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.