Comedian Charlie James Is on a Complicated Pursuit for Good

This essay is an op-ed by Charlie James. The opinions expressed here are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Good Good Good.

An illustrated comedian frog on a lily pad (depicted as Charlie James) tells jokes to other frogs on lily pads

Hey, reader. Is it just me, or are things looking a little bleak at present. Whenever present is, for you personally. I’m assuming you’re reading this in 2022, and not some far-off, post-climate crisis utopia. 

If you are, neat! Do pandas still exist? Fingers crossed. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a rallying cry from the comedy community that our work mattered “now, more than ever.” I’m not sure my improv team capital “m” Matters, let alone now more than before. 

Charlie James on Stage Holding a Torilla That Says Cemeteries
Photo courtesy of Charlie James - @nonbinarycowboy

The last time comedy was considered a noble pursuit was back in the days of court jesters, whose role was to speak truth to power or, at the very least, cheer the king up enough that he wouldn’t invade Ukraine.

Still, there are those who are eager to consider comedians “modern-day philosophers,” a quality that has been attributed to everyone from Hannah Gadsby to Louis C.K. 

It’s what Chapelle says every time we tell him to cool it on the transgender jokes. Even Joe Rogan (who is only considered a comedian by those who believe being a man with a microphone is qualification enough) garnered a lot of online support from people who insist he’s just trying to push the conversation forward. 

My brand of comedy is mostly frogs and mommy issues, but to each their own. 

An illustrated comedian frog on a lily pad (depicted as Charlie James @nonbinarycowboy) tells jokes to other frogs on lily pads
Illustration by Johnathan Huang for the Goodnewspaper

I majored in Comedy Writing and Performance at a midwestern liberal arts college, which of the mistakes a young person can make is one of the more optimistic. 

Don’t worry, I had a backup plan. I minored in poetry. 

Risky financial decisions aside, I loved college. Sure, we spent our first-semester “foundations” course learning to juggle, an activity really only loosely connected to comedy (by way of clowns). 

Luckily, by my second semester, we’d moved on to more practical work, like questioning the integrity of satire as a form for meaningful societal change and short-form improv. 

Satire Is Just Fine, Thanks

A professor had us listen to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History'' that I still catch myself thinking about. Gladwell asks if satire, using humor to ridicule human folly, actually works. 

Has anyone’s racist uncle ever actually been swayed by an Onion headline? "South Park’s" goal was to “make fun of everyone.” Are we better for it? 

Gladwell recalls Tina Fey’s “devastating” impression of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin during her 2008 campaign for the vice presidency. I was eleven but remember watching with wide eyes. 

The internet was young and fun, and I passed around that YouTube clip a million times. But did their sketch work? 

On a comedic level, sure. We laughed; I sent it to eight of my top MySpace friends. Or Facebook friends. I can’t remember which website I was addicted to back then.

Politically, I can’t say for certain if Fey’s impression was the tipping point for any Palinheads. I’d like to believe someone, somewhere saw that sketch and thought, “Fine. I’m voting for Obama.” 

Still, the view from 2022 — a post-Trump pandemic world in a country that might lose abortion rights — doesn’t look as different as I’d hoped. Maybe political satire slowed fascism’s rise in the United States, but it certainly didn’t stop it. 

Comedy is one tiny element of art’s vast, complicated pursuit of a better way of life. I believe that whatever small piece of good you’re doing in your corner of the world is chipping away at our suffering. I do believe that. I have to.  — Charlie James, @nonbinarycowboy
Illustration by Johnathan Huang for the Goodnewspaper

When Trump was elected, comedians everywhere were asked, “You must love having him in office, right?” Why? Because the jokes wrote themselves? Because we got to wear worse wigs than in 2012? 

Watching American politics play out more absurdly than any sketch I’ve ever written wasn’t fun. And that’s coming from the guy who wrote “Car Salesman Who Wants to Fuck The Cars.” 

With “fake news” and rampant Internet misinformation, satire isn’t always easy to identify. 

I can’t tell you how many TikTok comments I read a day that say something to the effect of, “I can’t tell if this is a joke or not.” Yes, even “Car Salesman Who Wants to Fuck The Cars.” 

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Anywhere there are jokes, there are people misconstruing them. You've got Twitter.

Remember Stephen Colbert’s initial, conservative The Colbert Report host persona? There is a non-zero number of conservatives who earnestly loved that show, not because it caused them to think about the world in a new way, but because his character affirmed their closest held opinions. 

The gap between his character and Colbert’s own perspective, a beloved attempt at biting political satire, was lost on them. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t get it to impeach George Bush for war crimes.

Heavy, right? Are you starting to feel like satire is a flaccid balloon animal fighting a thousand toddlers with knives for hands? I get it. 

But preaching to the choir isn’t nothing. As much as it feels cartoonishly optimistic to say, I like seeing tweets I agree with. I feel better after watching “The Daily Show” on my phone. My dad will send me a Vonnegut book, I’ll send him a Reductress article, and for a second, we’ll feel a relief that can only come from laughing at how bad things are.

Go back and watch a sitcom from the mid-twenty-tens. Listen to how many jokes sound weirdly off-color. Watch an episode of SNL from the nineties. “Community” and “30 Rock” are rife with homophobia and racism I barely remember. 

Comedian Charlie James on Stage
Photo courtesy of Charlie James - @nonbinarycowboy

Insecure comedians will claim this is proof that you “can’t say anything anymore,” but the bulk of us know that it means our opinions have been changed for the better. Progress is slow-going, but it’s going nonetheless. Shrug. 

I wish satire could save us in the same way I wish recycling could single-handedly end climate change. Maybe I wouldn’t wish that as hard if I’d gone to doctor school instead of clown college. 

Comedy is one tiny element of art’s vast, complicated pursuit of a better way of life. 

I believe that whatever small piece of good you’re doing in your corner of the world is chipping away at our suffering. I do believe that. I have to. 

A version of this article was originally published in The Pride Edition of the Goodnewspaper.

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June 2, 2022 8:52 AM
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