There’s a joke Louis CK tells at the climax of his 2013 stand-up show Oh My God. The set-up works like this. “Everyone has a competition in their brain of good thoughts and bad thoughts.” There’s the part of your thinking that is rational, of your better nature, what you believe – this he calls “of course.” And then there’s the morally dubious, lesser mind – “I don’t believe it, but it’s there” – this he calls “but maybe.” His first example is that “of course” children with nut allergies should be protected, it’s essential to have their medication to hand, you should always check labels, etc. “But maybe, maybe… If touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die.”
Written down, it’s harsher than it is in the telling, but I think it still works. It made me laugh out loud when I heard it, despite the fact that I’ve been party to a panicked rush to A&E. As a parent, I recognise its sentiment all too well: getting worked up at inconveniences of providing for everyone’s kids, mainly because you’re perpetually tired. Also, where did the proliferation of nut allergies come from? Had all those kids my age just died because there were no adrenaline shots available? You’re not supposed to say these things, but you think them. The joke identifies and gives form to the ways the worn-out caring mind allows itself release through verbal and conceptual play and transgression. We could easily assign it to a psychoanalytic scheme: it’s explicitly a joke about the super-ego and the id. The big angel and the little devil. The devil often has the best lines.
One reason the joke does not work so well on paper is that CK’s consummate skill as a stand-up lies in large part in his facial expressions and tone, and his ability to morph between open and empathetic and wicked and mischievous and back to innocent. You have to say that those skills are tested to breaking point now that we will always picture him using them in the context of asking women if he can masturbate in front of them, but it doesn’t mean that the skills themselves disappear overnight, nor that his jokes are no longer able to occupy the morally murky areas of our quotidian thought processes. The context has changed.
The question of whether or not we are implicated in his actions by continuing to laugh at him is equally intriguing. As I say, I laughed at that joke when I watched it again but there were others at which I couldn’t raise a smile and yet others I remember not finding funny in the before-time. The dismissal of art on the grounds of morality requires absolute standards in the field of morality. Absolute standards in the field of morality tend to make hypocrites of us all.
CK develops the “of course, but maybe” routine cunningly. In his third example, he says “of course slavery is the worst thing that ever happened.” The entire audience – an audience that knows the kind of material to expect, the kind seasoned comics like to think of as “cultivated” – winces. Groans threaten to consume laughter. He calls them on it: “Listen, listen, you all clapped for the dead kids with the nuts. So, you’re in this with me now, you understand?” The audience laugh again: they’re implicated and he knows it. It’s a very telling joke, I think, in the context of CK’s career – this is a comic who constructs and plays with situations of compromise and moral relativity to implicate his audience in his act. It’s artful in the context of joke writing but takes on a different valence in other areas of life.
I looked back at CK’s sets after reading Andrew Hankinson’s new book Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t, an oral history of New York’s legendary Comedy Cellar. The Cellar features heavily in Louis CK’s successful sit-com Louie: the titles feature CK arriving at the subway station in the Village, grabbing pizza, and walking into the Cellar. In other scenes he is doing bits of his stand-up, with the Celllar’s brick wall tight behind him. The club has been a home-from-home for a roll-call of New York’s most significant comics since the 1980s, many of whom appear in the pages of Don’t Applaud: Jerry Seinfeld, asking to the doorman Hassan to park his Porsche; on one legendary occasion, Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock appearing on the same billion-dollar-bill as Seinfeld.
Don’t Applaud is Hankinson’s second book. His first, You Are Raoul Moat, You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life was an ambitious piece of hybrid non-fiction. For those who don’t remember, Moat was the Geordie bouncer who shot and killed a policeman on his release from prison, because his girlfriend had started dating a copper. He then went on the run, pitching up at Rothbury in Northumberland, with the rolling news media hot on his heels, before taking his own life. (I’ve always thought it an astonishing though apt coincidence that Moat dragged a chaotic media circus to the town where the late novelist Gordon Burn had a country cottage.) In 2010, Newcastle United fans hymned Moat at St James’s Park, re-using the old “He Kills Coppers” song memorialised in Jake Arnott’s novel of the same title. It’s a fine line between folk-devil and folk-hero.
In that book, Hankinson reproduced transcripts of Moat’s audio-diary, a tape-recorded confessional. In other sections he used the second-person voice of the title to produce an effect not unlike that experienced in the choose-your-own adventure novels of the 1980s. You Are Raoul Moat positioned the reader in unusually and uncomfortably close proximity with the troubled protagonist and enacted the kinds of moral and ethical complexities we face in real life, without offering resolution. How much agency did Moat have? How were his victims effected by his actions beyond the first flush of the media attention? To what extent was he the victim of his own actions or those of others? What were the roles of the media and police in the situation as it unfolded? How would you feel if this happened to you? You weren’t hectored by these questions: you experienced them.
Don’t Applaud consists almost entirely of transcriptions of interviews conducted by the author with people connected to the Cellar. Hankinson started writing about the venue in 2013 for a magazine feature and maintained contact with the owner, Noam Dworman, continuing to interview him up to 2019. It is fair to say that this is considerably longer-form than most contemporary journalism. There are also brief section introductions, when required, and on occasion, chapters consist in simply relating an event that has occurred, in bold type. “The night before,” reads Chapter 198, “Louis does his fourth spot back. A few people walk out.” (Chapter 186 records his first set back at the Cellar. “As he walks onstage the crowd cheers and claps.”)
The book is structured so that the events discussed are encountered in reverse chronological order: we read interviewees’ accounts of different moments in the club’s history, starting from the most recent and working backwards as the chapters count down. This Time’s Arrow strategy brings a couple of effects to bear on the narrative: the form of the book has the force of a line of argument all of its own. By reversing the passage of time, Hankinson presents us with a story that reveals implicitly how we got to where we are: every situation lands already exploded, then transforms and coalesces as evidence accrues. This seems every bit as ingenious and bold as his use of the second person in You Are Raoul Moat. Hankinson’s not here to lecture the reader, but to understand. His formal gambits are experimental in the true sense: what might we learn if we look at things this way?
What’s more, the reverse chronology means that the elephant in the room is top of the bill: Louis CK is headlining, whether we like it or not (for CK’s second spot back at the Cellar, owner Noam Dworman puts up a sign warning punters: “Swim at Your Own Risk: We Never Know Who is Going to Pop In”). Were the chronology past to present, we’d spend the entire book waiting for the looming presence of CK, his sexually inappropriate behaviour threatening from the back pages. I don’t think it’s too much to say that postponing this would have the effect of making the entire piece seem like waiting for CK to take his dick out and that would give him a power over the narrative reproducing the power he enjoyed over the women on the receiving end of his masturbation kicks. As it is, we get that up front and told from multiple perspectives. Ted Alexandro who used to warm up CK uses him for material: “He’s lost… He’s lost everything. It’s not fair that men should lose everything in a flash, and by everything I mean hardly anything, and in a flash I mean a decade later.”
The book is dotted with specific jokes and their aftermaths. Hankinson reproduces with permission audience complaints, with the jokes themselves gradually resolving in the rear-view mirror. Sam Morril’s joke about an alligator is exemplary of this. A child called Lane Graves was killed by an alligator at a Disney amusement park. Sam Morril “asks if anyone has heard about the baby who was killed by an alligator. He doesn’t use the child’s name. He says baby instead of child. He says he doesn’t want to come across as a right-wing nut, but maybe if the baby was carrying a gun? He asks if anyone watched the televised funeral. It wasn’t televised, that’s part of the joke. He describes what he saw. Erika stands up and walks out of the showroom. On her way out she complains to Liza [Treyger, the MC]. Liza tells her people are offended by different things and she can leave if she wants. She leaves. She cries. She tweets, Comic @sammorril makes part of act joke about 2 yr old being killed by alligator in Disney. He should be boycotted. I left immediately.” The inevitable happens on twitter, with Erika receiving abuse.
The joke as it is written is undoubtedly dark and would be extremely distressing for anyone who knew the child to hear. It is also, even as written and without development, self-evidently about the perpetual threat caused by American gun laws and the heinous hypocrisy of the corporate media as much as it is about children, or death, or alligators. Hankinson has already included an email exchange between Erika and the management of the Cellar, in which Erika has stated: “I would expect all human beings would be offended by a sicko making jokes about a 2-year-old baby’s tragic death, saying his mother probably said ‘later gator’ at his funeral etc.” Before that, we’ve had Hankinson’s interview with Erika, in which she has expanded upon her position. And before that, we have had Sam’s permission to Hankinson to tell the story. Sam gives permission but he’s worried. “He says being taken out of context is scary. The author understands. A book is different from a room.”
The unique situation of the room is a theme of the book. In a telling introductory interview with Stewart Lee, Hankinson asks Lee about his idea of Bouffon clowns drawing a circle around themselves on stage, or Paul Provenza’s idea of the stage as “inverted commas.” Lee responds: “Yeah, but that doesn’t work anymore because the circle’s been punctured by YouTube and Twitter, and the stage is being filmed from an angle on someone’s phone that removes the inverted commas.”
It’s a strange moment for comedy, and one that Hankinson’s book is uniquely placed to interrogate. The puncturing of the circle of the room is a distortion of context. Cultural historians are very concerned to recreate context, and our contemporary moment is likely to provide a rich seem for cultural historians of the future, as they discern the complications of context we experience with the distortions of time and space made possible by tele-technologies of media reproduction.
It seems useful to think of stand-up as a kind of contract between performer and audience. Problems occur when one party or the other feels that the contract has been broken. The contract in a stand-up environment is under perpetual re-negotiation against the context of norms predominant outside of the room, but the fact that it is a negotiation is its great power and strength. The kind of comedy that thrives in rooms like that at the Cellar frequently wrong-foots us by transgressing or questioning our taste and standards. Any demands for absolute standards or uniform taste seem quixotic at best. The contract essentially says: “Be flexible.” Or, “Swim at your own risk.” Or, as Hankinson’s title has it, borrowing a line from Colin Quinn: “Don’t applaud. Either laugh, or don’t.”
It is a violation of the contract to rupture its temporality. The words in the air are transformed by their transposition into text – as Hankinson’s remark acknowledges – or their fixing in video, the temporary autonomy of the room pulled out from under them. Shifting the room into the infinitely networked and, despite all appearances, much more permanent because textual space of twitter, rips up the contract. The moment of ambiguity, of expectations in a state of quantum suspension, is flattened into inevitability. Various occasions when the Cellar has participated in the alteration of the contract, having welcomed cameras into the room, lead to earlier controversies, including one involving Seinfeld.
Another theme of the book is Noam’s position that it is not his job to be a boundary policeman. Included at Chapter 183 is an essay describing his argument for freedom of expression: it’s a sharp piece of polemic, coining the word “indignigasm,” inveighing for fairness and against censorship and confessing to the “fear that if the mob comes for me, I’ll blink.” Hankinson complicates Noam’s stated position by introducing and discussing over the course of the book various instances where Noam himself has behaved inconsistently, intervening in different ways to question acts about their performance: not quite a censor, but perhaps a bit of an overseer. We always get each side of the story and often a third or fourth perspective.
Indeed, the Cellar tries to formalise such discussion by hosting debates. At one the British-born columnist Andrew Sullivan, a gay, conservative Catholic, who was earlier this year released from his job as a columnist at the New York Magazine, describes the environment of free speech in terms of an opposition between analyses derived from Marx that privilege ideas of structural oppression and those that celebrate the rights of the individual of the enlightenment project. It’s a summary that would surely be complicated by philosophers and academic historians of ideas – I can’t help but think that complainers are individualising structural analyses – but it is a useful framing for discussion. The fact that it took place in a comedy club seems admirable.
An extended interview with Lynne Koplitz describes the writing of and response to her rape joke, which I had not heard but which I looked up to watch on Netflix after reading about it because it was described by Joan Rivers as a “game-changer.” You may not like Lynne Koplitz’s rape joke, but I think if you’re interested in comedy it will be worth seeing. This interview is followed by an exchange with Noam concerning a debate at the Cellar responding to the question “Is American Conservatism Hostile to Women?” at which a pre-Trump Ann Coulter was a panellist. They discuss opposition to having Coulter in the building. Unsurprisingly, Noam defends the decision.
Hankinson details arguments, disputes – Kurt Metzger had his eardrum popped for calling a female member of the audience a cunt – but also acts of kindness and friendship, the business of running comedy clubs, the history of Greenwich Village. The narrative runs back to the Club’s founder, Noam’s father Manny Dworman, an Israeli folk musician. Manny loved discussion and debate: he would push books on his friends concerning topics he wanted to discuss. Manny believed discussion the height of human civilisation. Interviewees queue up to tell the author how much they loved him.
The comic Hood Quaim-Maqani, an American-Iranian, tells Hankinson about his suicide bomber joke: “But then I say, ‘Well, if you’re going to be that kind of a crowd, I’d like to start off tonight by doing something in the name of Allah.’ I would lift my shirt, show the bomb. That’s when, pre-9/11, the crowd would just explode with laughter. And then I’d go, ‘Wow, thank God you reacted that way. Not all crowds get this kind of humour. I did this joke two weeks ago in Israel and cleared the entire plane.’” Manny, says Hood, “would see it, and he was deeply conservative in the opinions he had, but he was also a humanist.” Robin Williams checks that Hood is going to stop doing the joke.
Donald Trump Jr is in the audience one night, being loud, and another audience member “pops” him on the head with a glass. Manny’s partner Ava recalled Trump requiring Manny to apologise, and thinks it maybe happened on Entertainment Tonight. It’s a slight cameo but it prompts the thought of another, external threat to the transgressive mode of stand-up: Trump’s use of the rhetorical figure of paralipsis, and its structural similarity to the CK joke at the top of the piece. “I’m not saying: I’m only saying”; a transgressive space opened up in language and then plausibly denied. Trump, of course, also deploys the vulgarity of the stand-up. When rhetorical transgression is routine in political discourse, when inverted commas are placed around the stump, the context surrounding the stage is shifting, bigly.
There are those who, in the face of the prevailing political conditions, would reduce any discussion of freedom of speech to either opposition to, or support for, abhorrent views, as if it is the right to expression itself that has given rise to the irrational thought processes that precede the utterance of the indefensible. Freud’s writing on humour makes clear its special relationship to the unconscious: if you’re more empirical than that, my understanding is that it is uncontroversial to accept that we don’t always have control over what we think. The unconscious is definitionally where the weird shit happens before we rationalise and get all enlightenment on it. Stand-up comedy seems one of the few forms that acknowledges and plays with that aspect of being human. Its not the thought, or the joke that’s the problem. It’s the context, or the actions, or intent of the people behind jokes.
The discussion of freedom of speech has further become politicised: mischief-makers who identify as “classical liberals” having, apparently, cherry-picked a bit of John Stuart Mill, defend an absolutist position as a pillbox on the beach of the culture wars. It’s a shame that this is ever taken at face value rather than for what it is: a playground taunt, the lowest grade form of humour, designed to provoke the response it inevitably gets – the distracting indignigasm. Meanwhile, boundaries of taste and morality are policed by “progressives” who have internalised as a material truth an understanding of offensive language as traumatic, little allowing for the forms of offensive language that might even be therapeutic.
When he was dying from cancer, my father made a series of jokes about his own imminent demise that I do not think would transcend the room we were in when he told them. Tiring of visitors, he suggested the erection on the front lawn of a black flag to ward away well-wishers and offered to piss in a cup from across the room. (The Macmillan nurses, his perfect audience, thought it was quite droll). I found these black jokes cathartic, powerful, excruciatingly brave. I enjoy thinking back to them because they give me an opportunity to think of him as stoical and able to rise above it; they provide a screen for the grimmer moments also logged in my memory. I am simultaneously terrified that I will not be strong enough to joke my own way out and provide my loved ones with hopeful distractions. Welcome to gallows humour! Try the veal, it’s to die for.
I would love to be able to discuss with Erika the intensely powerful emotional possibilities of black humour, its tradition in Jewish culture, in Surrealism, in satire from the Greeks through Swift to Ballard, throughout the North of England and most frequently in stand-up. Jerry Sadowitz is not for everyone but I love his act. I would like to discuss this, in the spirit of Manny’s creation. I believe in that discussion, and I’m scared of it. The internet is different from the room.
What emerges by the close of Hankinson’s book is a nuanced and multi-layered portrait of a place of discussion and dispute, of hierarchy and money and offence, yes, but a place primarily of life and music and food and people and filthy jokes. Perhaps on occasion it’s been a boys’ club for egotistical white guys, but most of the time it has been peopled with New Yorkers gay, straight, female, male, black, white, Hispanic and middle-eastern; some of them making jokes, some of them laughing, some crying, some earning a crust and some making a mint. Hankinson gives them all voice in his portrait of the Cellar, a recreation of the diversity of opinion, the spirit and bustle of the room. It’s a fascinating social historical document and a profoundly humanist achievement, studded with ingenious gags and touching anecdotes. Please read it. I’d like to talk about it.