Humor and Public Intellectualism

The Atlantic recently published an article entitled “How Comedians Became Public Intellectuals,” which suggests that, as people like Amy Schumer, John Oliver, and others have become more political, they have ascended beyond just making jokes to creating salient cultural commentary.  The article, on the whole, probably seems like common knowledge to anyone who has been regularly watching The Daily Show for years, but it hangs the proposed shift of comedians into public intellectuals on the power of the internet.  As more people share Amy Schumer’s sketches or John Oliver’s rants on facebook and they go viral, they become part of mainstream conversation, and as the author Megan Garber declares, comedians have become the “intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment.”

I am a person who follows comedy pretty closely—I watch The Daily Show and The Nightly Show, gut out every episode of Saturday Night Live, try to keep up with stand-up specials, listen to Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, and so on.  Comedy appeals to me as a sort of alchemical science, and I enjoy hearing its respected technicians explain their philosophies on constructing their acts or writing their shows.  Many of the funniest people I respect most view themselves as writers more than anything else and express a level of professionalism that belies the spontaneity of their stage personas.  I’ve listened to Tina Fey’s audio book six or seven times.  I like comedians who make political points and skillfully negotiate thorny social issues in ways that social commentators cannot.  See, for example, Chris Rock’s recent profile in Rolling Stone.

The last few times that I taught college courses I joked to my friends that the bulk of my class prep came in the form of listening to George Carlin’s stand-up albums.  Or rather, I think they thought that I was joking, and I was not.  What I actually did was listen to his stand-up while going over my notes before class, rehearsing the things I intended to say directly to my students, marking places for improvisation and noting potential objections that I’d need to anticipate.   I’ve always loved George Carlin above all because his best work functions like a good writer must.  Smart and incisive, he seems to scan the available ideas on the subjects that interest him or confuse him, and he locates his humor in the places where the available information fails to align.  Demonstrating logic serves as the core of his humor; he made his listeners laugh at themselves because any other option would be silly.

With all of that in mind, I’m interested in this article because it has appeared during a time when the definition of “public intellectual” is up for debate.  Academics active in social media or blogging have recently suffered the pitfalls of the lack of clarity in this definition, with their qualifications and even their jobs called into question over ideas they posted, with varying levels of care, on Twitter or other platforms.  Comics have long been subject to a similar level of scrutiny, with many seeking to draw controversy that will, perhaps, draw many more followers to their material.  However, the difference between comics and scholars remains that many do still brush off sketches and bits as “just jokes” when the content pushes limits or turns racy—where scholars supposedly engage in “serious” work, comics have room to play. 

So it’s important to note this fusion of comedy to intellectualism, and praise the fact that these new, more diverse, more astute faces have replaced the yokel-ish humor of a Larry the Cable Guy or a Jeff Foxworthy that dominated mainstream perceptions of comedy not too long ago.  Allying humor with politics allows social movements (ahem, feminism) frequently decried as humorless to more readily dispel the negative stereotypes that hold them back.  However, I’m concerned that no such positive protection extends to academic commentators presenting truth-based arguments in the name of being public intellectuals. 

If, as The Atlantic’s article posits, the shift toward viewing comedians as public intellectuals means that jokes are no longer only dismissed as such, intellectuals—specifically university professors—have no equivalent leeway.  This paradigm is fine while people like Amy Schumer and John Oliver use their powers for good instead of evil, but I wonder what could happen if scholars learned more from comedians.  Earlier today I saw an article that described how Aziz Ansari, best known for Parks and Recreation, is collaborating with a sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, on a book about how technology affects contemporary romance.  I’m not sure how about this as a potential trend, but it’s worth asking what it says about how we view comics and scholars alike when their collaboration alters the results of research.