Crying, Laughing: Vulnerability In Comedy

Crying, Laughing: Vulnerability In Comedy

By: Kalynna Davies

June 6th, 2023

This article is part of our Winter 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.

When asked ‘what is the role of a comedian,’ many would answer that it is to produce laughter. People typically associate comedy with happiness — a valid connection — but for many stand-up comedians, comedy also has an indescribable link to tragedy.

Each performer brings an individual history to the stage — and while some focus more on ‘edgy’ topics, such as Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K. or even Tiffany Haddish (who have all been called out in recent years due to the offensive nature of their comedy), there are others who put an emphasis on not making legacies from opposition, but human connection.

Many are aware of these names because they have all been involved in some kind of scandal in the past years. Each comedian has found themselves under fire due to basing their comedy off of the plight of others. Dave Chapelle’s special “The Closer” featured inappropriate jokes concerning transgender people, Louis C.K. was under fire for his treatment of women, and Tiffany Haddish for her actions towards children in the name of comedy.

While they all make themselves open when putting their art on display for the world to see, newer comedians are beginning to turn away from this kind of humor, opting for another kind of visibility. 

“It requires an openness with a crowd,” one anonymous comedian on Michigan State University’s campus says. “Joking about the stuff even you have a hard time talking about.”

Is that not vulnerability? 

Yes. Vulnerability. The root word, vulnerable,  as defined by Merriam-Webster, means “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.”

Merriam-Webster also provides a bit of history, stating that “since the late 1600s, it has also been used figuratively to suggest a defenselessness against non-physical attacks. In other words, someone (or something) can be vulnerable to criticism or failure as well as to literal wounding.”

It is safe to say this is not a comfortable feeling, and, for many artists, is an uncomfortable choice. But something in their craft calls for attention to authenticity, it calls for truth, especially in a world where so many people are not living their own. Hampered by concern for maintaining relationships, public image and a job, most people could not fathom being honest with themselves on top of it.

To be vulnerable is to speak about what one knows — to present themselves as not ‘right’ to a ‘wrong,’ but human. Capable of flaws and bad choices — but capable of reflection, and transparency as well.

Comedians discuss the issues of today and set the stage to tackle the problems of tomorrow. In contrast with the 80s, where topics mainly focused on the external, comedians of today have managed to turn their attention inward to produce stand-up work straddling the boundary between too real, too intimate, and too hilarious.

There is a hunger for narratives like this. Stand-up comedy has the uncanny ability to take artists and give them wider platforms than just one stage. With Netflix specials, scripted TV shows, and even the credibility to work on projects as a director or writer, there are a number of prominent names in business working to bring the vulnerability in comedic self-awareness to widespread audiences.

Some are older, such as Richord Pryor — openness is a common thread in all his specials with his ongoing health issues. Murray Frymer, a critic, wrote about Pryor’s 1992 performance at the Los Angeles’ Comedy Store when Pryor was being ravaged by his disease, multiple sclerosis.

But most examples are newer. One notable name is Bo Burham, with his nearly claustrophobic feel of his Nexflix special ‘Inside’: a hyper-focused narrative describing Burnham’s depression amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hannah Gadbsy’s ‘Nanette’ is another example, with an evocative, comedic storytelling centered around experiencing mental illness and womanhood as an LGBTQ+ person.

There is Jerrod Carmichael, who recently won an Emmy for his special ‘Rothaniel,’ which was an intimate and experimental show not just about coming out, but the rejection that can accompany inviting people in.

These performers all seem to bind comedy with the occasional tragedies of life — and something about that draws in crowds from all over. Something about human emotion, there for the whole world to see, gives it an allure.

This allure has encouraged viewers to want to see more of this content in long form media, such as Bo Burnham’s ‘Eighth Grade’ (2018), a film about a young woman navigating her way through life. Another example is Quinta Brunson, who began her career as a Viner and stand up comedian, but is now working on shows that highlight vulnerability — such as Black Lady Sketch Show, or Abbott Elementary.

Doctor Brené Brown, author of ‘The power of vulnerability: vulnerability, authenticity and shame’ asserts in a 2011 TEDTalk,  “The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are.” This is a quote that speaks on the nature of humanity, and somehow, comedy does the work of overcoming that blockage.

It makes the vulnerability and dread easier to handle, according to frequent comedy show attendee Joy Pearson. “Comedy isn’t always all laughs. It can be serious, too — you could cry, reflect, and then have a good chuckle.”

There are opinions in academia that would disagree with the conflation of serious and silly. For example, in his 1911 essay titled ‘Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,’ French philosopher Henri Bergson states that “the absence of feeling usually accompanies laughter [due to a] momentary anesthesia of the heart,” which can lead to anything becoming laughable if one decides not to care about it.

Perhaps this is what has allowed more callous pieces of stand-up to exist throughout the generations: it is easy to pin jokes on communities or people you don’t know or care about, and much more difficult to be open about oneself.

There’s something admirable about this, and it is much more common amongst younger generations. According to the Pew Research Center, “Post-Millennials are on track to be the most diverse, best-educated generation yet,” which speaks to a desire to see innovation, inclusivity, and support in all kinds of media.

While this development is a good thing, it has also lended itself to cancel culture on the internet, where individuals ‘cancel’ others based on their behaviors. While being aware of the sexism, racism and homophobia present in these spaces is a good start, the only real way to promote change in this space is by action, and not giving them a bigger platform to spew their vitriol.

In spaces like stand up comedy, movies or TV, it’s important to note they are not the cause for societal problems, but reactions to them. In order to tackle issues of societal imbalance, consumers must be willing to not just call it out on Twitter, but in real life as well.

Full, all embracing narratives have been an age-old desire from anyone standing on the fringes of society. They have been coming to fruition in younger generations and the stand-up comedian space for years. By being real and, more importantly, painfully human, this era of comedy aims to break out of the old mold — transforming the professional comedy space from callous mockery to inclusive storytelling.

Kalynna Davies is an English major in her senior year. She has a concentration in creative writing and a minor in film – these are both activities she enjoys outside of the classroom, as well. In the future, she intends to use these skills to cultivate counterstories in an array of media – from novel to film.