My favorite piece of stand-up comedy, without a doubt, comes from Louis C.K.‘s comedy special Chewed Up. The entire work is unbelievably funny, but there is one moment—one golden, rambling tangent that stands out from the rest. Roughly in the middle of the show, he sighs and, looking at the audience, says, “I don’t know why I’m complaining about all of this. I’m young, I’m happy, I’m relatively healthy . . . I’m white.” The audience titters. “I love being white,” he continues. “I really do. If you’re not white, you’re missing out.” He explains to the audience that being white is so special, that if he had a time machine, he would be able to travel to any time and know that it would be “awesome.” “That is an exclusively white male privilege,” he continues. “A black guy in a time machine is like ‘Hey, anything before 1980 – no thank you.”
I laughed at this joke harder than I had laughed at his others. I shared it with my friends, posted it in video form on a friend’s Facebook wall, and emailed it to my parents. What I did not do—what I never did, notably, was examine why I was laughing. There is absolutely nothing intrinsically humorous about the situation and the world that Louis C.K. describes. Although what he says is twisted, it is also true. How would the movie Back To The Future work if Marty McFly were a woman, or a minority traveling back to the 1950s? I am the polar opposite of a white man. I am black and female. With these two charges against me—I can never time travel. And yet, I laughed at Louis C.K.’s comedic discussion of race and gender. There is something truly singular about comedy—something that allows us all, black and white, male and female, to laugh at the evoking of tortured pasts. Why do we laugh at things that are not funny?
The essay “Behind the Official Story” by James Scott examines how power relations distort communication. Although Scott specifically examines hierarchical relationships – for example, how what is said between the landowner and the serf differs from what is said between serfs – his discussion can also be generalized to communication between all unequal groups, such as that between the privileged and unprivileged or the parent and the child. Scott simply seeks to examine communication between those who hold power and those who do not – of which a white man making a time travel joke is an example. There is a subtle discussion of power that takes place under the humor. The joke pits two unequal groups against each other for humorous effect: Louis C.K the time traveler and the audience members who share his white, male privilege versus the female and minority audience members who do not share his privilege. It is thus helpful to use Scott’s analysis to understand how such comedy works.
Scott divides communication into two spheres. The “public transcript” refers to communication that takes place between the dominant and the subordinate, the advantaged and the disadvantaged in normal society (2). But it is difficult to gain a true understanding of events from the public transcript alone, for it is “unlikely to tell the whole story” (Scott 2). The conversations that take place between boss and employee, teacher and student all reside within the public transcript. Within the public transcript, the subordinates hide their true feelings under a mask of subservience, and the advantaged ignore the issues at hand, which may threaten the legitimacy of their power. In another manner of speaking, the public transcript is the stage unto which we are all constantly placed in our day-to-day lives; the audience chitchat before the curtain rises and Louis C.K. appears. When we are in the public eye, it is easier to be inoffensive than honest. Even if the time travel joke is fundamentally true, there is something blunt about it that makes it fundamentally inappropriate for a politician to say to her constituents, or a teacher to his students. It does not belong in the public transcript.
The other sphere of communication is the “hidden transcript,” defined by Scott as “discourse that takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders . . . produced for a different audience and under different constraints of power” (4-5). The hidden transcript is the face behind the mask, the candid counterpart to the public transcript where true feelings can be expressed openly. The hidden transcript is the element that is elusive in history and yet key to understanding everything. As Scott says, “We cannot know how contrived or imposed the performance is unless we can speak . . . to the performer offstage” (4).
Despite the candid quality of the time travel joke, applying the hidden transcript definition to it—and to comedy as a whole—complicates matters. Comedy does not really fall under this sphere. The hidden transcript is “hidden” because it takes place out of sight of normal life and is discussed with the members of the same “class position” and “social links” (Scott 8). It is the conversation between serfs or landowners, but not both. It is produced between members of the same power strata, it is the water cooler conversation at the office. Scott also argues that this distinction between the hidden and the public is almost always exclusive: “the hidden transcripts of dominant and subordinate are, in most circumstances, never in direct contact. Each participant will be familiar with the public transcript and the hidden transcript of his or her circle, but not with the hidden transcript of the other” (15, emphasis Scott’s). Comedy is forged in the discussions and issues of our times. It, by nature of having a large, popular audience, reaches out to society as a whole. This joke, and much of race and gender humor, is performed in the company of both the privileged and the unprivileged and laughed at by both alike. There is something about humor that defies Scott’s classification – it utterly rejects this binary model.
But what kind of communication is comedy, then, if neither private nor public? At the end of Scott’s essay, he declares that the key matter is not the public or hidden transcript, but the discrepancy between the two. Examining “the dialectic of disguise and surveillance that pervades relations,” Scott argues, will allow us to assess the impact of power and privilege on discourse (4). That includes—even if it is uncomfortable—exploring “the realm of the hidden transcript” (16). Scott does not explain on which level of communication this discussion can take place. He does not name the forum in which these differences and gaps can be revealed and discussed by the public at large. I offer comedy as a possibility.
Comedy can serve to expose the gap between what we may think or feel—the most hidden of transcripts—and what we permit ourselves to say in the company of others. Comedy helps express these differences in a nonaggressive manner. The time-travel joke is made up of many stark contrasts: the seriousness of the inequities that Louis C.K. discusses against the lighthearted background of the time machine, the sober quality of the subject matter against the frank honesty with which C.K. describes the advantages society has given him. Perhaps, for this reason, there is no person in the world more honest than a comedian. A comedian on a stage may admit uncomfortable truths that most people cannot. Comedians can admit to harboring mildly racist thoughts, enjoying undue privileges, hating children. We, the audience, publicly laugh at the time-travel joke, but we simultaneously acknowledge the truth behind it. Comedy allows us to step back and laugh at seemingly unspeakable thoughts, i.e., to laugh at the power we have over others and the power others have over us.
Thus, comedy plays a unique role in our lives. Comedy serves as a safety valve wherein we can voice uncomfortable issues and problems of our day. There is something welcoming about the lighthearted nature of comedy: we know subconsciously that the principal role of the comedian is to entertain us and make us laugh. Even if that same person has the power to challenge our assumptions about society or even make us uneasy, these intentions are clearly secondary. After all, we say a comic who veers closer to the uneasiness than the fun has “gone too far.” We give ourselves wholly to the blown-up, hyperbolic world that the comedian presents, but there is a serious truth under this illusion. Sometimes, the juxtaposition of an uncomfortable truth with the brightness of laughter and stage lights—for example, the unexpected idea of racism and sexism affecting time travel—is amusing. When we are around comedians, we shed our defenses. We are willing to risk offense for the sake of humor in a way that we are not in everyday life, where we must “sacrifice candor for smooth relations” (Scott 1). We laugh at things that aren’t funny under any other conditions.
Scott suggests that it is power and domination that distort our ability to have meaningful conversations. We know subconsciously that we aren’t on a level playing field, and that knowledge changes for the worse our ability to communicate. The subordinates must cloy for acceptance and the advantaged depend on masks to justify their power. Scott claims that “the greater the disparity in power between dominant and subordinate and the more arbitrarily it is exercised . . . the more the public transcript between the subordinates will take on a stereotyped, ritualistic cast” (3). Still, he suggests that one can reverse engineer the situation. If power changes communication, one can learn more about the degree of domination in a society by examining what its citizens feel comfortable enough to say in public. The more insincere the public transcript, the greater the power disparity between the two groups.
The same insight can be gleaned from comedy in America. If comedy provides a safe channel wherein one can bring the hidden transcript to light, perhaps one can use the presence or absence of comedy to learn more about power relationships within society. There is something brilliantly liberating about living under a government that is receptive to mocking. There is something truly remarkable that we have comedic news publications like the The Onion, and news programs like The Daily Show, that exist solely to satirize current events. A democracy that refreshes its leadership periodically with regular elections does not need to hide behind a mask of propriety to legitimize its existence. A dictatorship cannot enjoy that same freedom. Comedy is not a right, but a privilege of free people. The time-travel joke tells us that we live in a free society. We have the power to laugh at our less powerful situation. It is something we can all do together— even if we can’t all time travel.
Chewed Up. Perf. Louis C.K. Image Entertainment, 2008. DVD.
Scott, James C. “Behind the Official Story.” Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. 1-16. Print.