BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 17 DEC 19
Featured in
Issue 208

The Starkly Divisive Art of Contemporary Comedy

The comedian’s aggressions are meant to produce pleasure, but often result in arguments and criticism

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 17 DEC 19

‘An Orgy’, illustration from Marquis de Sade, L’Histoire de Juliette ou les prospérités du vice (Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded), 1797. Courtesy: Bridgeman Images

Jokes land in dubious terrain – they can be simultaneously repellent and funny. You laugh and don’t want to. Or roar. Or laugh so hard you cry and can’t stop.

A reaction to a joke might come straight from the unconscious; reaction is also inevitably ideological. It can intimate a person’s background, family, education, income, class – yet, can’t be predicted. Some people can laugh at themselves, some can’t. Some see offence everywhere. Some look around to see if anyone else is laughing.

Censoring a laugh is like stifling a sneeze: I was told you lose a day of your life for each suppression. I’ve never been warned that stopping a yawn shortens it, though being around boring people – who suppress everything – feels like death.

Comedy is, ironically, a starkly divisive art; its particular aggressions – performed by comics, actors, amateurs – are meant to produce pleasure, though often result in arguments and criticism: ‘How can you laugh at that?’ ‘Inappropriate!’ people exclaim, outraged by chortling during a funeral or toilet humour any time.

Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods, 1784, oil on canvas, 1.2 × 1.6 m. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

People are more likely to agree about tragedy. When is crying inappropriate? Hard to say. Over spilt milk? But I’d like to see Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus (c.429 BCE) performed as a comedy. I mean, the guy had been warned he’d marry his mother, kill his father …

Humans find ways to differentiate themselves from others, to know themselves as themselves, to feel special. Their furniture represents them, designer brands speak for them. Snobs imagine their taste lifts them above ‘ordinary people’. Snobbery compensates them for their soullessness.

Even the ugliest jokes, Sigmund Freud told us, function to release tension and let unbearable fantasies and retrograde impulses find safer outlets. To be funny, a joke must surprise you. Though some people just won’t laugh, fearing the exposure of their unconscious. Or, that they don’t get it, or the joke gets them. Jokes are funny that way, also.

It’s said that if you know the punchline of a joke, it’s not funny. The notable, brilliant exception is ‘The Aristocrats’, considered to be the filthiest joke ever told. It is claimed to have been television host Johnny Carson’s favourite, though one he could never tell on his show.

‘The Aristocrats’ always opens with the same sentence and closes with the same punchline. Every comedian narrates it differently.

A family goes to a talent agent to show him their routine. The agent asks: ‘What’s your act?’ Then, the act is either described by the father or the family performs it for the agent. What’s required is that the agent will be regaled with an array of sexual acts of all descriptions, the ‘dirtier’ the better: between adults and children, with animals, to include incest, coprophilia, bestiality, rape, necrophilia, et al. Each comedian aims to make it as disgusting, grotesque and offensive as possible. When the act is done, the agent asks: ‘And what do you call your act?’ The answer, sometimes delivered dramatically, is: ‘The Aristocrats’.

The explication of the joke is a lesson in narratology and reminds me of Vladimir Propps’s diagrammatic analysis of fairy tales. If a young man meets a princess, then W or X happens, followed by Y or Z. If the king forbids his daughter to leave the castle, then a nobleman appears and X happens, or Y and Z. Variations occur according to a set of logical possibilities, a schema of causes and effects.

Watching a documentary about ‘The Aristocrats’ from 2005, I also recalled Mikhail Bakhtin’s exegesis of carnival (Rabelais and his World, 1965). During carnival, as in dreams, the world is not what it is, Bakhtin writes, but what we wish it to be: ‘normal’ turns upside down. Similarly, ‘The Aristocrats’ joke is its own carnival of upside-downness, and no sacrilege is sacrilegious enough. The Marquis de Sade could have written the joke. Maybe he did.

No matter how the joke develops in the second act, the first and last act are the same. The joke is like a tragedy, the end predetermined, and everyone knows it. We laugh at the joke or cry at, say, Oedipus’s fate, revealing tragedy and comedy as identical twins. They have the same face, like the old Roman coin, one smiling, one frowning, but the faces represent different sensibilities – or senses of humour – that produce laughter and happiness or crying and sadness. A person’s tragic or comic disposition ‘understands’ events, perceives or experiences them. Which is why it is almost impossible to explain why something is funny. Humour doesn’t translate. We laugh so we don’t cry, we cry so we don’t laugh. In my book, life is despicably funny because of its conclusion.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 208 with the headline ‘Laughter in the Dark’.

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.