No, woke culture didn't kill comedy

Elisabetta Pulcini dissects Todd Phillips' comments about the limitations that modern society places on comedians and comedy

Elisabetta Pulcini
15th October 2019
At its highest, comedy reflects and comments on society in unexpected ways. However, while some might thrive in the evolution and adaptation demanded of comedians to remain relevant, others feel left behind.

Todd Phillips seems to be one of these people. While riding off an incredibly positive reception for Joker, the director has not been productively engaged with the public discourse. In particular, he has lamented the effects of woke culture on comedy. Speaking to Vanity Fair, he stated that comedy is dying, ‘because all the f*cking funny guys are like, ‘F*ck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ That is neither true nor justified.

"Confirming old stereotypes without a sliver of reinvention does not make for good comedy"

Firstly, comedy is most effective when it is unexpected. That’s why the same joke told over and over again will not provoke the same laughter. Confirming old stereotypes without a sliver of reinvention does not make for good comedy. For example, while The Hangover was well received. The following sequels, which largely rethreaded the same territory, were not. The evolution of tastes and social norms demands comedy to continuously reinvent itself. And while some might perceive it as woke culture trying to ‘censor’ their voice, it might just be that audiences have moved on. In fact, what might have been considered ‘irreverent’ when Phillips was a relevant comedic voice, is simply not that shocking anymore. Today’s audience might rebel against the use of homosexual slurs, not because it’s too edgy for them to handle, but because it does not resonate with them in the same way it would have ten years ago.

"This is not to say that comedy cannot be used as a tool to explore taboo subjects: rather, it should be encouraged."

This is not to say that comedy cannot be used as a tool to explore taboo subjects: rather, it should be encouraged. However, it needs to be done with an awareness of the evolving public perception of delicate topics. While the bare concept of being gay might have been unthinkable and therefore a punchline in itself decades ago, today the normalization of the LGBTQ+ community, and the knowledge of the kind of damage language may cause, renders that humour not only outdated, but also tone-deaf. Therefore, Phillips is right in assuming that audiences would be offended by ‘Dr. F****’: not because it’s ‘irreverent’, but because it’s offensive, without being refreshing nor funny.
Secondly, Phillips’ comments do a disservice to all comedies that came out recently. By only looking at post-2015 films, it becomes evident that the comedic scene is thriving. For example, Booksmart and Good Boys, which both came out in 2019, manage to deliver raunchy humour, while remaining true to the characters and conveying compelling coming of age stories.

In particular, director Olivia Wilde uses surrealist sequences to elevate Booksmart above a typical comedy. With superhero movies dominating the box office, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Deadpool (2016) stand out, in different ways, as incredibly effective comedies: one that works as a psychedelic Taika Waititi adventure; and the other one that plays with the medium of cinema through cogent fourth-wall breaking. For romantic comedies, Long Shot (2019) and The Big Sick (2017) carry heartfelt messages, while addressing timely conversations through incredibly funny performances.


Lastly, Game Night (2018) and Ingrid Goes West (2017) successfully combine to the thriller genre, while managing to remain hilarious. In light of all these movies, and many more, saying that woke culture killed comedy, and that ‘all the f*cking funny guys’ are not working anymore because they are afraid to offend Twitter, comes off as, if not desperate, at least unnecessarily bitter. In a world where Taika Waititi was able to make a comedy featuring Hitler playing someone’s childhood friend, in the upcoming JoJo Rabbit (2019), no director should get to feel too ‘irreverent’ for today’s standards.

It is clear that there is no shortage of talent working in comedy today.
The best comedians are able to utilise current conversations to elevate their comedy, and make it truly relevant and significant. No one is requiring movies to subscribe to the PC culture, but expecting standards for what is considered funny to not change in ten years is unreasonable.

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AUTHOR: Elisabetta Pulcini
Film Editor 19/20 and Law (LLB) graduate. An Italian passionate about journalism and the law: always up for a debate. @ElisabettaPul

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