When Called Out in Politics or Comedy, Always Escalate
Grant McCracken asks:
An outsider appears in American politics. He or she expresses some deeply felt issue. There’s a brief period of enthusiasm.
Then the reporters go to work. Debates happen. Interviews are given.
And eventually we get a Dorian Gray revelation of the real man or woman.
And hey presto, that’s the end of their candidacy. (And, like a booster rocket, the candidate falls away even as the issue continues. The candidate has served his or her purpose.)
But it’s not happening this time.
Why isn’t happening this time?
I think the answer is related to Tod Kelly‘s thesis about when shaming people works and when it doesn’t:
In Ronson’s book, those who quickly overcame attempts to shame them had one thing in common: They didn’t really care all that much what we thought of them. In some cases this was because they were obscenely wealthy; in others, because they were simply too busy to care what was happening on social media. Some didn’t care because they were clueless. And some didn’t care because — not to put too fine point on it — they were huge, colossal assholes.
Here’s a not-exactly-unique-or-brilliant insight I’ve had about Twitter: Tweets follow a power law distribution. Almost all of my tweets are ignored. I get the impression the median tweet likewise garners no retweets, no favorites, and no replies.
But that’s just the median tweet.
Sometimes someone gets murdered and you tweet to your 20 followers:
I can’t believe so many people care about a dead cop and NO ONE has thought to ask what he did to deserve it. He had creepy perv eyes …
Then you’re famous and you get death threats and New York Magazine writes an article about how horrible everyone has been to you.
The returns to such tweets are asymmetric. And not in a good way. The marginal Twitter user will say something virally stupid before they get around to saying something virally insightful or informative.
The above NY Magazine piece is bad. Among the bad things it does is make a barely explicable Justine Sacco reference.
The story of Justine Sacco’s most famous tweet is the little-known story that everyone knows. And it has something for everyone. It lets us sit back in judgment of those who prematurely judged her. We get to pat ourselves on the back because surely we are always circumspect and charitable with all of the judgments we make unlike those who destroyed Sacco.
But there’s one thing about the standard narrative of Sacco’s tweet. Here is the tweet, yet again:
Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!
All the articles I’ve read in support of Sacco admit that this is a bad attempt at humor. But that is uncharitable. This tweet is actually funny. No apology was ever owed.
Explaining a joke is the surest way to ensure that it loses its humor, but I don’t see a way around this given that I appear all alone in appreciating Sacco’s humor. The setup makes you tense: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS.” That is an offensive sentiment that reduces Africa to an AIDS-infested jungle. The turn is “Just kidding”, which lets us know we aren’t just dealing with someone transparently racist, but it still leaves you unsettled and uncomfortable that she’s taken us in this direction. “I’m white!” is the punch line and in my opinion is a perfect punch line given the setup. It reframes the “just kidding” from walking back a racist sentiment to doubling down on the racism. The author isn’t a racist who thinks Africa is an AIDS-infested jungle. The author is a racist who thinks she is immune from getting AIDS because she is white. This is too ridiculous to be true. It’s a good joke. It’s obvious self-deprecation at the expense of racists. It’s a funny, solid joke on the proper side of the politically correct fence.
She has defenders, but why doesn’t anyone defend her tweet? I submit it’s because she apologized rather than following it up with something three times more racist.
Louie CK is so good at what he does it’s easy to forget that it’s all an act. He pretends to be a fat, lazy man who masturbates all day. I don’t doubt that these forces exist somewhere within him, but take a look at his actual productivity. He puts out a new hour-long standup special every year with all new material each year. This is maximal output for any comedian in their prime. No one, to my knowledge exceeds that rate. On top of this, he pioneered a new medium of distribution rather than just doing HBO specials like everyone else had been doing.
Simultaneously, he has been the star of Louie on FX. He complains about not knowing how to act, he’s been nominated three times for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. He writes, stars, and directs. He edits it the whole show himself on his Macbook. Each of these things are ordinarily full time jobs done by separate professionals. It’s a terrific, critically acclaimed show. Meanwhile, he started a production company to produce pilots for new shows.
Maybe he masturbates a lot, but it isn’t preventing him from getting an unreasonable amount of work done. The person he plays as a standup comedian is not the true him. He plays a lazy bum because he knows we’ll relate. The real him is as driven as the guys in the running to be the next CEO of General Electric.
But his deception is seamless.
In the clip, Louie says this is the worst thing he has ever said. But he had said the same exact thing in dozens of other cities. The whole performance is literally called “an act”. It feels like he ad-libbed “Chinese babies”, but he calculated how to let it spill out of his mouth so that it would feel like an ad-lib. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever said” feels like it’s a parenthetical, off-the-record walk-back. It’s not off the record, and it’s not the worst thing he’s ever said.
At 2:35, he offers awfulness and follows it up with (1) his own nervous laughter, (2) “uhhhh, Okay. That’sfucked up.”
Remember that this is all planned. If you heard Louie laugh nervously, he wanted you to hear him laughing nervously. Similarly, “uhhhh, Okay. That’sfucked up.” feels as if it’s parenthetical commentary offered up in the moment, but it’s not. He did not read the crowd and decide to offer that acknowledgement of how what he said went over. He said it because he had already decided that he wanted you to hear it.
Let’s say you’re a comedian who is being heckled. How do you handle this?
You could apologize for your act. But that kills the mood. Running a show requires commanding the room. Apologizing shows weakness. If you apologize now, you open yourself to others in the audience to lodge their objections.
You could call security. But this is also weakness if it is your first resort. You aren’t able to handle the room and are getting someone else to do it for you.
I have spent an embarrassing amount of time watching Youtube videos of comedians reacting to hecklers. I find that the best responses lower the social status of the heckler while increasing the social status of the comedian. This holds even if the entire theme of your act is self-deprecation. When dealing with a heckler, you must at least temporarily become the Alpha before resuming your story about how terrible you and your life are.
Some fraction of hecklers are offended by the content offered by the comedian. To my understanding, that’s what happened with Michael Richards and Daniel Tosh.
I’m not able to find a clip of the Daniel-Tosh-rape-joke thing.
To my understanding, both of these comedians were called out in the middle of their acts for saying something offensive. The hecklers laid claim to the moral high ground. How do you raise your social status and lower theirs?
Conceding is almost never going to work. Escalating, however, often does. Both Richards and Tosh double down on their offensiveness. This is an attempt to display bravery and reject the notion that morality should be the measure of status. It usually works. In fact, the more you escalate, the better it works. Tosh said “wouldn’t it be hilarious if that woman got raped by five guys right now?” It would have been far less defensible if he asked “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if that woman got raped on her way home from here?” That wouldn’t have been extreme enough to make it clear he was joking. In fact, it doesn’t sound like a joke at all. The former is implausible enough to be sort of funny, which is why he escaped to still have a career.
Richards also escalated. He jokes about lynching, which did get a laugh by the audience. A literal lynching in the middle of a comedy club is implausible enough that it is possible to laugh at. Unfortunately for Richards, that’s the last thing he says that resembles a joke. Most of the clip is just a guy is yelling epithets. Unlike the Justine Sacco tweet, it’s not racist enough for us to believe he is kidding.
Remember that Louie segment above about the Chinese babies? It’s not actually about Chinese babies. It’s about babies with birth defects. If you missed this, don’t feel that bad because I only noticed it just now. His saying “Chinese babies” makes you forget or ignore how offensive it is to make jokes at the expense of babies with birth defects.
Louie uses this technique often. He doesn’t wait for a heckler to call him out. He escalates without being prompted. He says the offensive thing, and then before you can even think about how you should feel about it, he says something that’s would be much more offensive if it had been said seriously. By then you’ve forgotten about the first thing.
It’s been several years since I first saw a baby wearing a “I still live with my parents” t-shirt. I thought it was really funny.
I saw it again in a store recently and suddenly realized that I am quite close to someone who didn’t have the good fortune to live with her parents for the first few years of her life. At some point, she’s going to grow up and perhaps have some extra feelings about that shirt. She probably won’t be offended. It’s still a good joke. But it isn’t only a joke.
If it’s possible for a baby’s t-shirt to bring up conflicting feelings, then practically all humor will be able to offend someone. Maybe there has are no totally unobjectionable jokes. Maybe comedians abhor limits so much because it is a genuinely slippery slope and every joke will hurt someone somewhere. Maybe it’s only consistent to either allow everything or say goodbye to humor.
I laughed at the birth defect jokes.
Donald Trump has said several things that should have sunk his campaign. This flabbergasts everyone, but most of all journalists. One illustration of their exasperation is titled “18 Real Things Donald Trump Has Actually Said About Women”.
I think it’s somewhat related to the reason Louie CK can say the n-word as often as he wants whenever he wants.
There are a lot of different systems in which everyone who participates is unhappy but there is nothing anyone can do to move toward something better without making themselves worse off in the short run.
Our method of electing presidents fits this description. Most journalists would prefer to produce substantive content, but they get more traffic if they notice a candidate saying something that can be interpreted by someone as offensive. Most people would want to consume substantive stories, but partisans get more mileage when they share “you-didn’t-build-that” and “47-percent” quotes.
Everyone already knows what the ideologies of these people are. Everyone knows who are the types of people they like and who are the types they don’t. But we are instead forced to embrace the fiction that their focus-group-tested words matter.
Presidential candidates would probably prefer a system in which they could be more honest with the public and not have to say the same thing in the same pre-approved way every day, but they know media scrutiny means that they need to manicure their speech and not say anything that will spur outrage and require them to make apologies and after-the-fact qualifications.
Everyone is miserable, but it’s a stable equilibrium. No one is incentivized to change.
Donald Trump was asked a question by Megyn Kelly regarding the demeaning things he had said to women. He was getting called out by an offended heckler in the middle of his act. Of course he was going to make a joke about Kelly menstruating. Getting called out requires you to escalate, change the frame of the debate from whether whatever you said was offensive or not, and reduce the social status of whoever spoke while raising your own. He did all of those things with a “it must be that time of the month” joke. The parallels to stand-up comedy became even more prominent when he told a reporter to go back to Univision.
There have been various revisionist attempts by the media recently to claim that they saw Trump coming all along. But if you want to paint Trump as “the logical culmination of where Republican politics have been headed for many years now”, then kindly point me to the piece you wrote prior to the rise of Trump predicting the rise of Trump. I am not impressed that you were able to sell yourself a story that makes sense after you already seen where we were going.
The media articles I’ve read in the past week indicate that they think Trump has stumbled into a set of policies that most appeals to the id of conservative voters. This fits their mental model of the reasons people win elections. This model is almost certainly unhelpful in analyzing Trump. If Republicans have a problem, it isn’t that they haven’t had access to candidates willing to appeal to their id.
Donald Trump’s candidacy is a referendum on our current system of choosing candidates based on which ones make the fewest verbal missteps. He has done something different by not manicuring his speech. People are doing something different by reporting to pollsters that they support candidates who say things because they believe them to be true rather than candidates who haven’t said anything wrong. It is the media that hasn’t figured out what it’s new role should or could be. If the media’s role it isn’t to extract occasional missteps from hours and hours of monologuing, then what is their job? Will these changes lead to a new equilibrium? Will it be better? Can candidates who aren’t Trump also just talk to us without worrying about saying the wrong thing and without needing to apologize afterward? Will voters take excuse missteps if they are well-meaning? Could we actually get something positive out of this after all?