Depending on who you ask, stand-up comedy is either at the center of a revolutionary zeitgeist or an increasingly successful campaign of cultural colorlessness. Some cite so-called “post-comedy,” while others point the finger (with boasts, blame or both) at the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Either way, D.L. Hughley — whose latest special, Contrarian streams Tuesday on Netflix — thinks that the art form he has been practicing for nearly 30 years is currently experiencing one the greatest periods in its existence.
“I’ve never seen a time that was more right for comedy,” he told us. “I’ve never thought comedy was necessary but I do now.”
It may not seem like it to practitioners and fans alike. Norm Macdonald, just endured a week of repeatedly controversial print interviews and television appearances while promoting his new Netflix show. Louis C.K., who behaving inappropriately/creepy with multiple women, has begun performing again less than a year after the longstanding rumors of his behavior were confirmed by the New York Times. And Bill Cosby is still fighting his sex crime conviction. Yet through it all, as Hughley explains it while addressing these and other related issues, comedy is alive and well today. Why? Because, he argues, people need it.
It may seem like an obvious question considering some of the material, but why Contrarian?
It doesn’t seem all that obvious, I think. When I was working on the set, somebody said something like that. But it just seemed to me that it was based my observations. Those are based on the things I see and what I’ve been through, or watching how things play out. I never felt like it was contrarian. I just thought it was my perspective.
It’s quite on the nose considering the fast-paced news cycle, especially in the world of stand-up.
Yeah, that’s probably true. You can kind of see it happen. Even when I was working on it, you could see it happening. Now society is trained to be offended before they hear something. We used to use to 140 characters, though now we use 240, to decide how we feel about things. We try to encapsulate all of that into this little thing. It’s like reading a headline and already believing you know the story.
Norm Macdonald has encountered this recently. Mind you, he brought much of it on himself, but the cycle of response has been rapid. It has been for a long time, it seems.
Norm’s been around for a long time, as have I, and I think the way that we’ve always interpreted humor, and done comedy, is sometimes different from the way that society is used to. Or, is in a place where it can digest it. I don’t feel uncomfortable with it, but I can see how it happens now. You’ll hear people say there are certain places they won’t play, or certain jokes they won’t do, or certain things they won’t work on, in front of an audience. Which is really kind of crazy, because it’s expecting a formula to work without having any experimentation. You’re trying to get it right and hit the right notes before you’ve actually tinkered around with it.
We hear that a lot, about comics not wanting to play college campuses anymore.
It’s almost like you get a suit that’s designed specifically for you, and then somebody tries it on and it doesn’t fit them, so they go, “This is a horrible suit.” Well, it ain’t made for you! That’s how live performing is. Someone is doing a show for a specific audience, and then somebody takes something from that show (or that suit) out of context. If I’m doing this thing for these people right here, and you didn’t know what preceded it, or what came after it, then it’s going to be difficult for anyone who wasn’t there to understand it. I don’t want to say I don’t care, because you obviously don’t want to be that way, but I think the thing I’ve always loved about comedy is how singular it is. It’s not collaborative. It’s the lone wolf kind of thing. I think society shouldn’t be able to bring a perspective like that to heel. I think we have changed the world in a lot of positive ways, through a lot of humor.
Look at what happened to the LGBTQ movement. It wasn’t the marching and the appeals to people. It was everything done in entertainment. It was the Modern Family, Ellen and Glee. It was people laughing and being able to see humor from a different kind of perspective, a perspective that changed their outlook. It’s what humor has always done. If you look at how humor can humanize things, I think it has to have a place where it’s allowed to be what it is. We have to accept the fact that not all people will get it. It doesn’t have to conform to a singular mindset.
You waste no time talking about the #MeToo movement in this.
When you’ve been a comedian for a long time, you kind of know where the kinks are. The other thing is having the confidence to say or do something. Whether people like this or not, anytime somebody makes a joke, there’s a victim. There really is. Somebody is the butt of the joke, and you have to accept that. The whole thing about this #MeToo movement is it just seems so cannibalistic. I never know how far we’re willing to go back. What is the expiration date on decency? Do you go back only 20 years? 30 or 40 years? 100? The Harvey Weinstein thing was horrible, but Thomas Jefferson was worse. It seems like we’re only willing to pick the low hanging fruit. In the special, when I talk about Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, they’re virtually the same. They both worked for NBC. They were both accused by dozens of women of sexual assault. But the black one is going to the big house, and the white one is going to the White House. That really is a true assessment of it, and I think it’s ridiculous to pretend that we’re offended by things when Trump enjoys a lot of support from a lot of women who would also say they support the #MeToo movement.
Humor has a way of being a mirror. It’s so easy for me to write now because the contrast is so stark. There can be nuances, but there’s a clear perspective on things that are so indelible to me. Originally, when we did the special, we shot it in May and it was supposed to air later. But I guess Netflix thought the material was timely enough that they wanted to rush it. I’m very proud of it. I worked very hard, and it was the first time I’d done a special where I didn’t get any notes. Which is great because comedy just has to be. I don’t like the way that we’re supposed to be what society thinks we should be, especially when it’s taking itself too seriously.
Many other comics have mentioned the “no notes from Netflix” bit to me before. Was Contrarian always a Netflix special?
I got the deal and then I started writing the special. I’ve done a lot of specials, but this was the first time that I wasn’t writing for a specific date. I had all of this material and I felt it was a pretty good special. But then I started writing it, all this other stuff started happening. Like, the Kanye stuff had just happened right before we decided to tape. So many things were just happening then, so we ran with it and put it in play.
Do you like not getting notes? Obviously, they can be detrimental, but somethings outside suggestions can strengthen the work.
It depends, you know? I do this joke about my son having Asperger’s syndrome in the special. You’d think something like that would get attention, but it didn’t. It’s the difference between a place being advertiser-based and not, like Netflix. Jokes like that make those with advertisers wary. They’re usually very specific about what you can and cannot say. In a special I did for Showtime, I did an NFL joke and they made me take the whole thing out. They had corporate connections to the NFL. But this time? I didn’t get anything like that.
I was specifically going to ask you about the material about your son. What does he think about it? Has he seen it?
My son lives with me. I have a wife, a daughter, and a son, and certainly, there are things that they feel iffy about when it comes to what I talk about onstage. If you have an experience with somebody, it’s a shared experience, so you have your perspective and I have mine. This is what I do. I never let them see or hear what I’m doing until it’s done. They don’t hear the jokes until they’re out. My son, he didn’t come to the special taping, so he won’t have heard any of it entirely until it’s on Netflix. Or he won’t hear any of it until it’s retired. You don’t want to see a look in their eye or worry about what they think when you’re doing it. I think that’s the only way be, artistically. You have to do it yourself. I don’t have a problem with anybody’s reaction to it.
I imagine it’s more difficult to do that nowadays, what with smartphones and social media. It’s why Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and other comics have started banning phones at their shows.
Yeah, and like I said, it might be out of context. It’s funny because now you see people making those bags they make everybody put their phones in. Clearly, technology and people just went to different places, but I can see how it would be more difficult. One of the only times you really get into trouble, or when you really have a problem, is when you’re inconsistent with the way society sees you. Bill Cosby had a different reality than his persona let on. Tiger Woods had a different reality than his persona let on. I try to keep mine pretty consistent. I think I’m pretty much who I am. I hope I am. That shocked me about Norm, actually, because that was consistent with who he was. That’s why Netflix was cool with what he did. The moment comedians start to apologize for their perspectives is the moment comedy starts to die.
Right. Norm has said some pretty difficult things before. Then again, it’s one thing to say these problematic things, and another thing when, like Cosby or Louis C.K., you outright violate others.
I’ve been doing this a very long time and I’ve never seen a time that was more right for comedy. I’ve never seen a time when there was more sustenance. I’ve never thought comedy was necessary and I do now. I mean, it has been glorious to talk about all this. This is really important stuff, but I think comedy is really necessary right now. It has to be some level of counterbalance. All I ever wanted to do was tell jokes and perform for people. I love doing it, and now the stakes are so high, but I think it’s because the stakes are actually that high.
D.L. Hughley’s new comedy special, ‘Contrarian,’ is now streaming on Netflix.