Difficult People – Why Is It So Difficult To Laugh?
Today’s “For Harriet” blog brings an unsigned article, whose content, in the manner of what passes for “journalism” on the web these days, is largely a series of embedded Tweets (in other words, a group of Tweeters were the actual authors of the article). The article is intended to criticize Difficult People, a new Hulu series created by Julie Klausner and produced by Amy Poehler, which premiered on August 5th.
In the creation of the show, according to Klausner, who is quoted, Poehler
“[c] could not have been more hands-on. She [not only gave] notes on every script, she gave notes on every draft of every outline…. She would give notes on every single edit, not only of the shows but of the promos, the trailers. She would be involved in every stage of the process in a way that she would go above and beyond.”
The point of all that is to make the argument that Poehler is directly responsible for the show’s content, and that’s a fair charge.
Beyond that, the article states no actual grievance, except to the extent that it quotes the grievances of others who object to a series of jokes in the first episode about “R. Kelly peeing on Blue Ivy” (Beyoncé’s three-year-old daughter). The thrust of their criticisms, which is presumably also “For Harriet’s” criticism, is that Klausner and Poehler are generally racist and, specifically, lack respect for young black girls.
But it would be pointless (and really, really boring) to start yet another “we’ve been offended” campaign with Difficult People as the target-of-the-moment (if Beyoncé is offended, she has all the means necessary to do something about it), but the “For Harriet” piece does provide an opportunity to analyze why Difficult People—and Amy Poehler’s sanctioning of its scripts—is so deeply problematic.
The lame, cheap, pandering jokes about Blue Ivy and R. Kelly are horrifying (especially because they are repeated at least four times and get less funny each time, which surely violates at least one of the laws of comedy), but the entire concept of the show is horrifying: the pathetic idea that it is actually amusing to portray people who behave, in real life, with the solipsistic, violent, petty, joyful disregard for others that one usually associates with user comments on CNN.com.
To put it another way, Difficult People is artlessness imitating lifelessness.
Klausner apparently believes that the uncivil behavior of her characters is funny (some of that behavior is so utterly barbaric that you’d expect them to get punched in the mouth rather than snubbed – and you’d be relieved if they were) AND she believes that her job as a writer and performer is to reproduce the maddening rudeness of our fellow human beings as though it were an art form.
Thus, it is not the analysis of or a perspective on a social phenomenon that gives rise to Difficult People’s alleged humor; the comic “occasion,” so to speak, is simply the verbatim, undigested depiction of that phenomenon.
For Difficult People’s main characters (Klausner’s Julie Kessler and Billy Eichner’s Billy Epstein), no other person in existence is possessed of the rights, prerogatives, or dignity they demand for themselves—and Julie Klausner and Amy Poehler are apparently of a similar mind.
If we want to talk “offensive,” that’s what really makes Difficult People stink.
The questions that demand to be asked—and I wish “For Harriet” had asked them—include:
- Who are Klausner and Poehler to take liberties with certain subject matter?
- What gives them the right to adapt material about Blue Ivy or R. Kelly (who, by the way, was acquitted in 2008 of each and every one of the 14 criminal charges that now give rise to the joke)?
- What privileges do they assume and express through their humor and their performances?
And how, in fact, are Klausner and Poehler’s jokes about the sexual abuse of children different from Daniel Tosh’s jokes about rape?
In general, it’s hard to know what to make of the racial/ethnic/sexual-orientation minstrelsy of TV comedy these days (many of the characters in Black-ish; the outrageously sexist main character in Fresh Off the Boat, an Asian guy pretending to be a rap-video thug; both Titus and Donna Maria Nuñez in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; The New Normal; Vicious; Michael Urie’s Louis in Partners; and, of course, Cole Escola’s Matthew and Gabourey Sidibe’s two-dimensional “you go, girl,” “I’m a diva” Denise in Difficult People). Still, Klausner and Poehler have added Jews and women to the mix, so that must be progress.
In any case, the argument will predictably come that “anything goes” in comedy (which is, in fact, what Tosh and his supporters maintained), an attempt to carve out protections for comedy that exist for no other kind of speech or artistic expression.
And then there will be those who understand that comedy—and comedy’s creators—cannot claim to exist outside of culture.
What Klausner and Poehler are expressing in Difficult People isn’t edginess, daring, or comic genius. It’s the malicious, insular, abject jeering of bullies and mean girls the world over.
When you think about why people like them might be doing something like that, it’s almost enough to make you laugh.