In 2013, Ryan was a guest on “Mock the Week,” a British satirical panel show. She made the following joke on a segment called “Unlikely Lines from a Cosmetics Commercial,” in which the panel of comics creates short bits satirizing the cosmetics industry: “We don’t test any of our products on animals. We use Filipino children.” The context should make it clear what, exactly, the joke is doing.
For those that need more explanation, I will willingly oblige: Ryan is poking fun at the absurdity of corporate priorities—she is implying that the insistence on animal free testing produces a horrifying result in a world of corporate self-interest. More subtly, she is poking fun at the consumer’s blind demand for non-animal tested products over more important interests (such as the safety of children). She is not making fun of Filipino children. She is not endorsing testing cosmetics on Filipino children. She is critiquing the ethos of corporate actions and consumerist culture (witty for such a quick bit, isn’t it).
They say that explaining a joke is akin to killing it; however, when a joke results in death threats for Ryan and her child—as this one did—an explanation is not the worst of offenses. I bring it up because the legitimization of misreading is a startlingly frequent phenomenon in modern society. In the following brief words, I intend to discuss the implications of these sorts of willful misunderstandings and elucidate what the comic can do, and what Ryan does, in the face of blithering ignorance.
The reaction to Ryan’s joke presents a particularly depressing image of the public at large. Here’s a public that misreads, leverages their power to produce mass outrage, and leaves the encounter unscathed and their victim (the comic) in psychological pain. I do not mean to condescend, kind reader, but I expect the reader to put just as much thought into her job as the writer puts into hers. The observer of comedy should try to match the intellectual force that went into the production of the comic’s show—not out of some sort of intellectual machismo, but out of a respect for the work of the artist.
The reader cannot be lazy. The reader is not always right. When we allow the reader to be lazy—when you, gentle reader, read lazily—what happened to Ryan will happen again, “I got death threats, like not one or two, hundreds of death threats every day, directed at me, my family, my child, from people that were hurt because they were confused.” “Confused” is the critical word here. Even though the writer has some responsibility to produce art with clarity, the reader has equal responsibility to attempt to understand that art and engage with it. “Confused,” in other words, is partially a function of a lack of effort over a short period of time—by the reader, not the artist.
The moment that we legitimize the misreading of jokes, as has been done to Ryan, is the moment that art becomes a space where any thought is frowned upon, unless it is digestible and broken down for the audience. Chris D’Elia’s recent special, “Man on Fire,” is particularly emblematic of the problem of bowing one’s art to a lazy audience as he moralizes, “I’m not the man on fire. Life isn’t my movie and maybe that’s ok.” Here, a potent idea loses its power through gratuitous clarity. Do not misunderstand me, ideas and jokes should be presented in a relatively clear manner—however, an excess of clarity eliminates some of the wonderful areas of interpretation that are ever-present in Ryan’s comedy.
The wonder of art is a slight feeling of confusion matched with the appearance of overwhelming beauty. In the moments that you don’t understand exactly why a piece of art is beautiful, and in that abstract confusion that you work, and think, and try to sort out, you come to discover something more than the sum of the artist’s intention. Art should not be universal: Confusion is a sign that you are applying your own mental faculties—your own creative soul—to create the fullest image of representation. In that sense art, or more precisely the best of art, is individualized.
One can—in the face of lazy readership—restrict the scope of one’s comedy. Ryan has not (although she admits, “I could’ve maybe reined it in”). This is the choice that the artist must make: Instead of backing down, Ryan maintains in “In Trouble” that the joke is improperly understood (misunderstood implies some culpability on Ryan’s part).
She makes light of the situation through her craft. She reappropriates the ethos of the joke, tagging it onto the end of a running bit about a Canada Goose jackets and Bill Cosby, “I know that I’m a prick for wearing fur [...] don’t come after me for wearing a fur jacket if yours costs six pounds and you got thirty in your closet because I promise, a child made those. We’re all pricks.”
That’s all that the misunderstood artist can do. The “customer’s always right” approach makes sense if you’re a capitalist, but it does not make sense to an artist with a backbone. She is not apologetic. She does not bow to the pressure of a misinformed public. She understands that her joke was not hurtful and the confusion created by it is a product of incorrect apprehension. With that, she does not validate a response to her art that has no merit.
I hope that, like Ryan, we can all strive to be less apologetic in our art and more critical in our reading: Dear reader, I am not sorry if you do not understand these words.
—Staff writer Aziz B. Yakub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.