A few weeks ago, a coworker whom I respect quite a bit came in chuckling about an episode of Strangers with Candy she had recently watched. I vaguely remembered the show and when she mentioned that it had a young Stephen Colbert on it, I decided to watch it. After all, Colbert is a rare and funny man whose work is usually characterized by his scathing and apt commentary.
Strangers with Candy is not that.
The series is about Jerri Blank, a 43-year-old high school freshman who wants to restart her life after running away from home, doing a lot of drugs, have a lot of sex, and doing a lot of time. The episodes invert various after school special tropes including learning to just say no to drugs, maintaining your virginity until marriage, grappling with family death, and practicing safer sex. The inversion comes from the fact that Jerri never learns the right lesson (nor does anyone expect her to). Instead, we learn that “retards” (sorry) are dangerous, it’s better to let someone else take the fall, Native American stereotypes are true and preferable, and the invention of penicillin made safer sex unnecessary.
And yet, I’ve watched most of the episodes despite the fact that I haven’t laughed once. Mostly I just watch them with a concerned expression on my face as I try to figure out 1) how my coworker can think this show is funny, 2) how anyone can think it’s funny, 3) how soul-draining working and writing for this show must have been, and 4) why being blatantly offensive is funny.
We can all name shows like Strangers with Candy whether they’re It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Drawn Together, Larry the Cable Guy specials, or Inside Amy Schumer. Sometimes the laughter is knee-jerk because we can’t believe the absurdity of the situation. Other times it’s because we’ve been conditioned to laugh when someone makes fun of a minority, regardless of whether we find it personally funny or not. And sometimes the joke revolves not so much on being horrible to someone but how the person saying the joke gets their comeuppance.
Then there’s the fact that Strangers with Candy aired in 1999 when social justice wasn’t such a buzzword and “she-males” was considered acceptable terminology for a transgender person (sorry again). It’s jarring to see that even 15 years ago television was willing to be so cruel – and that we, the audience, were willing to allow it.
This is why I think “comedies” with punch down punch lines are popular: they allow us to pass judgment on others and to look at what makes them different from us and laugh at them. Amid our laughter is the thought, “Thank God that will never be me.” Our relief is so palpable that there’s no room for sympathy in it. We also fear that by showing sympathy we might “catch” whatever makes the person different and so set ourselves up for being laughed at. It’s a vicious cycle that perpetuates marginalization and only leads to cruelty.
No, every comedy does not have to be a bastion of progressiveness and acceptance, but surely every joke doesn’t have to punch down. Surely, our humor is not contingent upon making others feel less. Surely, we can do better because slurs are not punch lines, reinforcing stereotypes is not a punch line, and people who are atypical are not punch lines. That’s called hatred, and it’s just not funny.
* Image of Jerri Blank taken from http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/interviews/a33697/amy-sedaris-paul-dinello-strangers-with-candy-interview/