Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” is the master of a lot of things, one of which is revealing that the phrase “Two Indian guys walk into a coffee shop” can be the beginning of an expertly crafted scene about Hollywood’s race problem, not just a tone-deaf punchline.
That scene, delivered early in the series’ fourth episode, “Indians on TV,” is just one of the many pointed conversations Ansari’s character Dev has about the experience of being a 20- to 30-something in America.
Others involve the trauma of eating the second-best taco in the city and the way immigrant parents and the elderly get mistreated.
These scenes coalesce into a smartly executed show. But more than that, they exemplify how comedians are the most important philosophers in America right now. Rather than offer light-hearted escape from the world’s pressures, today’s best comedians embrace and ruminate ojn them.
In the early days of comedy, you were considered a comedian if you took a pie to the face. The Three Stooges built their empire this way.
By the late 20th century, comedy had taken a turn toward the observational — the Era of Seinfeld. Riffs on airline food and the pains of rush hour brought audiences together because they revealed our personal moments weren’t so singular after all.
In the last five or 10 years, comedy has undergone another tectonic shift. The titans of today — Louis CK, Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, John Oliver, Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah — have risen so high and so fast because they address heavy topics that many people normally shy away from.
They reflect on the experience of being alive as a single person, as an immigrant, as a woman, as someone of a different race. They show us where truth lives, but use setups and punchlines as their smoke and mirrors to avoid coming off as preachy.
In his 2008 stand-up special “Chewed Up,” Louis CK explains the intricacies of white privilege. In his latest hour-long stand-up special, Aziz Ansari criticises creepy dudes on the street. On “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah investigates whether all police officers are racist.
It’s a radical approach to humour: Rather than find a larger (typically absurd) sense of meaning in a minor observation — What’s the deal with flip flops? — today’s comedians begin with a complex topic and see what humour they can draw out.
Earlier this year, Amy Schumer’s sketch show “Inside Amy Schumer” took comedy’s most dangerous topic — rape — and managed to find a bit of humour.
The sketch was called “Football Town Nights.” It lampooned the hit NBC drama “Friday Night Lights.” The show’s iconic catchphrase, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” became “Clear eyes, full hearts, don’t rape” — a nod to the 2012 rape case involving high school athletes from Steubenville, Ohio.
In cases like these, comedy serves as the springboard for larger discussions. People like Schumer and Ansari and others can air grievances that, in all likelihood, have been on the audience’s mind for a while.
The ideas aren’t necessarily novel — formal philosophers have been wrestling with feminist and racial thought for decades. The innovation lies in the way those ideas get packaged and distributed.
Comedians work in a popular medium, so their ideas become fodder for conversation. Academics like Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett, Saul Kripke, and Martha Nussbaum keep their ideas confined to lecture halls and the written word, so they rarely reach the mainstream.
On TV and in stand-up, big ideas that are difficult to understand or appreciate shrink to bite-sized morsels.
What’s abstract becomes concrete, which becomes relatable. The same person that gets turned off by a discussion of wage inequality suddenly starts to care because his favourite show, starring his favourite comedian, wrote a funny scene around it.
And since we typically like what our friends like, people start to care when their friends are tuning in.
In that way, the trend of comedy becoming more socially minded mirrors a change in generational attitudes. Millennials are known for their social connectivity and civic-mindedness. Shows like “Master of None” speak directly to this.
“Seinfeld” was a sitcom, but what is “Master of None”? What is “Louie”? What is “Last Week Tonight”? Calling them comedies feels unfair because there are times when the bottom drops out and suddenly we’re left to deal with real issues head-on. We stop laughing, and we start to think — not just in general, but about specific issues happening in the world right now.
“A great thing about comedy,” Louis CK once said, “is taking people to places that they have fear and foreboding and making them laugh in that place. I think you help them.”
NOW WATCH: Aziz Ansari nails Hollywood’s race problem in one great episode of his new Netflix show ‘Master of None’
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