Humor as Discomfort

A couple of years ago I picked apart Seth MacFarlane’s performance as emcee of the Academy Awards for his blatant and frequent sexist and racist comments. I wondered openly why anyone expected he’d do anything different, given his history as the “offend everyone” writer behind Family Guy and other television shows. Late last year I was somewhat surprised and ultimately disappointed when Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson came to Walla Walla to deliver an uninteresting and Islamaphobic lecture, and I remembered that Seth MacFarlane was the executive producer of the Cosmos: A Space Odyssey series on Fox that featured Tyson. For in the Hollywood universe, there are a few individuals who drive cultural production under the guise of many studios, production companies, agenting firms, and talent. It’s the old boys’ club of popular culture at work.

Last weekend we saw something a little different. I wouldn’t climb up on the soapbox with Maggie Gyllenhaal and proclaim it “revolutionary” (and evolutionary) as she did, but it was a crack in the edifice that Hollywood normally supports. At the Golden Globes, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Margaret Cho, Lily Tomlin, and even Jane Fonda (in a brief turnabout from her foray into conservative political stances) poked fun at this boys’ club and made those boys decidedly uncomfortable. Here is the Fry-Poehler opening monologue:

Tina’s very first line, calling everyone in the audience a bunch of “minimally talented brats” signaled a critique of Hollywood culture and production. The line about Joaquin Phoenix calling award shows a bunch of bullsh*t and then the well timed, “Oh, hi, Joaquin!” was a direct calling out of his hypocrisy (and pointed at a performer who once pretended to not care about Hollywood anymore, all for the publicity). From here they made a segue way into the North Korea threats around The Interview which would form the frame of a running joke in the form of Margaret Cho as a North Korean dictator and culture aficionado. From the mention of North Korea there were more jabs at the film and fellow actors that looked at first like the usual stuff of celebrity roasts:

Steve Carrell’s Foxcatcher look took two hours to put on, including his hairstyling and makeup; just for comparison, it took me three hours today to prepare for my role as human woman. —Tina Fey

Amal and George Clooneybut then were revealed as a ceaseless attack on Hollywood standards of beauty. In celebrating Patricia Arquette’s nomination for Boyhood, Poehler remarked that it showed that Hollywood now had roles for women over 40 “as long as they got the role before they were 40.” And still another, when talking about Jennifer Aniston’s nomination for her role in the film Cake: “We should explain to the people in the room here, cake is a fluffy dessert people eat at their birthdays, … which is a that people celebrate when they admit that they have aged.” Zing. Up to this point the audience mainly laughed along, sans the specific folks who were the focus of a given joke (and even they made attempts to go with the flow). When they teased George Clooney who was about to win a humanitarian award when Amal’s experience is so exceptional, they even referred to George as her “husband,” reversing a frequent sexist way of undercutting women’s experience and value.

Then the tone of the opening monologue shifted (in my opinion, of course), and Fey and Poehler did something different with their jokes: they began pushing the audience in the room and presumably at home toward discomfort.

Fey and Poehler made a shift into zoinks, objectifying men and men’s bodies (“Chris Pine. I’m sorry was that too loud?”) and the laughs became a little guarded. By the time the emcees taunted Bill Cosby, the gasps from the audience were the more visible reaction than their enjoyment. [9:04 in the video above]

Later in the program Margaret Cho emerges from the audience, goosestepping onto the stage to announce her interest in movie criticism and awards programs, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda get all disingenuous by applauding men for finally getting some good roles in Hollywood, and nobody is staging elaborate dance numbers about women’s breasts.

Many of these jokes were played not for laughs but to create the kind of discomfort that women are subjected to all of the time. Reversing the anxiety about being targeted onto men and people who insist sexism and racism are a thing of the past was the feminist agenda of Fey and Poehler, at least for this one night. In a week in which people argued about the role and limits of humor, in light of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, France, the 2015 Golden Globes stood as testimony that humor, when directed at institutions of power, is extremely powerful itself. (In fact the worst joke of the night was a remark made to Jennifer Lopez calling her breasts “golden globes,” and it was met with active derision. Tina and Amy do not approve!)

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3 Comments on “Humor as Discomfort”

  1. Sarah Hurlburt
    January 13, 2015 at 10:08 pm #

    I really like this piece, Ev. Both the topic and the writing.

    • evmaroon
      January 14, 2015 at 8:54 am #

      Thanks, Sarah! That’s nice to hear.

  2. Sarah Hurlburt
    January 14, 2015 at 9:26 am #

    The length/density of material balance is particularly nice here.

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