I knew of Jelani Greenidge long before I met him. We were friends in Social Media, drawn together by faith and community. So imagine my delight at the Faith and Culture Conference when Jelani and I finally had a chance to connect in real time.
“Aren’t you Karen?” he asked.
I don’t know how he ever picked me out in a room full of blondes. We all look the same.
And thus it began, a conversation that ran smack dab up to the conference we were there to attend, but we kept talking anyway.
I was delighted to learn that Jelani was doing stand-up comedy in the Portland area. So we got to talking about comedy and what it means and how corrosive it can be when done wrongly. And I asked Jelani if he would write a guest post about the ethics of comedy. That was an assumption I made – that there is an ethics to comedy. Something like “Be funny but don’t be demeaning.”
Jelani readily agreed to share his thoughts about comedy with us. The following is his guest post. You can find Jelani on Twitter @jelanigreenidge and you can learn more about this urban intellect at his website: http://jelanigreenidge.com. And you can catch his columns at UrbanFaith.com
And feel free to share with us your thoughts about comedy in today’s culture.
By Jelani Greenidge
I’m still only about 18 months in on my foray into stand-up comedy, but I’ve got well over two decades consuming it.
I’ve also got well over two decades of experience helping to lead worship services, and I grew up as a pastor’s kid. So I feel pretty confident saying that the evangelical church has a pretty weird relationship to comedy. It’s a little bit like our relationship to the topic of sex. In the abstract, we’re all for it… but for many of us, whenever it comes up, there’s latent fear and anxiety over the possibility of it going badly. Even those of us who’ve had good experiences with it, we tend to be outnumbered by those who would just as soon take it off the table than risk it going sideways.
(That last sentence read way dirtier than I intended, so I’ll stop talking about sex. If my wife is reading right now, she’s probably breathing an audible sigh of relief.)
Let me say it this way: doing stand-up comedy is a lot like working over an open flame. What matters is what you do with it.
See, fire can be useful, or it can be destructive. It can help provide warmth and sustenance, or it can destroy entire communities. And you can have the best intentions in the world, but there are certain applications for which stand-up comedy just isn’t the best fit. (Like the best man who decides to pull the adding-“in-bed”-to-a-fortune-cookie gag at a wedding reception. Dude, wrong place, wrong time.)
Part of the reason why I got into comedy in the first place is because I believe it’s an effective way to communicate a worldview. When people become fans of a comedian, unless they are particularly vigilant and discerning about the media they ingest, they end up taking in that comic’s view of things. Any particular comic’s fanbase is usually comprised of her ideological tribe. This is why (and I’m crudely generalizing to make a point here) a lot of black folks love Kevin Hart, lesbians dig Ellen DeGeneres, and stoners loved the late Mitch Hedberg.
This, by itself, is part of human nature. We gravitate toward people who are like us. We do it in grocery stores, we do it in cafeterias, and we do it when we go out to see comedy.
The problem, though, is that many comics – myself included – tend to struggle with insecurity. In many ways, getting laughs can serve as a surrogate high for the affirmation and validation we naturally crave. And when you belong to one group, the quickest and easiest way to get laughs is to make fun of another group. Nothing bonds people together like a common enemy.
This is often where humor can become toxic and counterproductive. And like making s’mores with a flamethrower, it’s hard to tell if you’ve gone too far until long after you should’ve stopped. It’s why I don’t often go to open mics in my hometown of Portland, because too easily it descends into a lot of sarcastic people lashing out. Comedy proves the truism that “hurt people hurt people,” and without wit or imagination, the hurt locker starts to stink pretty quickly.
Now I realize this is all highly subjective – after all, there are some people who think The Daily Show is hilarious, and others – most likely either Christian, conservative or both — who feel like their liberal outlook can be too polarizing and unfair. As a political moderate, I can see both sides of it.
But I try to hold onto a few rules that guide my joke writing. Never write a joke that you couldn’t stand by if the “wrong” person asked you about it. Never punch at a voiceless target. People will like you more if they see you laugh at yourself. And even the Lord changed His mind sometimes, so if I get too committed to an idea that I’m no longer willing to change, then like Dave Chappelle, it’s time to get out.
That last rule was tested for me recently. I was in a city-wide comedy contest, and I had my set picked out weeks in advance, a funny bit about cars and guns. It’s one of my most reliable bits, so when I know I need to bring my A-game, that’s one I tend to go to.
The day I was performing, though, was the same day that a 15-year-old boy at Reynolds High School in neighboring Troutdale, Oregon, shot and killed one of his classmates, before turning the gun on himself. And after the shock of what happened had sunk in, I realized that I couldn’t in good conscience make jokes about guns that night. The trauma was too fresh.
Instead, I had to reinvent my whole set at the last minute, and ended up telling a bunch of jokes that were somewhat risky and unproven.
But they killed! (Aiyee… bad choice of words… again.)
They were funny, is my point. And the path to success at being funny is fraught with trial and error, and the minute we stop giving and receiving grace, we miss out on the next opportunity for redemption…
…in bed, amirite?!?!
Yeah okay, that didn’t work here either. Live and learn.