When Dave Chappelle released his latest special, "The Closer," the cultural conversation in the US could talk about nothing else. Whether you liked the special or not, you couldn't deny its enormous impact.
The backlash against Chappelle's jokes about transgender people (and Black people, white people, Asians, Mexicans and Jews) shows that comedy is one of the last spaces in our culture where can say the un-sayable and laugh at what should not be laughed about. In the comedy club speech may not be totally free but it only costs the price of a couple drinks and a door fee—not your career, your reputation, your home or your family.
It's not coincidence that we're seeing a surge in demand for comedy over the past five years or so. Comedy club industry revenue has increased by 17%, according to an IBISWorld analyst Rachel Hyland who spoke to Forbes on the subject. And, Fast Company reported, the number of people in the US who visited a comedy club jumped to 17.6 million people in 2016, from 15.95 million in 2014, a 10% rise that’s led industry producer Brian Volk-Weiss, who’s worked with the likes of Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, Jim Gaffigan and Kevin Hart, to dub this period the Diamond Age.”
But comedy is also going global. The Week reported on the comedy boom unfolding in, of all places, Saudi Arabia. While, there’s an economic underpinning to the trend in the ultra-conservative kingdom, there’s nothing necessarily lucrative about lambasting social mores in a country where the (literal) morality police routinely punish transgressors. Similar trends are surfacing in places as diverse, culturally and geographically, as Nigeria, India and Malaysia and South America.
While myriad factors contribute to these respective “comedy booms,” one distinct commonality is a world in which the political and cultural spectrums are widening.
“In the 1980s in the UK, Parliament was staunchly right wing and the opposition was left wing. And that tension lent itself very well to a narrative about good guys and bad guys, which made for very good comedy,” says Dan Antopolski, a British standup comedian with 20 years in the business.
During the 90s, Antopolski says, when the premiership of a relatively centrist Tony Blair was followed, in the aughts, by an equally middle-of-the-road Gordon Brown and then David Cameron, the energy of that anger leveled off. By Antopolski’s telling, the comedy leveled off with it. That the massive comedy success of that politically lukewarm era was Seinfeld, a show that deals, according to comedian Antopolski, with “proportions”—Jerry and friends getting disproportionately upset over the petty irritants of daily life—was indicative of the tepid cultural climate.
Today, the cultural narrative—about power, politics, identity, sexuality: literally everything of significance—is nothing if not a showdown between the good and the bad (and, of course, the ugly). In vehement opinion columns, on cable news, and the eternally pissed off twitter stream, anger generally produces only more anger.
At a time when the legitimacy of free speech is often proved by a blaring bullhorn, comedy serves as a lone forum where we aren’t bombarded by someone else’s opinions for someone else’s benefit. A comedian worth their mic spit can express outrage or dismay or exasperation or bile but at the end of the bit they assure us everything is going to be okay because, ultimately, we can still find it funny. We walk away feeling better than when we went in, even if we disagree with the ideas. Most importantly, we’ll have actually heard what someone else said.