Everyone I know and read has been posting this Chris Rock interview and wow, I can see why. Chris Rock is the smartest man in the world and we should let him do whatever the hell he wants.
The interview, conducted by Frank Rich, covers a lot of territory, from race to parenthood to money. Rock also talks show business, of course, and the chilling effect that smart phones have had on standup comedy:
A few days ago I was talking with Patton Oswalt, and he was exercised about the new reality that any comedian who is trying out material that’s a little out there can be fucked by someone who blasts it on Twitter or a social network.
I know Dave Chappelle bans everybody’s phone when he plays a club. I haven’t gone that far, but I may have to, to get an act together for a tour.
Does it force you into some sort of self-censorship?
It does. I swear I just had a conversation with the people at the Comedy Cellar about how we can make cell phones into cigarettes. If you would have told me years ago that they were going to get rid of smoking in comedy clubs, I would have thought you were crazy.
It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.
I pushed back on this, mentally, at first, because my knee-jerk response is to blow off anything that even smacks of a whine about “political correctness.” This instinct is usually a sound one, especially when dealing with comedians. I’ve met plenty who would rather accuse you of having no sense of humor than consider that their joke might not have been funny, and who can’t tell the difference between genuine just-heard-God’s-own-truth laughter and the nervous, tittering, just-heard-a-mother-superior-fart laughter.
But Rock is right, as usual. Some comics may merely bemoan not being able to use race and sex slurs onstage, but smartphones could have a chilling effect in other ways. I used to do standup for a while in the mid-90s, and had Twitter and smartphones been around back then, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I had a day job doing publicity for a theater company, and while an organization like that doesn’t care if you do creative stuff in your off-hours, my boss might have cared if he’d known I was making jokes about him, if Twitter had been there to make him care. How many other wannabe comedians have day jobs? You think “edgy material,” nowadays, you think of hot-button race and gender stuff, but frankly, for any given comedian, who knows what the hot-button material is? Maybe it’s talking about their families of origin, or day jobs, or the church they go to, or what their childhood was like. Something they don’t want to have be part of their Permanent Internet Record, not yet.
Chris Rock makes another point:
And by the way: An audience that’s not laughing is the biggest indictment that something’s too far. No comedian’s ever done a joke that bombs all the time and kept doing it. Nobody in the history of stand-up. Not one guy.
Yep. Audiences have only one source of power in the audience-comic transaction, but it’s the most potent core-of-the-sun power there is. The power not to laugh. That’s what you do with the guy who’s making rape jokes onstage. If you want better comedians, you have to have better audiences. This is harder. It’s harder to control your own instinctive, etiquette-trained nervous giggle than it is to shame someone on Twitter. But if you want other people to modify their behavior, you may have to modify yours as well. With bad comics, stony silence is the only appropriate response.