On Comedy: The Comic as a Motivational Speaker in Iliza Shlesinger’s ‘Confirmed Kills’

Part Four

I must admit that I never loved Iliza Shlesinger’s work. She doesn’t have the wit of Norm Macdonald. She doesn’t have the charisma of Deon Cole. She doesn’t have Sarah Silverman’s strokes of unencumbered genius. Shlesinger is funny—never exceptionally so—but funny enough to be a competent, and occasionally thoroughly enjoyable, comic. However, the success that she projects is immense; watching Shlesinger and listening to her audience feels as if one is being indoctrinated into a cult.

There is something unsettling about witnessing a group of people heartily cheering—not laughing—when she speaks, as if she’s a motivational speaker instead of a comic, as if she’s giving a speech rather than a stand-up performance. At a punchline, she’ll sometimes point to the crowd at every word, in the same way that a teacher points to a confused student in a language class, saying each word with the expectation that the student will catch on and join in.

“We tell strong women to bring it down, right. High heels, why do you wear high heels? So you what: [finger pointed at audience] Can’t. Run. From your attacker. Good.” However, there are problems to this approach. Shlesinger seems to use comedy as a way to instill a certain worldview in her audience—but by approaching comedy in such a didactic, motivational speaker-like manner, she loses the subtlety that is required to endow those values within her audience.

Shlesinger follows a long tradition of individuals who give their audience a perspective on what to think, rather than how to think. I don’t think it is particularly effective; this kind of top down, didactic approach tends to satisfy individuals in the crowd that are already on the intellectual wavelength as the comic, and drowns out the sounds of dissidents with the crowd’s cheers. More importantly, it’s more of an exercise in communal self-satisfaction than comedy. (This is not to say that the points that Shlesinger articulates are universally wrong. Instead, I find fault in the way that she articulates them.)

Take the following joke that seems to peddle in the moderately problematic: “You know who has an unshakable sense of self esteem: black women. [Scattered cheers.] You, yes, you cannot tell a sister on her something isn’t working; she won’t believe it. Try it, go up to a black girl and be like, ‘I don’t like those jeans.’ First of all, I dare you. [Larger cheers.] It will not rattle her for a second.”

Disturbingly, dear reader, the audience is more enthused by “I dare you”—a tag that seems to uncomfortably play off of a fear of black people—rather than the overall message of the bit (that black women are confident). (Tangentially, the popularization of stereotypes is a bit problematic, even if they have a positive valence.) Thus here, when the comic tries to endow the audience with a perspective on what to think (black women are confident), the appropriate value of that perspective is overruled by the prejudices that are already instilled in the audience (black women are to be feared).

Shlesinger is a comic whose currency is cheers rather than laughter—her performance is largely about the vocal affirmation of her world perspective. To construct that world perspective she resorts to reductionism: “Women in our society are vulnerable by virtue of the fact that we are physically not as strong as men. That’s the root of the issue. That’s the root of the oppression. And that’s the root of oppression for any side of war throughout history at any point in time.” I am sure that Shlesinger is more intelligent than that perspective implies; I am sure that she understands that the origins of inequality are more multifaceted than issues of physical strength; I am sure that she realizes that totalizing statements are antithetic to actual thought.

However, crafting a performance that didactically tells the audience what to think occasionally requires reducing complex issues into digestible chunks. I don’t think that this is helpful to anyone other than the comic who needs the audience’s affirmation—which Shlesinger receives through cheers, not laughter. Moreover, as with Shlesinger’s aside on black women, it can easily be derailed by the unfortunate pieces of prejudice that the audience clings onto.

But sometimes the fault lies with Shlesinger, “I don’t care cause I’m going to lay out on the beach like a mermaid. No you won’t. Sailors are going to try to fuck you and the Japanese will definitely try to eat you, like, just for funsies. [Scattered laughs. Louder cheers.]” I would rather not explain the joke. I believe that we are both competent enough to understand where the bit goes wrong. However, that is not to condemn Shlesinger completely—“Confirmed Kills” is not a special that is undermined consistently by uncomfortable racial undertones.

I do not want to reduce Shlesinger’s comedy to a series of moderately problematic asides. That would not be fair to Shlesinger, nor would it be fair to you, dear reader. However, I do think that it is reasonable to talk about Shlesinger’s special in the terms that her audience reacts to her with—largely in cheers.

I believe that this is a sonic mark of improperly formed comedy. At its best, comedy should challenge you to think—comedy should challenge the way that you, kind reader, approach life. Cheers represent something undeniably different: They are a representation of an instant recognition and affirmation of another’s ideas. They represent an idea that does not challenge you—instead, they are the reaction to an already agreed-upon ideal.

Yes, comedy can be a space for affirmation, but comedy that does not challenge you is, in my mind, a lower form of art. “We showed up, got a trophy for breathing, and then we invented Instagram. [Scattered laughter. Louder cheers. Sustained applause.]” The joke is millennials, cheering at generational self-deprecation, and affirming the importance of our generational technology. Cheering is a sign of unrealized creativity. The audience is already on the same page as the comic, they just want to vocalize their agreement. It is, in other words, an affirmation of the perspective of the comic, and a simultaneous affirmation of the audience’s own perspective and prejudices. It’s a bizarre form of narcissism.

Don’t cheer, dear reader.

Laugh.

—Staff writer Aziz B. Yakub can be reached at aziz.yakub@thecrimson.com.

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