On the day of Kobe Bryant’s death, the comic Ari Shaffir wrote this on Twitter: “Kobe Bryant died 23 years too late today. He got away with rape because all the Hollywood liberals who attack comedy enjoy rooting for the Lakers more than they dislike rape. Big ups to the hero who forgot to gas up his chopper. I hate the Lakers. What a great day!”
It did not go over well. Shaffir’s talent agency reportedly dropped him. So did a comedy club. There were death threats. Comics who normally roll their eyes at those offended by jokes criticized him. In an explanation on Instagram, Shaffir said trashing celebrities right after they died was a running bit, one just for his fans who like inappropriate humor. “I’m niche,” he said.
And yet, there is nothing niche about the reach of Twitter and Instagram. Shaffir is no superstar, but he’s a veteran club comic with a Netflix special and one of the most frequent guests on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” arguably the most popular podcast in the world. Shaffir’s fans do expect this kind of thing from him. But the shocking death of Bryant hit a bigger cultural nerve, revealing how dark humor has expanded and evolved in the era of social media.
To be sure, comedians have always been tempted by national tragedies.
After the John F. Kennedy assassination, Lenny Bruce cracked a joke about a man famous for doing an impression of the president: “Vaughn Meader is screwed” he said (though he used another word). Gilbert Gottfried told a Friars Club crowd, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks: “I have to leave early tonight. I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight — they said I have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” Someone yelled: “Too soon,” a phrase that has since gained popularity.
Such tastelessness comes easily to comedians, natural enemies of the sacred and solemn. On Twitter, Laurie Kilmartin recently suggested a chat room for comics on days of tragedies called “Should I Tweet This?” Roy Wood Jr. of “The Daily Show” responded that the screen grabs would “end careers.”
But comics are hardly the only ones who deal with tragedy through jokes. It’s why punch lines about the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle went the equivalent of viral in the 1980s. Of course, comedy today, we are constantly being told, navigates the most sensitive of times, and there is some truth in that. The press has become more moralistic than in previous decades, and social media is a jittery engine for outrage.
But the familiar lament that comics can’t say anything these days has it exactly wrong. Only a few decades ago, it was unthinkable that a standup could find a national outlet to jokingly insult a celebrity on the day of his death. Today, anyone can do it on a global platform without gatekeepers. Tasteless jokes now can be told quicker and to larger audiences than ever, which doesn’t mean there won’t be criticism.
Still, when you hear Dave Chappelle complain about audience blowback on the most popular Netflix special of the year or Ricky Gervais sigh at people’s inability to take a joke while he’s hosting the Golden Globes or Bill Maher inveigh against the power of woke millennials on his weekly HBO show, ask yourself: If the culture is so hostile to comedy that offends, why do these comics have the biggest, most prestigious platforms to say so?
As I argued in 2015, political correctness seems like an opponent of transgressive comedy, but it also helps build the market for this genre. Line-crossers need lines to cross. But the internet has also changed the nature of what was once called sick humor. There is no such thing as “too soon” anymore. Like Shaffir, Anthony Jeselnik makes a point of joking on Twitter about tragedies the day they happen, but his jokes are nimble, magic tricks that glance off the subject without making too much of a mark.
Shaffir is known for a more brazen approach. Some have said his tweet wasn’t a joke at all, since there is no twist or misdirection. But that misses the point of so much online humor. His tweet is actually the most contemporary of jokes: the troll.
Its purpose is not to come up with a clever line that gets laughs, but to upset people, create discord and then laugh at that. You see this tactic all the time from minor figures to Donald Trump and Sacha Baron Cohen. If Shaffir just wanted to practice niche comedy for his fans, he could have joked about Kobe Bryant at a comedy club.
Once you see Shaffir as trolling, the nature of his joke seems more precise. Consider its targets. By insulting those who don’t take the rape allegations seriously and Hollywood liberals, he exploits the anger of the #MeToo movement and those who hate coastal liberal elites. It’s designed to appeal to no one — and in that regard, it’s ruthlessly effective.
Whereas comics have in the past told shocking jokes because they delighted in saying the unsayable or just wanted to lighten grief with humor, Shaffir seems to be aiming for something different, more nihilistic, crueler.
But it’s not as much of an anomaly as it seems. There is an appetite for heartless humor and a bustling market for anything in opposition to the politically correct. Netflix has no less than six genres of stand-up that use the label “politically incorrect.” And when Shaffir mocked Aretha Franklin and Tom Petty after their deaths, it generated little controversy.
So will Ari Shaffir be canceled? What does that ubiquitous term even mean anymore?
His chance of getting a television special decreased, as surely as his peace of mind after the onslaught of violent comments directed at him. But controversies fade, and when this one does, I bet Shaffir returns to the podcast of his friend Joe Rogan (who had warm words for him this week but refused to defend his tweet, calling it “so stupid”). Shaffir can explain his side of the story to a larger audience than he would have received if this never happened. Among his die-hard fans, this episode might even earn Shaffir more credibility.
On the same day Shaffir tweeted, the comic Tony Hinchcliffe told another risky joke on Twitter about the death of Bryant that referred to his reputation of hogging the ball: “Kobe passing? That can’t be true.”
It also received pushback and offended some people. But since it didn’t bluntly aim for offense with as much directness, it didn’t go as viral. That matters. For in our algorithmic age, if there’s one goal incentivized above all else, it’s getting attention.