Comedy is always cruel
Do you have any idea how painful it is to slip on a banana peel? The horrifying crack of the sacroiliac as it hits the concrete? The excruciating pain, week after week, that shoots through your body as you futilely search for a comfortable sitting position? The weeks of physical therapy that follow the onstage belly laugh, and the fluctuations between hope and despair during the slow healing process?
Or consider the Coyote’s addictive quest for the roadrunner, as he pours his dwindling finances into the coffers of the Acme company, buying gadget after gadget, and failing again and again to capture the prey he needs to survive. Surely you must have noticed how emaciated he is. Having spent all his money on hunting technology, he obviously has no money left over for food. And yet as he slowly wastes away, he continues to gamble on each new item featured in the Acme catalogue, and endures new contortions and mutilations as each of these items fails to deliver. Nobody laughs when they read Albert Camus’ classic essay on The Myth of Sisyphus. But you, you heartless bastard, you laugh when you see the same story told with a coyote and a roadrunner instead of a man and a boulder, or when you see a clown slip on a banana peel. Just as Will Smith laughed when he first heard Chris Rock’s GI Jane Joke.
When we laugh at someone, we are taking pleasure in their pain, or at the very least getting a pleasure that requires us to ignore their pain. That’s how laughter works.. There are admittedly a few comedians who can soft pedal this inherent cruelty. Robin Williams and Lord Buckley directed most of their “cruelty” at themselves, acting out infantile fantasies that made them look both ridiculous and enviable because they seem to live in their own private fantasy worlds. Gabriel Iglesias (a.k.a. “Fluffy”) ridicules other people, but he does it with such gentleness and love that it rarely hurts.
Chris Rock, however, brings the cruelty of comedy front and center. He is a wise ass, who gets away with it because he genuinely is wise. He tells the truth as he sees it, without the comedian’s usual tools of exaggeration or understatement, and most of the time the truth hurts. When you hire Chris Rock, you hire him to be insulting and abusive. That’s his brand, the essence of his genius. Then he got punched for doing his job, and a lot of people think he (sort of) deserved it. What’s up with that, exactly?