By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post
Shortly after Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter was finalized, comedian Dane Cook (you remember him from the 2000s) tweeted to his 2.7 million followers: “Can comedians still be funny here? Is it safe?”
The implication was that he hadn’t been sure before; that former Twitter bosses neutered Cook’s online naturalness, depriving the masses of his provocative yet hilarious content.
About a week later, I logged onto Cook’s Twitter feed to see what we’d been missing all those years. Here’s what I found: “World population clock is 7.98 billion humans this morning,” he tweeted a few days ago. “My alarm was set at 8 billion. I always get up early.
So, I’m not a comedian or a comedy judge or even particularly funny, but even I can tell you that this tweet sounds like a joke thrown out of progressive insurance commercials where young people turn into their dipwad parents.
Musk calls himself a comedy connoisseur. “The billionaire, who is known for interrupting meetings to watch ‘Monty Python’ clips, has made a habit of socially cultivating lively comedians and entertainers,” according to the New York Times.
As the new owner of Twitter, Musk seems to see himself not only as a fan of comedy, but also as a liberator of downtrodden comedians. Earlier this year, when Twitter suspended the satirical Babylon Bee after it named a transgender woman in the Biden administration as its “man of the year,” Musk reached out to the bee and “thought about this call he might need to buy Twitter,” according to Seth Dillon, CEO of Bee. After the sale finally took place, Musk posted, “Comedy is now legal on Twitter.”
But if you spend several days sifting through the thousands of responses to Musk’s promise of new legal humor, you won’t find many groundbreaking jokes, but rather plenty of tired jokes. Lots of “jokes” that should be censored not by any Twitter regime but by the sender’s self-respect, long before they hit the send button. Lots of male grievances disguised as comedy and lots of cultural anxiety disguised as respect for the comic arts.
One response (“joke”?) was an edited clip of Nancy Pelosi, posted the day her husband was attacked with a hammer in their house, made to look like the house speaker had badly saggy breasts.
Another response was a clip of Scottish actor Billy Connolly ranting about gender neutral language. (It really freaks out that manholes are known as “nobody’s holes.”)
A whole bunch of users responded with “forward-thinking” memes: “In a divided nation, I stand with those who bear arms and know which bathroom to use.” Or: “It’s called a joke. We used to tell them before people were offended by everything. Or: “People without humor will just have to deal with their own feelings.”
Those last two really sum it up, don’t they? Comedy has always been legal on Twitter. What the site has regulated, in its conduct policy, is content where the punchline is racism or sexism or transphobia or public health misinformation amid a pandemic. What a certain variety of Musk fans were looking for wasn’t the generic freedom to “be funny” on Twitter, but rather the ability to make specific jokes on this website. Musk is their comedy hero because, for them, saving comedy means securing their freedom to post, as one respondent did, a photo of a shirtless, shirtless construction worker holding a hammer and captioning it with, “Where’s Nancy?”
For decades, the default prototype of a comedian was a white, straight, able-bodied male who was allowed to make “jokes” about anything that amused him, even if his amusement was based on harmful stereotypes. That’s changing, as more and more people realize that all kinds of comedians can be funny, and that there are all kinds of ways to be funny that don’t involve harm.
I’m thinking, for example, of the work of Hannah Gadsby, whose comedy specials have made an art of being provocative in the truest sense: they provoke thought and reflection. She makes viewers laugh about her difficult experiences as a gay woman; then makes us think about why she felt the need to make us laugh at her, and why we thought it was funny to watch her do it.
Provocative jokes make you think. Provocative “jokes” trick you into not thinking; they reassure you that the world is exactly as you already thought.
And, hey, if you’re not trying to make a comedy that makes people think too much or changes too much (quite fair), you’re absolutely free to make jokes about sex and poop and Instagram and your beaus -parents and any number of other experiments that don’t work with the toxic fuel that builds up in people’s brains.
But something like making fun of people’s pronouns is actually the opposite of pissed off. It’s convenience humor for insolent reactionaries. No one needs to tune into Twitter when you can hear the same “jokes” from your grandfather’s roommate with dementia at Leisure World, and walk away with a free cup of pudding. Or your brother’s smartest friend. Or your aunt’s favorite shock jock.
A joke insisting that a trans woman is a man is only “funny” insofar as it is hostile. Take away the hostility and brilliance of the taboo, and it doesn’t get any smarter than “My alarm was set to 8 billion”. A joke so worn it makes you feel embarrassed for the people who make it. They try so hard, and it shows.
It’s the same feeling I got watching a clip of Musk entering Twitter headquarters on his first day in his new office. He was carrying a kitchen sink. He tweeted the clip with the text “Let it sink in”.
It wasn’t a clip that inspired much confidence that Musk was the right person to answer the question, “Can comedians be funny again here?”
I mean, I don’t know, guys. Can you?
Monica Hesse is a columnist for the Style section of the Washington Post, which writes frequently about gender and its impact on society. She is the author of several novels, including the most recent, “Ils est parti”. Follow her on Twitter @MonicaHesse.