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My going-in assumption is that offensive comedians are bullies, and they need to prove me wrong.

I have read a few posts over the last couple of days about this comedian Matt Rife. Apparently he is huge on TikTok and now has a standup special on Netflix. Apparently he is also pretty terrible, making all sorts of gross and offensive jokes about domestic violence and the like and then responding to criticism with “Lighten up—Why can’t you take a joke?”

I don’t know that much about him—I had never even heard of him before this week—but despite these scathing reviews of his act, it seems like there are plenty of people who think he is hilarious. There is always a market for this sort of humor—not the clever, “I am going to push the boundaries and make you uncomfortable” type, but the deliberately offensive type that makes fun of people and is cruel. I feel like the question is how far are you willing to go in pursuit of that market?

I’d say this guy seems to have a strategy by trying it out to see how far he can go, but I doubt it is that calculated. It seems more like the constant “What can I get away with?” sort of stuff that little kids do. What bothers me about it is less what he is doing than that audiences are responding to it and rewarding him for it.

I generally try to assume that people are basically good, but stuff like this makes me wonder. Rife’s brand of comedy is popular because it makes particular groups of people feel okay about their own worst impulses. It is hard work navigating through life and thinking about how what you say and do affects other people. You don’t always get it right and when you don’t, it is even harder to patch things up; you end up having to question and sometimes change your long-held behaviors and beliefs.

Then here is this asshole up on stage making a joke about a guy beating up his girlfriend and everyone is laughing, so fuck it—why are you spending all this energy worrying about how other people feel?

While it is certainly not my own original insight, it is worth repeating that these guys are always making about jokes at the expense of people down the rungs from themselves. They want to think that they are pushing boundaries, but what they are really pushing at is the idea that our society and culture ought to offer equal protection and opportunity to everyone regardless of where they sit in the power structure. It is the equivalent of thinking that you should be able to walk around and punch anyone in the face if you feel like it, and the only restraint should be your now calculation about whether or not they can punch you back. If that is the sort of comedy you traffic in, you are a bully, and if those are the sort of jokes you laugh at, you are one of the shitty kids standing around and egging on the bully as he beats up the little kid.

If movies and TV are to be believed, bullies always get their comeuppance. Someone finally stands up to the bully, or all of the smaller kids band together against him, and then he loses his power. Or we find out that his power was really just an illusion.

In real life, I am not so sure. We live in a society where bullies seem to do pretty well and where the people who try to stand up against them and fight back are the ones who get punished. The bullies in stories are always angry loners doing what they do because of some internal personal trauma. The bullies in real life are part of a societal structure enforcing its rules and exploiting them for their own benefit.

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