The death of skepticism?

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on September 6th, 2013

Last month, we posted about how a “comic’s wet dream” has become more like premature comedy ejaculation:

…a comic’s wet dream has evolved, it seems, into something entirely different. Effectively, it now means an incident or news item that doesn’t present a challenge but is instead something that “writes itself.” It’s not an opportunity for greatness, but an opportunity for mediocrity. It’s something that no one should be excited about. Why all the nocturnal emission about something that should elicit yawns? The “wet dream” metaphor has been perverted. When did we all become so excited about something that is easy, boring and pedestrian?

It may be merely a matter of definition, of meaning. Perhaps we’re all just misusing the “wet dream” metaphor. Or perhaps Facebook is distorting the creative process– folks so eager to be the first of the herd are sacrificing quality in exchange for speed.

We don’t blame Facebook, though. Facebook (and other social media… We’re looking at you, Twitter) might just be affording us an otherwise unseeable glimpse into the creative process. (What was that saying about laws and sausage? “…the making of laws is like the making of sausages– the less you know about the process the more you respect the result.”)

And now Facebook is affording us a glimpse into another disturbing trend: The complete death of skepticism. And the demise of skepticism’s companion, contrariness. We’ve been monitoring the demise of skepticism for some time now. We’ve always been of the opinion that one of the things that sets comedians apart from the rest of the population is their skepticism, their reflexive refusal to believe something they see, hear or read. An almost pathological desire to come up with something that is their own, not received. Not contrariness for the sake of being contrary or belligerent, but for the sake of coming up with something that is original and, by its uniqueness, perhaps even startling.

1 : an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object

2 a : the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain

    b : the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics

We’re no longer surprised when we see one of our Facebook friends posting (with a heaping helping of indignant hand-wringing and hot tears) about the latest outrage… which turns out to be an internet hoax. Eventually, someone posts the link (most often to which handily dismisses the outrage as a hoax. And, quite often, the hoax is demonstrated to be ancient.

We have patience when it’s a “civilian” who makes this gaffe. But it’s getting somewhat embarrassing and alarming that comedians are falling for these hoaxes with ever more frequency.


And it might be indicative of a serious decline of the aformentioned skepticism.

Perhaps even more worrisome is the number of times we are seeing our FB friends (comics and non-comics alike) falling for articles that are published on parody news sites! Hardly anyone falls for any stories any more (with the exception of the occasional Chinese or Pakistani news agency), but we’re seeing folks posting “articles” from other similar outlets– along with the requisite outrage. Again, it’s even worse when our fellow comics are failing to see them for what they are– satire! Have our skepticism muscles so atrophied that we can’t pick up on satire?

Or is it something that is the mirror opposite? Is it more reflective of an insane eagerness to post something that reinforces, supports or strengthens a particular narrative? We might forgive a non-comic for doing that. But when comics do it, isn’t that the exact opposite of skepticism?

We imagine that some folks might say that it’s a-okay for a comedian to have a worldview, a viewpoint or a scheme. That should go without saying. But we maintain that even folks who have it all figured out should still be skeptical of anything– even if it supports that worldview.  In fact, a good rule of thumb (which is as ancient as thumbs themselves) is, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”  From the looks of things on FB, that hasn’t been happening for quite some time.

CAUTION:  It has occurred to us that some folks might interpret “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” as “If it seams too good to be true, it probably is true.”  This would be wrong and 180 degrees from what the quote seeks to convey.

When comics– “truthtellers,” specialists in holding up that mirror to society, brutal administrators of that dose of reality we all so desperately need– take an Onionesque, satirical item and post it (often without a joke of any kind!), as if it were fact… they come dangerously close to demonstrating that they have little or no sense of humor. They didn’t “get” the joke. They missed the “truth” that was intended in the initial satirical piece, instead seizing on the part that echoed their inner thoughts. They are, we fear, rather like the child who begins to address the puppet rather than the puppeteer.

Of course, we’re not blaming Facebook. And we’re not trying to dictate what folks should or should not do– on FB or off. We’re merely recounting what we’re seeing there… and we’re trying to determine whether or not it’s indicative of some sort of thing we might be wary of. It might be a harmless trend that has no effect on comedy at large. Or it might be indicative of some sort of devolution in the art and the craft of comedy.

We expect comics to think differently from other folks. You know how when you go up onstage and you do a bunch of jokes about, for example, your wife? And then you get offstage and some civilian comes up to you and says, “Yeah! I hate women, too!” (And you cringe and roll your eyes and you shudder because the guy just didn’t get the jokes. He got the jokes– in a rather crude way– but he failed to pick up on the subtext. He didn’t “get” the jokes in the way they were intended.) That’s what some comics seem to be doing a lot lately.

When someone approaches us after a show, they often ask, “I wanna be a comic… how do I come up with material?” And we tell them: Watch as much standup as you can and eventually (it is hoped), you’ll train your brain to think like a comic. We say that “a switch will be flipped” and you’ll start thinking like a comic. It seems that, for a lot of comics out there, that switch has been flipped to the “off” position.