Does comedy have to be funny?

I’ve loved comedy my whole life. My Indian parents raised me in true American fashion, spending our evenings watching sitcoms on our chutney-stained couches, smiling at the familiarity of yet another Trump joke from Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers. I grew up on stand-up bits and riffing jokes with my stuffed animals like an absolute loser, and admittedly the first concert I ever attended was a live taping of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me - the NPR News Quiz.” I’ve based much of my self-worth on my ability to make others laugh, despite never being a class clown, and the pursuit of laughter has motivated a great deal of my everyday decisions as any other dopamine-deprived, media-obsessed Gen Z kid in 2023.

I’ve now been in the LA stand-up world for almost three months, both in the audience and on stage, something I never thought I’d have the confidence to do. I’ve been to open mics all around the city, traveling to grungy bars and abandoned art warehouses, driving in strangers’ cars and hearing people from all over the world talk about things from transitioning genders, to experiencing homelessness, to wanting to Netflix and chill with Greta Thunberg (I wish I was making that last one up). As a consequence, I’ve listened to a great deal of amateur and professional comedy, and have never laughed more in my life. 

Open mic comedy in LA is not only a reflection of the immense dedication and persistence needed to “make it” in the industry, but it’s also a reflection of what humor means in our current time, what and who gets to be funny and why. After all, there is truly no better way to understand people than by what makes them laugh - or perhaps more importantly, not laugh.

So does comedy have to be funny? Is the best way to measure the success of a comedian by the net quantity of laughter they can generate in an audience in the shortest period of time? Do you have to laugh at all to say you’ve consumed comedy?

And to that I say: not necessarily.

Some of the best works of comedy in history were, at face-level, not overtly laughter-inducing. Take for example Tig Notaro’s 2012 performance at the Largo, a major club in Los Angeles. Four days before her show, Notaro was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer after being treated for pneumonia and C diff. a few months prior, while going through a major break-up and the loss of her mother in a freak accident. When Notaro took that stage, she began with “Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer,” and spent the next 29 minutes working out her feelings onstage in a way that was unbearably sad yet had her audience crying with laughter. Towards the end, after a particular emotional moment, one audience member shouted “This is f***in incredible,” and the crowd roared in approval, a moment of pure triumph and light at a time where Notaro truly believed she was giving her last ever performance. The album created from that set, Live, was later nominated for Best Comedy Album at the 2013 Grammys and peaked at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Comedy Albums chart in 2012.  

Or take Hannah Gadsby’s special Nanette, where Gadsby famously announces that she is quitting stand-up. After talking for a while about sexism, homophobia, and mental illness, including an especially creative bit about how Vincent van Gogh took antidepressant medication, and how that ultimately enabled his success as an artist. But the “twist” in this special is when Gadsby goes meta, and talks about the nature of comedy itself. When she unpeels the psychological layers of building a career off of self-deprecating humor, and what that not only does to a person, but the communities they represent. That if you poke fun at the aspects of your identity that make you a “loser,” then who’s really winning? Gadsby meditates on this idea in a way that deviates from setups and punchlines, the tension and release Gadsby discusses at length. What she’s written was not designed to make audiences laugh, and most wouldn’t call it funny, yet it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has received dozens of awards including a Peabody award in 2018.

There are numerous examples of comedians who have offered up intimate performances that grapple with the darkest parts of society and break expectations of any one definition of what comedy is “supposed” to be. To say that comedy has to be funny is like saying visual art has to be pretty, or music has to be melodic. Not only are you defining an entire creative form by an inherently subjective qualifier, but sometimes we want to look at more than paintings of horses and bowls of fruit. Sometimes we don’t want to resort to violins. 

Comedy is so much more than jokes; it’s communication, pedagogy, and storytelling. In a world of monolithic chaos and sociopolitical divide, comedy connects people across different cultures and backgrounds like a bridge made of trampoline fabric. Comedy is a commentary on our world while being a necessary escape from it, as comedians transcend the bounds of realism in order to criticize very real issues, often perpetuated by very fake people. 

Comedy is a way of seeing and understanding the world because sometimes being nonsensical is the only way of making sense of our own messes. Like any art form, comedy sometimes makes you uncomfortable or angry. Sometimes you will cry, as I definitely have, and you won’t be sure whether you’re crying from sadness or joy. Sometimes you will laugh, not because something is truly funny, but because laughter may be the healthiest way we can react to certain situations. And the fact that we can generate all these exceedingly complex emotional reactions just from someone saying stuff into a microphone on a stage; the fact that it can bring people thousands of people together; that it can change laws, build movements, expose dictators and war criminals - that’s what makes comedy as an art form so powerful. 

At the very least, it’s what distinguishes comedy from your annoying uncle at Christmas.

Monika Narain is a Trinity sophomore. Her columns typically run on alternate Fridays.


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