Comedic Dissonance: How to Decapitate Your Brand
Many comedians these days find themselves in hot water for what they say on stage. Faster than ever, articles, memes, and reaction videos surface about a comedian’s closed-mindedness or how they crossed a line. People love to blame outrage on our “overly-sensitive,” politically-correct (PC) culture. Is the root of the problem truly the nuances of cultural sensitivity?
Anthony Jeselnik is arguably the most offensive comedian in the landscape of modern comedy. He exclusively delivers hard-hitting, misdirection-driven, shock-value comedy, purposely pushing every audience well past its comfortable limit with offensiveness. Why, in this PC culture, is Jeselnik never in trouble? My theory is that Jeselnik has a style of communicating that never wavers. This is exemplary communications—a branded image needs consistency. Comedians can get away with jokes about anything assuming they back up their punchlines with the consistent portrayal of a clearly defined belief system.
It’s comedians like Sarah Silverman and Dave Chappelle who more frequently find themselves under scrutiny from their fans. The difference between them and Anthony Jeselnik is that Jeselnik has never once asked his audience to take his message seriously. Jeselnik’s act works under the smokescreen of sarcasm. He exclusively rides on offensive humor and thus is exempt from criticism; no one expects otherwise. That 100% of his jokes blatantly defy credibility frees the audience to suspend belief throughout his performance, not unlike fantasy. By contrast, Silverman and Chappelle tell a variety of jokes which require the audience to adjust to different levels of engagement, making them work harder. This isn’t necessarily worse or better in terms of comedic style, but, from a branding standpoint, Jeselnik is untouchable.
Comics like Chappelle and Silverman sometimes tell crass, sarcastic, shock-value jokes, and other times they speak out about social issues that matter to them. In Chappelle’s newest special, he jumps from harsh jokes about women and the transgender community to quoting Ghandi about how to create lasting peace. Jeselnik’s messaging is consistent. Chappelle’s is not. Jeselnik would say that women are cum-dumpsters, transgender people are wannabe cum-dumpsters, and that Ghandi’s biggest contribution to society were his tiny dumps. Jeselnik denigrates the sacred 24/7. He dives into taboos and makes no excuses. It’s when you stray from your formula, and haven’t thought through the message you’re sending, that audiences get confused and upset. Most importantly, you, the communicator, must have a concrete understanding of who you are—or what your persona is—when you’re engaging any audience.
May of last year, Kathy Griffin released a photo of herself holding a fake, bloody, decapitated head of Trump. Her career and personal life have been in turmoil ever since. The real offense she committed was not having a cohesive explanation for the photo. Why did she make it? Almost 10 months after the photo was released, a Hollywood Reporter article quotes Griffin saying, “When you're in between gigs and trying to stay on the map, you have to think of ways to stay in the spotlight.” The truth comes out. Not only has she never explained the thought process behind the piece of art, the motivation for its creation was nothing more than grabbing the public’s attention, using shock value and the viral nature of Trump’s presidency.
Over the course of the year, Griffin’s response to the public outrage has flipped back and forth from apologetic to defiant. She now suggests she’s in trouble because of a double-standard against women. If she can’t keep her thoughts in order, how are we, her audience, supposed to take her side? It’s impossible.
Griffin claims, “I didn’t commit a crime. I didn’t rape anybody. I didn’t assault anybody.” But that’s not the problem, is it? The problem is that there’s been no explanation for why the photo exists. This was a thoughtless money grab. She wasn’t making a political statement. She said it herself; she was trying to get attention. There’s no meaning behind her message. Considering the photo with the President’s severed head is the most visible piece of art Griffin has made in years, audiences have no understanding of what to expect from her. The branding isn’t just inconsistent, it’s non-existent. Just this week, she announced the “Laugh Your Head Off World Tour,” her first since the photo was released. She continues to play the victim and leverage the photo scandal for more publicity. To this day, she can’t explain her art, so the public and the media have explained it for her.
A story can control you. Sometimes the voices of one million people are louder than the voice of the one person with a megaphone. The real question is, when the s*** hits the fan, do you have a brand that backs up what you’ve said? Do you walk the talk?