I’m at a trendy comedy club in Manhattan. There are about 100 of us, drinking cocktails, packed together, close to the stage. There’s a comic on stage, white, middle-aged, from New Jersey. He’s doing crowd work. It’s so fast that we in the audience can barely keep up.

“That guy looks like he for sure owns handguns. How many handguns do you have, sir?”

He points at a blonde woman. “I would do shit to you that’s illegal in Afghanistan! I would let you drive a car, I would let you have opinions.” A guy with a beard. “You can’t tell if he’s Jewish or Isis!” He’s Jewish too, he tells us, and has a sex joke about sleeping with Jewish guys, something about using eight fingers like a menorah.

The crowd is laughing, hard, when he zeroes in on a couple in the front row.

“These are real Asian people, look at this,” he says. “These are anime characters. Dance Dance Revolution.” My whole body freezes. I glance at the couple. To my surprise, they’re laughing. “This guy’s so Asian. Patient Zero and Patient One, thank you for the vacation, we appreciated the two years off, however now our economy is floundering.”

Man in brown jacket speaking on stage
Aaron Berg performing at The Stand NYC © Dolly Faibyshev

The jokes continue, mostly like that. And of the seven comedians that Friday night at The Stand NYC, this comic, Aaron Berg, gets by far the biggest laughs. I leave wondering if the crowd was somehow duped. Just because people laughed, did that make it good?

Something is happening in our culture that is sticky and unresolved. Demands to give marginalised people their due respect are colliding with demands to protect freedom of speech and artistic expression, and it’s playing out most publicly in the world of standup comedy.

The debate has raged at A-list level. In March, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars for insulting his wife Jada about her alopecia. The internet spent a relentless cycle on whether that was or was not messed up. Dave Chappelle, an icon of comedy, has been defending his right to make offensive jokes about the transgender community for years. Ricky Gervais’ May Netflix special, SuperNature, hinges on jokes about trans people where their genitals are the punchline.

In the last two cases, LGBT+ activists and allies have protested, and the comics have doubled down. In a July speech aired on Netflix, Chappelle called a group of high-school students protesting against him “instruments of oppression”.

This all begs the question: what do we look to comedy for to begin with? Freud believed it helps us release the energy that represses our emotions around sexual desire and hostility; it gets vented through laughter. Comedy helps to frame issues we’re still making sense of. It points out incongruities. All this puts it right in the crosshairs for people who think about public discourse. And when a vocal population gets offended, and the stars cry cancel culture, a futile loop repeats and repeats.

Very few star comics have truly lost their platforms because of what they’ve said on stage. In fact, the opposite is more common: when comics claim censorship, engagement spikes. Andrew Schulz, whose last special included anti-Asian jokes, promoted his newest special by saying he’d refused a streamer’s request to remove edgy jokes about abortion. He released it himself instead, and it’s been watched on YouTube more than 6.7mn times. Chappelle says his most controversial recent special, The Closer, is now the most-watched comedy special on Netflix, ever.

I think we’re being distracted by the wrong question. Maybe instead of “Is cancel culture threatening comedy?” the question should be “What makes good comedy today?”

To understand where America’s national sense of humour could go, I have spent the past months exploring the New York comedy scene — one of the country’s biggest, most diverse and most influential, and a historic proving ground for new ideas. Modern standup was born in New York: the Marx Brothers brought it to Broadway in the 1920s, Lenny Bruce was routinely arrested on stage in the 1960s. New York gave us Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, Saturday Night Live.

This year I’ve seen more comedians perform live than I can count. I saw a man dressed as a giant pair of pants make jokes about finding a matching shirt. (“It’s just his thing,” another comic tried to explain to me afterwards. “It works for him.”) I’ve seen physical comedy, alt-comedy, political comedy, set-up/punchline, long confessional stories. I’ve seen people joke about how their dying grandmother should kill Joe Biden, and what it means to be chronically suicidal. I’ve been roasted, mostly for my job (“Where’s the journalist? Can you cover my lawsuit against the New York City Subway?”). And I’ve talked with many of the comics trying to make it, who are hustling across the city every night for a few minutes, here and there, of stage time.

Woman smiles at camera
Ruth Allen backstage at Gutter Bar, Brooklyn . . .  © Dolly Faibyshev
 . . . and her notes

“Making people laugh is so complicated,” Ruth Allen tells me. She’s a 24-year-old comic, three years into the game. We’re sitting outside BKLYN Comedy Club in Williamsburg, where she’s just taken a tequila shot and done an eight-minute set to a sleepy but receptive crowd. “The greater question is what makes you audibly react, and there are a million reasons,” she says. “I laugh when I’m uncomfortable. You can be scared, upset or caught off guard and laugh. And that misdirects comics. I know some comics with very offensive material, and when people react audibly, they think it’s good. And I think no! That doesn’t mean it’s good, it means people are stunned by what you said.”

This reminds me of how Darwin described laughing at a joke: as “involuntary”. I ask Allen what the difference is between shocking and good.

“Intention,” she says. “Shocking has no point. It’s just flashing genitals or being grotesque.”

She talks me through one of her jokes: she had a Citi Bike accident, she says, and needed three stitches to her vagina. Her doctor worried she was using the bike story as a cover, and asked her repeatedly if it was sexual assault. “Listen, I know that’s a problem, where women get assaulted and don’t want to talk about it,” she tells the doctor. “But I personally would snitch so bad! I’d tell you name, weight, eye colour, what comedy clubs they worked at . . . ”

She watches me laugh. “There’s a point to that shock. I like those jokes. Shock for no reason is pointless, but to talk about something that’s upsetting and make it funny? That’s valuable.”

I ask her why she thinks Chappelle and Gervais are so popular.

“These famous comics are used to people laughing at whatever they say,” she tells me. She says they already have superfans, so they’re never challenged by a room. She points at the club. “None of those people give a fuck about who I am. That makes me better.”

Allen works regularly at the club mostly for some stable income. She prefers independent shows, where comics produce their own line-up and work with bars or venues to bring in a crowd. The vibe is happier, the crowds are friendlier, and she says “clubs can be kind of a scuzzy environment” because they only care about running a profit: bookers tell her they bring her on stage as a feminist voice, but bring offensive comics on stage to appeal to people who like that, too.

“But the clubs are going for what’s easy,” she says. “They take people who aren’t doing stuff that’s challenging at all.”

In search of what’s challenging, I find myself in a packed, dark room below Union Hall, a spacious bar in Brooklyn, watching Dylan Adler. This room is a mainstay of the alt-comedy scene, which is often more queer and more experimental. Adler, 25, is a rising star within it.

Adler’s act includes musical numbers, backflips, stories and impressions. Most of his comedy is about his mother parenting him and his brother: half-Japanese, half-Jewish identical twins who are both gay. His two-person act with comic Kelly Bachman is called “Rape Victims Are Horny Too”.

Man talking on stage
Dylan Adler on stage at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn © Dolly Faibyshev

Here’s one of his jokes: he’s also on a bike, in Williamsburg, and crashes into someone, who falls down. “And he was a big muscular jacked dude so I thought, should I run away? Is he going to beat me up? But he was such a woke white Brooklyn guy that instead he was like ‘OH! I deserved this!’”

The crowd laughs. “Then he found out I was half-white, and THEN he beat me up.”

The crowd laughs again. “I said no, it’s the Jewish half! And he was like,” Adler points. “ZIONIST!”

We bump into each other in the bathroom. He’s running to another set but agrees to chat about what makes good comedy today. A week later, we’re on the phone.

“I’ve always been drawn to comedians who are less observant and more personal,” he tells me. “When people talk about their personal life, commit hard to jokes, tell dark jokes, give us a glimpse of their world.” He says he doesn’t like comedy that punches down. “There are creatively better ways to be funny. If I’m going to comment on anything, it’ll be based around my own life.”

I tell Adler about a popular theory of humour called the benign violation theory, to get his take. Devised by researchers Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, it says that for something to be funny, it needs to be both a violation and benign. It needs to seem wrong, or unsettling, but also OK or safe. If someone trips and gets hurt, it’s not funny. It’s not benign. If they don’t fall, there’s nothing to laugh at — no violation. But if they trip and they’re fine? That’s funny. That, plus good timing, plus understanding what your specific crowd will consider a violation and benign — all that together makes a good joke.

Adler agrees. But when we test the theory on Chappelle and Gervais, he pushes back. Maybe that audience, in that room, thinks those jokes are benign, I offer.

“But I don’t believe it’s completely benign,” he says. “People who watch the transphobic language in the Dave Chappelle special, and then it encourages them to start misgendering their own kids, I don’t think that’s benign. In the moment it could feel that way, but when you walk out and that’s the message, it’s harmful.” He thinks for a second. “And also, why would I be invested in Ricky Gervais’s idea of trans people? Creatively, why would I care? And why does he think that people would give a fuck? That doesn’t sound interesting or even exciting to watch, in my opinion.”

It reminds me of a conversation I recently had with Michelle Robinson, a professor at the University of North Carolina who teaches a course on the ethics of standup comedy. She pointed me to a 2011 study of rape jokes by anthropologist Elise Kramer, which suggests that people self-categorise by humour ideologies: are you the “type” of person who thinks a rape joke or a trans joke is funny? Or the type of person who doesn’t?

But Kramer argues that those categories are too blunt. Humour is context-dependent, and defining ourselves by type is a simplistic stand-in for more difficult conversations about entitlement, victimhood and power.

“Commercially successful comics make the case that marginalised people not only lack a sense of humour, but those marginalised people have the power to censor them,” Robinson told me. As Kramer writes: “To take a side in the argument over rape jokes is to implicitly make a claim about who is powerful enough to be a censor in the first place.”

“And controversial material is low-hanging fruit,” Robinson added. “Just because you can reach it, doesn’t mean you have something insightful and intelligent and politically smart to say about it.” 

Robinson’s argument is that numerous comedians do talk about rape, trans rights, cancellation and other controversial things on stage, in ways that are nuanced and smart. Many of them just don’t have the platform.

“What’s more important are voices that haven’t been represented in this pantheon of comedians,” she said. “People who have really interesting styles of comedy, but maybe only have their material up on YouTube, who are undervalued by Netflix as less commercially viable. When of course Netflix helps cultivate what is commercially viable when they make those selections to begin with.”

Man talks on stage
Mahdiy Drummond at the Comedy Nook, Brooklyn © Dolly Faibyshev

On another summer evening, I chat with comic Mahdiy Drummond. Drummond’s not an alt-comic, and he rarely does clubs — he thinks they’re exclusionary. He mostly performs at independent shows across the city, from Washington Heights to Queens, in front of a wide range of crowds that span race and class.

I first saw Drummond perform a year ago, at a small low-lit bar in Flatbush, Brooklyn, called The Zombie House. The crowd was mostly black, and every comic that night bombed — some heckled off the stage — except for him. He was talented at toeing that line, stepping over it momentarily and then pulling us all back in.

“I hate when white people virtue-shame black people for not getting vaccinated,” he said on stage that night, “because it’s easier to let the government put a needle in your arm when you didn’t grow up with your grandparents talking about the Tuskegee [syphilis] experiment. But I knew that shit was real, so I tried to tell my guys in the hood the benefits of getting vaccinated. I know how to speak to black people: you gotta tell us what we’re getting out of it.” The crowd was focused, waiting.

“I’d be like, ‘Family, it’s crazy! Ever since I got vaccinated, mosquitoes don’t bite me no more!” They laughed, hard. “It’s wild. Ever since I got vaccinated, anytime I want to charge my phone I just lay that shit on my chest.”

Man holding a phone
Mahdiy Drummond . . .  © Dolly Faibyshev
Mobile phone with joke list
 . . . at the Comedy Nook, Brooklyn © Dolly Faibyshev

This summer, sitting on a picnic bench outside a brewery after his set, Drummond tells me that what makes something funny today can depend on how you were raised. He says that for him and his friend group of mostly black, blue-collar straight men, joking is affectionate. He works at a warehouse to support his standup career, and “when you’re in a warehouse or digging a ditch with guys, we’re all making fun of each other all day. It’s just what you do. We joke about each other’s mothers and then walk down the street skipping and whistling . . . so it’s an interesting question. How do we joke with people and let them know we’re not against them?”

The tension he sees is this: every marginalised group has the right to draw their line. Trans audiences have a right to let comics know what’s not OK, like Jewish audiences, like Asian audiences. And people should respect that line.

He’s also not surprised, he tells me, to see Chappelle be defensive about his comedy. “I’ve never been a particularly big Chappelle fan, and I can’t speak for him,” he says. But he interprets it as generational (“He’s at an age”), and historical: “You have to understand, black people, we were never able to draw our line. We just had to accept every joke: jigaboos, big lips, black face. Caricatures of us from the ’30s and ’40s.”

Drummond has landed on a style that works for him. He doesn’t punch down. He sticks with jokes about his community, and things he knows best. Comedy, to him, is about context: the room matters (“Harlem is different from the Village”) and his words matter, too. “My mother was a librarian. I grew up around a lot of books. Your joke has to be worded correctly,” he says. “It’s a thin line, and you’ve got to say it right.”

One afternoon, I email Aaron Berg. I tell him I’m writing a piece about comedy, and it’s nuanced, and I have questions about his set. He agrees to talk. His head pops up on my screen and he greets me, smiling. “Are you calling to cancel me?”

I tell him he’s very talented at crowd work, but his stuff was so offensive, and I just don’t understand how he got everyone to laugh. He paces around his suburban New Jersey home as I talk, then settles into a leather couch.

He says that for years, night after night, he performed an hour of complex storytelling that dealt with sexuality, racism and privilege, waiting to be discovered. When he realised it wasn’t happening, he threw it all out and said, “I’m just going to go out with no material and be funny.” He says he comes from the school of comedy that thinks you’re not good until you’re making people literally cry laughing. And now that’s his only goal. To find people’s guttural laugh.

Man performs on stage
Aaron Berg at The Stand NYC . . . © Dolly Faibyshev
Man performs on stage
 . . . ‘I’m just going to go out with no material and be funny’ © Dolly Faibyshev

I ask him to pinpoint what he’s doing. One is shock humour, he says, which elevates funniness: “People are laughing, then realise they shouldn’t be, then laugh at the fact that they’re laughing.” Two is speed. Three, controversial material amps up the stakes: “I like the danger of walking the high wire. I think being pushed outside their comfort zones is good for people.”

And finally, he feels his energy is benign. “People know it’s not coming from a hateful place when I’m saying it,” he says. “They know I’m joking.” 

I read Berg’s joke back to him, about Patient Zero and One. He laughs a lot when he hears it again.

“Do you find that people you offend are laughing with you a lot?” I ask.

“Do you think those people were offended?” he asks me. “Or were you a little offended, and shocked that they weren’t?”

“I was offended and I was worried! And then I looked over and they were laughing. And I wondered if they went home feeling OK about it or bad about it.”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t think about it that deeply. I don’t know if that’s a defence mechanism where they thought, ‘We should laugh now,’ or if they really thought it was funny. They probably did go home and think, man that was funny . . . But when a diverse room full of 120 people is all laughing, and it’s all sexualities and all ethnic backgrounds, then maybe I’m not the problem.”

Our conversation is fast and open. I tell Berg that maybe we all feel different levels of responsibility with the platforms we have. When he gets on stage, he has a platform. Standup isn’t a dialogue. So does he feel any moral obligation not to offend people or punch down? A lot of people think offensive comedy gives people permission to be intolerant.

“My job is to be funny,” he says. “It’s what I do.” He says he understands the dog-whistle mentality, that his comedy could fuel violence from “a few sickos”. But, he says, “my only moral responsibility is to be a good person in my life, and that includes making people laugh.” If someone tells him his act made them feel bad, “I just go, OK. It may affect what I do down the road, it may not. I’m constantly learning and trying to get better at what I do, and have more people enjoy what I do. But I’m not going to backpedal and apologise for things I’ve said.”

What makes something funny today? Every comedian I spoke to had a different answer, because there is no single one. According to Berg, it’s upping the stakes, though the power imbalance can’t be ignored: if that couple went home and felt bad, will any of us know? Will they call the club and complain?

Whatever your opinion, the things we see on stage and on screen unquestionably shape our views of the world outside, and what we find funny has a lot to do with the comedy we’re exposed to. In New York, live comedy is plentiful, and much of it is free. But even most New Yorkers don’t go; the vast majority of audiences everywhere get their standup on Netflix and streamers, or TV clips on YouTube, or standup clips on TikTok. So what could make things better, other than for gatekeepers to give more types of comedians a chance?

I pose it to Professor Robinson, as my last question. Her answer suggests it’s on us, too.

She says that one day she asked her students how they encounter new comedians, and one of them told her he trusts the algorithm. If he watches the Gervais special, it says he’s 97 per cent likely to enjoy something similar.

“The algorithm makes for generic work,” she tells me. “It would be really exciting for people to distrust the algorithm. It would open up opportunities to explore comedy that isn’t for you but could be for you.”

I hang up and open Instagram. I find the man who does comedy as a giant pair of pants. And in a small act of resistance, I give him a follow.

Lilah Raptopoulos is a culture writer and host of the FT Weekend podcast. Email at lilah.raptopoulos@ft.com

All photographs for the FT by Dolly Faibyshev

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