How comedians became public intellectuals

Which is to say that there are two broad things happening right now—comedy with moral messaging, and comedy with mass attention—and their combined effect is this: Comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals. They’re exploring and wrestling with important ideas. They’re sharing their conclusions with the rest of us. They’re providing fodder for discussion, not just of the minutiae of everyday experience, but of the biggest questions of the day. Amy Schumer on misogyny, Key and Peele on terrorism, Louis C.K. on parenting, Sarah Silverman on Rand Paul, John Oliver on FIFA … these are bits intended not just to help us escape from the realities of the world, but also, and more so, to help us understand them. Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers—as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment…

While it’s hard to know why, precisely, comedy has taken an echelonic place in the culture—though it probably has something to do with the creation of YouTube and the invention of Facebook and the popularity of basic cable and the influence of Jon Stewart and the power of Karl Rove and the genius of Tina Fey and the rise of “p.c. culture” and auteur theory and Pareto distributions and all those dire predications about the end of the age of irony—the basic explanation is the same as the one that will explain most things when it comes to marketplaces of ideas: There was an unmet need. Recent years have been especially interesting, as “interesting times” go; the microcosmic comedy that was popular in the ‘90s—an observational strain that culminated in a show that proudly claimed to be “about nothing”—quickly became unfit for them. Gradually and then suddenly, the smug nihilism of Larry David and Adam Sandler and Carrot Top and that guy who smashed watermelons with comically oversized mallets came to seem not just out of place, but regressive.

Comedy ceased to be the province of angsty and possibly drug-addled white guys making jokes about their needy girlfriends and airplane food.