When Sam Brooks put out a list of his five best comedy specials ever many of you weren’t happy with his choices. Here he responds to the criticism.
Comedy fans get angry when you question the established canon.
Let me rephrase, and widen that: Fans of any artform get angry when you question their established canon.
If you suggest to film fans that The Godfather is boring, and about white dudes being macho for five hours, film fans will get angry. You can extend this to art like The Catcher in the Rye, The Beatles, Shakespeare, Mozart, and I’m sure a dancer who is absolutely a white dude.
The established canon is made up of straight white men, because until about maybe the early 20th century, these are the people who were allowed to make art, and these are the people whose art was heralded as universal, because also the people who were allowed to talk about this art happened to be white men.
This is not rocket science. This is history.
“You’re entitled to your opinion but you’re not entitled to be right about it.”
This is a part of a comment somebody wrote on my five favourite comedy specials piece, which all happened to be by women. My list ran contrary to many lists of the same, which include your old reliables George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Billy Connolly, Bill Hicks, and so on and so forth.
There’s an established canon. There’s the canon that most fans of comedy adhere to because it’s what we’ve been told is funny. That one Louis CK special is a must-watch. Seinfeld is the best comedy show. That Tig Notaro half hour is a work of genius.
It’s mostly white guys. When you ask comedy fans who their favourite comedians are, you’ll get a deluge of white guys, and to be fair to them, their styles are varied and different. But you’re talking about an artform where people (wrong, bad people) are still asking the question, “Are women funny?” The artform, and its established canon, moves on slowly.
There are ten women and forty men on the Rolling Stone’s Best Stand-Ups of All Time list.
There are five women and twenty men on the Rolling Stone’s Best Stand-Up Specials of All Time List.
There are eight women and ninety-two men on Comedy Central’s Best Stand Ups of All Time.
The established canon is male, and it is mostly white.
My canon is not, and it’s not.
We all have our own canons.
Your own personal canon comes from your experience and your frame of the view. There is no objectivity in art.
To illustrate: I grew up watching Absolutely Fabulous. I was given a copy of the published TV scripts at about age four – I cannot imagine why this was the case but this is an explanation of my personal canon, not a therapy session – and I would read along to the scripts as I watched the show. Some people had Thomas the Tank Engine, other people had Suzy Cato, I had Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley being stoned off their faces.
This shaped the work I engaged with as I grew into a teenager who could make his own choices, and had access to a dial-up internet connection. Absolutely Fabulous taught me that women are funny, that women are allowed to be funny, and that women are funnier than men. The rabbit hole that is Absolutely Fabulous led me to French and Saunders, which led me to Margaret Cho, which continued down the same but different rabbit hole of female stand-ups and sketch comedians.
When I was young, I was actively encouraged to listen to women singers, read books by women, watch TV shows with women, and so a lot of my personal canon revolves around art that privileges the viewpoint of women.
On a similar vein, as someone who knew he was a gay dude super early on in my life, I’ve also actively looked for and engaged with art that talks about gay men or is from the viewpoint of gay men. I’ve seen The Hours upwards of fifty times.
(Spoilers: A lot of this art is bad. Because a lot of art is bad. Also because if somebody tells you that you can’t make art, and then somebody gives you a little bit of money to make that art, sometimes that art is bad because you’re not part of the demographic that’s allowed to make art a lot. But that’s another conversation.)
Do you know what this means? As an adult who makes his own choices with what he consumes, both in terms of food (hi UberEATS, my new best friend) and art, if a piece of art doesn’t have any women in it, I’m not interested. My iTunes is comprised of 95% women, including podcasts. It’s the art that’s important to me.
Does this make my canon limited? Absolutely.
Does it mean the art I watched is skewed? Absolutely, but so is yours, by your own collection of experiences and your viewpoint on the world. Isn’t that fun?
Nobody can watch everything.
We watch what’s important to us, what we’ve learned is important to us, and sometimes we watch what people tell us to watch.
The idea of a singular canon is messed up. It comes from a time in history where certain people were given the platform to tell everybody else what was good, what was the best, and what was the stuff we should be reading to become better and more intelligent people, within a very specific frame of ‘better and intelligent’.
Everybody has a platform now. Whether it’s The Spinoff, your Facebook feed, or a literal platform at a train station, everybody has the ability to define what is good to them, what is important to them. And that’s actually great.
Do I think Margaret Cho, Whoopi Goldberg, Mo’Nique, Maria Bamford, and Wanda Sykes released the best comedy specials ever? Yes. I do. And I’ll fight you about it. I think they’re exemplary examples of the form, that push it into places it hasn’t been before.
Do you think that? Probably not. It’d be great if you did, because I think the world would be a much more exciting and terrifying place if everybody thought like me. But they don’t. Some people like mushrooms, some people like pineapple on pizza, and some people even like Louis CK.
Art is subjective. Everybody has a right to their opinion, and everybody has the right to be wrong about that opinion.
Fuck the canon.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.