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Column by Dennis Chiang Guest Columnist | Illustration credit to Rachel Lim Wan Shuen
One of the greatest artists alive today—though he would never admit it—is a man named William Frederic Burr. Over his illustrious 24-year career, his work is some of the most brilliant art pieces of the modern day. Subversive and irreverent of our cultural taboos, his incisive explorations of controversial subjects illuminates the biases that underpin much of society. His sincerity comes across in his art and engages a wide range of people, from the bourgeoisie to the working class. But here’s the catch: Bill Burr is a stand-up comedian.
Comedy as an art form has only until recently gained legitimacy and popularity in the public eye—mainly due to the political satire of the likes of Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and John Oliver on late night television. However, political talk shows seem to be the only arena whereby great stand-up comics can gain any legitimate respect for their craft. The common perception of stand-up comedians outside this category tends towards low-brow entertainers who get audiences off on cheap laughs.
It is a shame that stand-up comedians are not taken seriously because after all, what’s there to take seriously in comedy? The wider arts community views stand-up comedians as a group that don’t do “legitimate” art but merely make fun of society using offensive stereotypes about various demographic groups. Is that really the case?
In crafting humor that pokes fun at politically correct and orthodox views, stand-up comedians allow us to laugh at our own world-view and see the weakness in our positions. This creates much needed empathy for our ideological rivals.
Yet we don’t afford the same respect to stand-up comedians as we do for other artists such as musicians or poets. Arguably, comedians like Richard Pryor and Dave Chapelle have performed poignant yet humorous bits on being black in America. They illuminate important socio-economic class issues and structural biases in the criminal justice system (just check out Chapelle’s bit on the age of consent and how it’s applied unfairly to blacks).
One of the late, great George Carlin’s most amazing routines dealt with the changing linguistic framework of society and how direct language was now being obfuscated to cover up the atrocities of war. This is almost identical to the work that revered academic Noam Chomsky gets a lot of fame for yet Carlin barely receives a fraction of the acknowledgement.
People often underestimate how much effort it takes to craft good stand-up. It takes years of practice to develop your style. Furthermore, working biting commentary about important social issues into your routine is made more difficult given the current outrage culture. In my stand-up set last year I successfully ran what many would consider a ‘slut-shaming’ joke. Hopefully laughing at the joke shed some light on the conservative position of abstinence and serial monogamy. It takes time and no small degree of panache to craft and pull off a joke like that, yet people still undervalue comedy and the work it takes.
The consequence of this devaluation of comedy is that there is very little protection for things like joke-thievery and plagiarism in the business. It’s just not taken very seriously.
For instance, renowned joke thief Carlos Mencia, was given a HBO special “The Mind of Mencia” despite him stealing some of his material from young-and-upcoming comedians in small comedy clubs. The producers at HBO and the managers of these comedy clubs didn’t do anything because Mencia’s audienceship was making them money and there were no legal repercussions for what he was doing. Much like other art forms, a one-minute piece that Mencia stole could have taken an upstart comic half a year to hone and polish. We take plagiarism in published works of literature so seriously yet when it’s done in stand-up comedy circles nobody cares about it.
As a revolutionary education model of the world, Yale-NUS College could help reverse this lack of prestige of comedy in the art world by reifying comedy as a discipline. Perhaps we could have an elective in the art of political satire? Or even a Minor in Arts & Humanities (Comedy Track) could be something we might want to explore?
Comedy at its highest level has the power to change minds and help us deal with the painful truths we would rather avoid. The gift of laughter is one of the most precious things humanity possesses and we should appreciate it far more than we currently do.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org