On the Record with Ed Helms, OC ’96, and Daniel Radosh, OC ’91
Ed Helms, OC ’96, and Daniel Radosh, OC ’91, hosted this academic year’s final convocation Sunday night, “What’s the Point of Comedy? (And other pointless questions).” Helms, whose most iconic roles include an outlandish Andy Bernard on The Office and an equally obnoxious but fun-loving Stu in The Hangover trilogy, is an actor, comedian, producer, writer and musician. After graduating from Oberlin, Helms’ multifaceted skillset led him to a job as a correspondent for several years on The Daily Show, where Radosh is currently the senior writer. Radosh has won three Emmy awards for his work with former host Jon Stewart, a transition from his journalism career writing for publications including The New York Times and The New Yorker. The comedic duo discussed political satire in the age of Trump and the evolution of comedy writing at Sunday’s event, and sat down with students beforehand for a conversation about their work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tyler Sloan (Oberlin Review): So, a tad cheesy, but for the people who won’t get a chance to hear your answer, what’s the point of comedy?
Ed Helms: Well, you can find out in Daniel’s and my book, which is coming out …
Daniel Radosh: News to me [laughs].
EH: What’s the point of comedy? Chuckles. Is that right? It’s not a complicated thing.
DR: That was a very short convocation [laughs]. OK, bye guys!
EH: I think we’re just going to have a very joyless conversation of satire. A deconstruction of kind of where comedy fits into the cultural landscape, and as purveyors of comedy how we approach it and how we think about it. And to be honest, I don’t know all the answers to those questions yet because we haven’t been asked them in the convocation yet.
DR: I’ll point out that the subtitle of the convocation is “and other pointless questions” because that is the kind of question that as soon as you ask it, it prevents you from answering it in any real way. The point of comedy is comedy. The laughter and the enjoyment and the performance of it is the point of it, and once you start talking about it, which we’re going to do, it kind of all falls apart. We’re hoping to deflate expectations with that title.
EH: We’ll be giving a tour of the comedy sausage factory and it will be unpleasant.
DR: So those people are lucky they aren’t coming.
Moira Peterson (WOBC): Especially in this new, autonomous regime that we are in presently — sort of my own political subjectivity coming in that question — I’m just curious as to the role of comedy in politics, and if it is used as a subversive tool in the way that you implement comedy or if it’s an easement into our situation? Or the ways that maybe it’s a combination or conflation of the two?
EH: I think that comedy is usually a Trojan horse into some pretty complex issues, and a way to take power away from hypocrites, wherever they may be. I think satire, I guess by definition, is about hypocrisy, and it’s just not hard to find no matter where you are in the political spectrum, who you oppose — it’s so ubiquitous. Comedy is a way of being able to attack that hypocrisy with very little responsibility.
DR: The tricky thing now that makes this era different from before is that usually comedy can deflate the pompous facade of politics to point out the ridiculousness underneath it, and now the ridiculousness is on the surface. Donald Trump never pretended to be a serious-ideas person with a coherent ideology. He was always a showman, but you can’t point out that he’s just a showman and say, “Yep, I’m doing it great!” In a way, I think to give Donald Trump his due is that he is almost a standup comic; he performs. When he talks, even when he’s not telling jokes, he has the rhythm of a comedian, and he’ll do impersonations. Not so much now that he’s trying to be presidential, but certainly during the campaign he would riff, he would do crowd work, he would have his jokes that killed every time and even though you see them coming people are like, “He’s telling that joke that I love!” And it is bizarre to have those tools that we have used against politicians kind of used against us.
EH: It neuters comedy in a way. The classic comedy tool — one of the ways we think about writing comedy — is to heighten something, and you find something that seems a little bit ridiculous or a little bit hypocritical, and the way that you call it out in a funny way is to heighten it and go to an extreme example of it, which is so ridiculous that it becomes silly and then it becomes funny. And what Trump has done is to embody the heightening; he’s already behaving in a way that is so heightened that it’s mathematically difficult to heighten it even further because when the thing that used to be so extreme that it was silly and funny becomes normalized, how do you go beyond that to be funny again?
DR: We’ve literally done jokes on the show thinking, “What can we heighten this to?” and then he does it a week later. When he picked a fight with the Pope, we did a joke about, “And next, he picked a fight with a baby!” And son of a bitch, a week later there’s a clip of a baby crying and [Trump yelling], “Get that baby out of here! Who brought that baby in here?” That was our bit, he was doing our bit. It has made it more difficult at the same time that it’s become kind of more essential. I think the idea of, those are the two ideas, is it a way to do something politically or does it help people get through the politics? But I don’t think it needs to be on that spectrum at all. I think that it is OK to just say, “I just need to laugh at this.” Then there are people who say, “But if people are laughing at it, it makes them more comfortable than they should be, and then they won’t fight.” To which I say, well look, if somebody is going to be scared out of a political fight, if somebody’s will for a political fight is so weak that it’s like “Well I already laughed about it so now I’m not going to do any activism,” I don’t think that’s on me for making them laugh.
Liam Oznowich (Teaching assistant for Humor Writing course): Looking back at your time at Oberlin and thinking about the role that the Oberlin comedy scene and also the increased visibility that [politically correct] culture has gotten in recent years and how that’s been heightened at Oberlin recently as well, in terms of trigger warnings or content warnings or whatever, is there anything that’s ever not funny or shouldn’t be funny? Where is the politics in that? Where is the barriers that you guys see in what should be joked about?
EH: I really believe comedians can say anything they want, and if you don’t think it’s funny then that’s OK, too. It’s a little bit of “know your audience,” and I think a lot of times people might say they’re trying to be funny but they’re really just trying to be provocative or offensive and that kind of shouldn’t be counted against comedians. At the same time, I think a lot of comedians catch an unreasonable amount of heat for really trying to push people’s comfort zones and push the envelope. Every single person is going to have a different answer for that — what’s funny, what’s not; what’s over the line, what’s not. I think it becomes problematic when we start trying to define it for everybody else. And also really take a hard look at the consequences of what someone says, and if muzzling that person is worth the sacrifice of expression.
DR: The question almost starts from a wrong premise because it’s not really like what are the topics maybe you shouldn’t talk about or the things you maybe shouldn’t joke about. I look at who is the target of the joke and what is the point behind the joke? What’s the point that the comedian is trying to make? For instance, both Trevor Noah and Jon Stewart when I have been on the show have made a lot of jokes about police shootings of unarmed Black men, which is a terrible subject. You could see how those could be terrible and offensive jokes that nobody wants to hear, but I think it’s a matter of well, is your target the victim, like are you making fun of the victim? Or is your target the system which creates this thing that can happen? Because then if your target is correct, if your target is one that really needs to be hit and the joke is funny, then I don’t think there is a line. I don’t think there’s too far that you can go to make that point.
Now there will still be some people who will say, “But you’re talking about real people who are being killed,” which is true, so you better be really damn funny to sell that joke. That’s the thing, if you try a high-risk joke like that and you’re not funny, that’s on you. But as long as it’s clear to everyone listening that this is not a joke about this person dying, this is a joke about a system which allows this person to be killed and for it to be overlooked and it to be treated as OK, then there’s no line that you can go over that’ll be too far. I think what makes for bad comedy is just trying to provoke people, and “What can I get away with?” Because then you’re just being a dick, you’re not being funny.
EH: You can say anything as long as you take responsibility for the consequences, and that might mean that no one ever will put you on TV again or even if you say something that’s hateful, you could even get in legal trouble. But we’re a nation of free speech and what really bugs me is when somebody says something offensive, there’s a lot of outcry and then that person says, “Stop trying to muzzle my free speech.” No one is trying to muzzle your free speech, they’re just angry at what you said, and that’s fine. They have just as much a right to be angered by you as you do to say the thing that you said. It’s all just this sort of ebb and flow of idea, emotion and knee jerk. I sort of feel like all of that is healthy.
DR: I go back and forth between rolling my eyes at the people who say, “How dare you [tell] this joke that made me angry” and then the people who say “How dare you get angry at the joke that I told.”
EH: They’re both wrong.
DR: You told the joke, they got angry. That’s what happens when you tell jokes.
Zoë DePreta (Office of Communications): I really like what you said about Donald Trump almost being like a standup comedian now. With that in mind, what do you think the future of comedy is and what direction is it headed?
EH: I definitely am aware of styles of comedy that kind of come and go. This is kind of interesting, in the ’80s and ’90s it was a time of great excess for the country and I think that there was sort of this swagger to comedy at that time. Seinfeld, who’s one of my all-time favorites, and Andrew Dice Clay, and there was this very kind of macho thing going on. I think an offshoot of that was almost sort of a mean-spirited thing that emerged with Ali G, who I also think was pretty great, but at times to me was uncomfortable, Borat and all that.
DR: It’s interesting because you were talking about the mean-spiritedness, and we’re kind of in a period when roasting has become popular again and now I don’t know that it’s going to be less appealing now that the people in power are basically roasting the country. Maybe there’s going to be less appetite for that, it’s not as edgy and more just like, “Oh right, we’re living through this.”
EH: I think you’re right, and I think that we might start to see a lot more slapstick. There was a time before your time, movies like Airplane and Top Secret, like really broad silly comedies are not happening right now. That’s a little bit of a clinging to fantasy when you’re comfortable enough that you can just get super silly like that. Because of the negativity around politics and the news and the cultural civil war going on there may be a sort of revert to silliness. I don’t know, I sort of hope there is because I miss that stuff.
DR: It’ll be interesting to see if and how the kind of internet comedy makes that leap off the internet. The dense layers of irony that is every meme on Instagram where it’s like you have to know 12 different things to understand why this is supposed to be funny, and the fact that it’s not funny is what makes it more funny. I don’t know how that transmits.