Photo Courtesy of the LA Times
Veteran stand-up comedian Bill Burr took to the stage at Studio 8H on Oct. 10. In what was his first appearance hosting Saturday Night Live, Burr’s performance divided audience opinion and raised important questions about what is and isn’t acceptable satire in our evolving social landscape.
The primary source of the weekend controversy was Burr’s opening stand-up monologue. The seven-minute comedy set featured scathing commentary on the activism of white feminists and the LGBTQIA+ community and how it has impacted African Americans.
Burr’s primary criticism was the attention white women and gay people draw in the public discourse distracts from the fact that African Americans are systemically kept at the bottom of the United States’ social ladder. Basically, his belief that there’s a lack of understanding about what oppression is and he’s tired of loud complaints coming from certain groups.
Some of his harshest comments on white women included his assertions that they co-opted the woke movement to advance themselves, they rolled around with white men in “blood money” for centuries and that they shouldn’t compare their experiences to the struggles of African Americans from the comfort of their “new SUV with heated seats.”
His material about the LGBTQIA+ community was perhaps less personal, but problematic nonetheless. Burr’s jokes centered around pride month — his stance being that it’s absurd that gay people get the warm and pleasant month of June to celebrate while Black History month has been relegated to the short and comparatively miserable February.
There was a particularly distasteful comment about gay people never being enslaved. Despite perhaps being technically correct, the statement was of course egregious considering the historical violence LGBTQIA+ individuals have endured. Hate crimes continue to be a problem, with 2020 being an awful year for violence against transgender women in the U.S.
To a general audience much of this material was shocking to see, but those familiar with Burr’s work know that he’s no stranger to controversy.
Burr has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years due to his prolific podcast work, acclaimed Netflix stand-up specials, work writing and producing his own animated Netflix series and his various acting roles.
He’s made a name for himself with brash comedy that often showcases his willingness to challenge what he perceives as hypocrisy in liberal politics. This stage persona has been incredibly successful, leading to multiple sellout comedy tours across North America and abroad in Europe and Australia.
So with a comedian like Burr, the question becomes — where is the tipping point in which edgy social commentary becomes problematic? Well, it’s hard to say.
On the surface level, it’s a matter of a taste. Burr’s delivery is crass and colorful. He’s very much an adult comedian, profanity is a trademark of his performances. The shock that his routines evoke is by design. He challenges audiences, his desired effect is some level of discomfort.
If you’re not interested in a middle aged white guy howling expletives for the duration of his set, then Burr probably isn’t for you. But does discomfort with his delivery necessarily invalidate messages he inserts into his routines? Well, with an examination of his messages things get more complicated.
For instance, Burr’s remarks Saturday about white feminists certainly had truths laced within them. People like Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug exist, the phenomenon of white women occupying black spaces for their benefit isn’t some fantasy.
Furthermore, the notion that white women have historically upheld the patriarchy and tenants of white supremacy is also accurate. The issue persists to this day, in the last presidential election the majority of white women who voted cast their ballot for Donald Trump. But that’s not to say that Burr’s take here doesn’t require some nuance.
I’m sure scholars on the topic would mention the fact that white women didn’t invent the patriarchy, that men did. I’m sure they’d also mention the fact that for much of history women were basically property and in no position to fight for social justice.
But, the thing is — comedians are not scholars. Jokes are not dissertations. Performance art is entertainment. How fair is it to expect stage performers to perfectly flesh out the intricacies of our society in their work?
So, what makes a joke objectively offensive and unacceptable in the public discourse?
Well, in a lot of ways we’ve already decided those metrics. It wasn’t that long ago that comedy blockbusters like “The Hangover” were riddled with homophobic slurs. Over the last decade there has been progress. The expansion of social media led to increased diversity of voices in our discourse — public opinion swayed in favor of disenfranchised communities.
Jokes where the sole punchline is someone’s race or gender or sexual orientation are out. This is a good thing. We want decency in our society.
As we move forward and our views continue evolving, there will be a balancing act with our standards for satire. Audiences want effective social commentary, yet effective social commentary does not go hand and hand with comfort.
The whole point is to disrupt patterns in the public discourse. Comedians like Burr achieve this disruption. Despite how offensive his work can be, I hope people are willing to engage it and recognize when there are valid points being made.
If the problems weren’t real they wouldn’t be appearing in someone like Burr’s routine. We won’t be better off insulating ourselves away from topics we’re not comfortable discussing. We won’t get where we’re trying to go if we’re not willing to continue having the hard conversations.