Seth Simons, Comedy Cop

Killing fun, one joke at a time.

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Stand-up comedians used to have a simple rule: no subject is off-limits if the joke is funny. It was a good rule, and it made for some great comedy. The rise of the woke left represents an existential threat to that rule, and to good comedy generally. When it comes to comedy, indeed, the mantra, increasingly, is that any gag that might conceivably offend anyone, especially someone belonging to what the woke left considers a victim group, should simply not be tolerated – period. To an alarming extent, this comedy-killing mentality has been institutionalized at outfits like Netflix and Comedy Central, at some comedy clubs, and in the mainstream media. So it is that the comics who are most honored in such circles are dreary scolds like the Tasmanian lesbian Hannah Gadsby, whose acts are light on actual humor and heavy on identity politics. You don’t hear a lot of laughter from these people’s audiences, but you hear plenty of applause – the audience’s way of indicating approval of the comic’s values.

In this toxic atmosphere, comedians who still adhere to the no-subject-off-limits rule are rare, and the best ones – my own list would include Dave Attell, Nick DiPaolo, Jim Norton, and Doug Stanhope – seem increasingly precious. Thanks to them, at least some comedy shows are free-speech oases, keeping First Amendment values alive in the face of aggressive leftist humorlessness. But since the leftist instinct is always to censor opponents, not debate them, these top-drawer comics are an endangered species – booed by PC audiences, banned by timid club owners, and given short shrift by TV executives who are all too ready to sign up the unfunny likes of Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee, or Patton Oswalt, whose “comedy” consists almost entirely of virtue signaling.

As if the situation weren’t bad enough, certain individuals have appointed themselves as comedy police. In 2018, the Guardian published a rant about offensive comedy by Rebecca Shaw, a lesbian who claimed that the gay jokes in Eddie Murphy’s 1983 special Delirious “left a mark on me forever.” (Yes, if they could, they’d actually silence 1980s Eddie Murphy.) In a 2019 essay arguing for political correctness in comedy, somebody named Lucy Nemerov counseled that “there is a distinction between being funny and being offensive” – which is uncomfortably reminiscent of the frequent assertion that “freedom of speech doesn’t mean the freedom to give offense.”

But the most assiduous comedy cop of them all may well be Seth Simons, author of a recent New Republic piece entitled “The Comedy Industry Has a Big Alt-Right Problem.” Who’s Seth Simons? His contributor’s note explained that he writes his own newsletter “about labor, inequality, and extremism in the comedy industry.” This is, then, a man with a mission. To examine his oeuvre is to gather that by “extremism” he means anything even slightly right of center.

A sample of his work: in 2016, after Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” segment, hosted by Colin Jost and Michael Che, included a joke about transsexuals, Simons rode to the rescue, writing that Jost had “demonstrated a dangerous apathy toward the lives and dignity of marginalized communities,” and had thereby disqualified himself for his SNL gig. You see, lectured Simons, “it is Che and Jost’s job to call out bullshit—not to normalize it. Clearly their moral barometers are off, and they cannot be trusted with the task that awaits them under the Trump Administration.” In other words, humor should be moral – which, in Simons’s lexicon, means it should be aimed at Republicans and “oppressor” groups. Jokes should target “bullshit” – and of course, by Simons’s reckoning, all of the “bullshit” is on the right.

Two years later, Simons slammed Che again, this time for expressing sympathy for Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was under constant attack in the media. (Che, wrote Simons, “would like you to forget the people below the boot and reserve your empathy for the people wearing it.”) In 2019 came Simons’s biggest coup: when SNL announced it had hired comedian Shane Gillis, Simons started tweeting jokes by Gillis that he considered “racist and homophobic,” and next thing you knew Gillis was out at SNL.

Also in 2019, Simons profiled Skankfest, a comedy event that he described as being awash in “cruelty and misogyny and grievance.” And last December, he went after comedian Andrew Schultz for a COVID-19 monologue on a Netflix special. Simons quoted some of Schultz’s China jokes:

They make everything over there: bubonic plague, SARS, bird flu, corona, 15-second dance videos. I mean, Chinese viruses have killed almost as many people as Chinese dictators….

I love the Chinese….I love Asians in general… Asians are the best. I mean, Jeremy Lin, Jet Li, Squirtle, Mickey Rooney, the list is oolong. These are the people I wonton my team. But the Chinese government, though? Fuck ’em.

Sounds funny enough to me. But to Simons, this routine was rooted in “generalizations about Chinese people.” It was “racist” and “xenophobic” and “echoed anti-Chinese rhetoric used by Donald Trump and other GOP leaders, which coincided with a rise in racist violence across the country.”

Such, then, is the kind of killjoy, wet-blanket stuff in which Simons specializes. But these shortish items were just a warm-up for his big New Republic article, which argued that politically incorrect comics aren’t just offensive – they’re dangerous. Simons described these comics as being located on the comedy scene’s “transgressive edge – the place where popular, mainstream comedy bleeds into the kind of right-wing politics that animated the Capitol riot” of January 6.

The Capitol riot? Yes, you see, in Simons’s opinion, those “mobs that descended on Washington, D.C.,…have roots in…[the] world of comedy,” among other places. And Ground Zero for this “rot” – as Simons puts it – is Anthony Cumia’s Compound Media, which airs Cumia’s own online show as well as several other comedy programs.

Let me confess an interest here. I’m a Compound Media subscriber and a regular Cumia viewer. Aside from Netflix, I no longer subscribe to anything else. I dropped my Sirius subscription after Howard Stern became a PC bore; Cumia filled that vacuum perfectly. Like Stern, back in the day, Cumia helps me feel sane in a world gone mad. Innumerable other Cumia fans feel the same way. 

But in the eyes of smug would-be comedy commissar Seth Simons, Compound Media is a hate factory – a font of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, you name it. Never mind that the hosts on the channel include Aaron Berg, a Jew, and Chrissie Mayr, a woman. In the last couple of days I’ve watched black comic Pockets Graham on the Compound Media show In Hot Water and the black astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson on Cumia’s program. Tyson, who has been a Cumia guest several times, joked that he’d been wondering whether Cumia had been yanked off the air yet. I suppose Simons would call Tyson an Uncle Tom.

Among Cumia’s misdeeds, according to Simons, is that he’s “spent six years mingling with reactionaries like Ann Coulter, Alex Jones, and Donald Trump Jr.” Yes, the son of the duly elected president of the United States has been on his show: what better proof could there be of Cumia’s extremism? Simons also blames Cumia for supposedly inspiring some obscure neo-Nazi whom I never heard of. Oh, and Cumia purportedly helped inspire the growth of a New York comedy club, The Stand, whose crime is booking comedians of whom Simons disapproves.

Simons also took on former Compound Media host Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys. That group (which was started a joke) is far less toxic than Antifa and BLM, but the left, needing a right-wing pendant to Antifa and BLM that it can demonize, has portrayed it as a gang of white racists, even though its leader is Latino and its membership is largely non-white. Needless to say, Simons, in his article, parroted the leftist line.

He also charged McInnes himself with being racist. “When a caller questioned his interracial marriage in 2016,” Simons wrote, “McInnes responded that he had children with a woman of color because he’s ‘cleaning up the races.’ The pretense of irony hung over everything he said, but pretense is all it ever was. Compound Media was where telling jokes gave way to saying what you meant, jokingly.” Translation: McInnes is bigoted against his own non-white wife and children.

Simons further savaged McInnes for interviewing the alt-right leader Richard Spencer (even though a quick Google search turns up interviews with Spencer at CNN and the Guardian). In addition, Simons castigated several “mainstream” comics – “Big Jay Oakerson, Tim Dillon, Justy Dodge, Mike Lawrence, Larry the Cable Guy, Joe Matarese, Tom Shillue, Dave Hill, Alonzo Bodden, Luis Gomez, and Dave Smith” – for appearing on McInnes’s Compound Media show despite the latter’s alleged “friendliness with white supremacists.” Simons’s gripe: these comics should’ve understood that “The Gavin McInnes Show’s function was not just to introduce the comedy world to the Nazi world but to let one legitimize the other”?

Yes, you read that correctly: not the “conservative world” but the “Nazi world.” Simons would have you believe that Cumia, McInnes, and company are literally out to legitimize Nazism.

After coming to the end of Simons’s fire-and-brimstone New Republic sermon, I poked around YouTube in search of a desperately needed pick-me-up. I soon found some comedy gold dating back to 2013 – including laugh-out-loud jokes, which Simons would surely denounce, about such dark topics as homelessness, wife-beating, black-on-white crime, and jihadist terrorism. Lynne Koplitz issued a challenge to potential rapists: “You can’t rape me. I’ll kiss you on the mouth….I’ll whisper ‘I love you.’” Black comic Harris Stanton shared his response to a TV documentary on Africa: “Thank God for the slave trade! Africa sucks! Slavery needed to happen!” 

Seth Simons writes full-time about stand-up comedy, but he doesn’t grasp the first thing about it. Where he and his ilk see ugly prejudice, the audiences who show up to laugh recognize a humane bridging of differences through humor. Where he sees insensitivity to other people’s pain, the audiences see artists who are able to assuage the pain of the human condition with laughter. That’s a valuable gift. Let’s not allow this busybody, this spoilsport, and his fellow comedy cops to ruin it.

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