyone, they live in the same world and so they express that in the most natural and inevitably potent way they can.
When we see something we think is wrong or absurd, we want to express that feeling. What makes great comedians so great is their approach and tenacity in providing their viewpoint, especially during important discussions that may not acknowledge or address it. They have come into existence for a reason and as comedian Patton Oswalt has said:
"We cannot surrender being the rude, funny, obnoxious truth tellers. We cannot surrender that. That’s our best weapon"
They’re our best weapon against ourselves, to keep us in check by constantly monitoring the status quo and avoid a lulling into the acceptance of the most boisterous and overly serious voices. The reason why humans have progressed continually throughout history is because of history itself - the ability to pass on the past and improve the future. Comedians are doing something like that in real time. If we forget history we are doomed to repeat it, and the best comedians will hold us accountable.