It didn't take long for the hordes of outraged activists, social justice warriors and haughty journalists to descend upon Ricky Gervais's performance at the Golden Globe Awards on Monday, accusing the legendary comedian of "transphobia" and, wait for it, not being funny.
Yes, the perpetually aggrieved language police are not only dictating what the rest of us can say, they are now taking to social media and their respective media outlets to lecture comic geniuses on what constitutes humor.
"I'm gonna be nice tonight," said Gervais as he took the microphone. "I've changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously. Now Caitlyn Jenner, of course."
"What a year she's had," he continued, the audience gasping and trying not to laugh. "She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn't do a lot for women drivers. But you can't have everything, can you? Not at the same time."
For anyone with a sense of humor this was wickedly funny, precisely because it was so offensive -- an obvious calculation by Gervais who has made a career pushing the boundaries of comedy. Almost immediately though, twitter was ablaze with condemnation over Gervais's "transphobia":
And on and on and on.
Not content to just condemn Gervais's non-existent transphobia, pop and music writer Spencer Kornhaber at TheAtlantic -- who looks about 12 from his profile picture -- decided he would take the time to lecture Ricky Gervais, who again is a comic genius, on the technicalities of what a joke is. After the perfunctory condemnation of the joke being "hurtful" to Caitlyn Jenner and "anyone who suspects that a good way to help end stereotypes about women is to stop making jokes that rely on them," Kornhaber went after Gervais's obvious defense that “suggesting a joke about Caitlin Jenner is automatically transphobic is like suggesting a joke about Bill Cosby is automatically racist." Wrote Kornhaber:
Gervais’s defense misses the point of the annoyance he sparked (yes, annoyance: Many comedians who face any sort of criticism like to say they’ve offended and outraged entire nations, but that often gives them too much credit). The regressive part of his Jenner routine was in the first joke, the one where he played for laughs the mere fact that Bruce was now called Caitlin.
That’s fundamentally the same joke he made about Tambor and Redmayne. There’s not a lot to it. Its content, simply, is this: It’s funny when people previously seen as men change themselves to be seen as women.
This supposed punchline, as should become clear to anyone who thinks about it for a moment, results from and feeds the stigmas that trans people face. The idea that presenting as something other than the gender you were told you had at birth is a fundamentally hilarious proposition—whether because of the methods involved or because of the intentions behind doing so—is a very obvious sign of devaluation. The very work of Jenner, Tambor, and Redmayne, not to mention the many transgender writers and advocates across media, is in part about explaining and combating this fact.
Gervais’s joke is also among the most elemental joke kinds there are: the joke of difference. It stems from the idea that “the other”—whatever the other may be to the speaker and the audience—is inherently freaky. It accounts for part (and only part) of the perceived humor in blackface, or mocking accents, or any number of other worn-out tropes that routinely upset swaths of the population just trying to live their lives. It is also usually not a very good joke, both because people have heard it so many times and because it reinforces something that’s definitionally boring—the status quo.
Firstly, Kornhaber needs to shut the fuck up. Seriously. When he has created a hit show on par with 'The Office,' or even 'Extras,' he can lecture Gervais on what a joke is. Secondly, as is often the case with humorless social justice warriors waiting to express outrage over anything not condoned by the high priests of intersectionality and gender studies, he missed the point of the joke entirely.
Gervais was not implying that Caitlyn Jenner turning into a man was funny -- he was using her extreme, and very public, transformation as a comparison for his own personality change. Gervais's joke played on the fact that it is a taboo subject, not to imply transgenderism is "inherently freaky" or to poke fun at her "difference". The joke was funny largely because people like Kornhaber won't get it -- a common attribute of truly great comedy that cannot be constrained by humorless liberal activists. Ricky Gervais is an edgy comedian and a professional provocateur -- he plays on cultural sensitivities to provoke opinion and to push boundaries in the tradition of all the great comics of the modern era.
Of course Kornhaber is right about not humiliating transgender people for their sexual identity, but again, that wasn't what Gervais was doing. His precious oversensitivity actually makes subjects like transgenderism even more difficult to discuss sensibly as we now seem to be at a point where we can't publicly admit that a sex change is dramatic. Jenner has spent a reported $4 million on surgery to become a woman, and plans on removing her male genitals in the future to complete the process. If that isn't dramatic, it is unclear what is. To deny this is to deny reality -- a bizarre foible of uber liberal thinking that does nothing more than relegates it to the confines of "safe spaces" on college campuses. There is nothing wrong with Jenner's public transformation, but it isn't out of bounds for comedy -- particularly if there is a funny way to us it.
Ricky Gervais is a professional comic who has done what few in his profession can dream of. When he stops being funny, tv networks and movie producers who have helped create the greatest comedies in history will stop calling him. They haven't, so anyone who thinks otherwise simply does not understand comedy.