The Normalization Politics of Comedy in the Year 2017: The Last Laugh and さばげぶっ!

2017. We’re all nice and bad people. Nice because we don’t want to offend people but bad also because we want to offend people. To do that, we have invented a new technique called shitposting.

Shitposting is a comedy technique that plays on how we engage with media. The most prominent shitposting meme in the anime community comes from variants of the misattributed Miyazaki Hayao quote, “anime was a mistake”. You can see this posted as a meme everywhere you look.

But this meme has an anti-Japanese sentiment to it as much as people like to ignore this. This has an implication that suggests “Japan was a mistake” (since anime is seen as a Wacky Japanese Thing by the whole world) and has been exploited by other people to do that precise thing.

Saner people rarely talk about this because it has been normalized into everyday discourse. It’s just a meme. Nothing to be angry about. If it’s done well, it will be funny so the joke won’t feel inappropriate.

But I wonder if that is true. Even if we disregard humor as a subjective aspect, can good humor take away the politically incorrectness of it all?

This is the question The Last Laugh asks its viewers. Packed with interviews with famous comedians ranging from Sarah Silverman to Mel Brooks (pictured above not doing anything offensive) to the producer of Borat, Larry Charles, the documentary doesn’t back away at asking the philosophical question of “what’s a joke you can get away with?” in the context of a catastrophe that many people have experienced: the Holocaust.

Wouldn’t it be bad taste to make a joke about one of the worst massacres in history? You don’t have to spell out the reasons why people will be alarmed.

Massacres in general don’t lend themselves to humor either, but actually Mel Brooks has done a fine job doing that with the Spanish Inquisition in the History of the World (Part One). A recurring joke in Monty Python’s Flying Circus that plays on the same subject matter never fails to arouse laughter from people too. This is bizarre when you consider how inhumane the Inquisition is: torturing people to become Catholics, locking up what the Catholic church considered heretics, a genocide in today’s terms. And yet, there is something amusing nowadays when the shock of it all has become pure comedy through the craft of comedians.

The Holocaust should then be no problem in the grounds of comedy. At least, that’s how the logic goes.

But there is always a human side to things. The Last Laugh tracks Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor and lecturer, and her daughter Klara in making their way through the inappropriate world of Nazi jokes. Renee has always found comedy vital in surviving the Holocaust. She would make dark jokes that Klara would find distasteful, but she knows those memories of horror will never go away. Humor is just one way to cope with it. She can see why comedians would try to lighten up the mood with some humor on the Holocaust.

That said, Renee finds many comedians on that subject unfunny. She would watch videos of comedians like Silverman and, in a matter-of-fact tone, tell her daughter, “This isn’t funny.” Silverman’s off-color jokes rarely stray from being politically incorrect. Some people wonder loudly, “If Silverman wasn’t a Jewish woman, would that joke be considered funny?”

We can rephrase that question to “Do we have to be there or be someone specific to make a joke about it?” The answer everyone has given including Renee herself is a vehement “no”, even if it is the Holocaust. Freedom of speech, spreading information, and other obvious answers are all given. Comedians don’t have to live in the prehistoric age to make dinosaur jokes.

But there are lines where people draw. Even the most subversive comedians don’t use dead baby or rape jokes. That would be just bad taste. Everyone finds those too reprehensible to use in front of a live audience.

The more sensitive comedians also fear normalization of inappropriate subject matter. In Da Ali G Show, a certain Kazakhstan journalist plays a song titled “In My Country There is Problem”; he sings about the issues affecting his homeland that include transport and the “Jewish problem”. Some people see this as a biting satire on antisemitism; others including the Anti-Defamation League have expressed concerns that not only is it disgusting but some may take it as face value and treat this as serious material. Whatever one may think of that particular segment — I personally think it’s funny — it’s not impossible to see both sides of the argument being somewhat right.

This is mostly because at some point it becomes impossible to distinguish what is satire and what isn’t. Humor is a problematic and sometimes philosophical endeavor that is never discussed by anyone but comedians. And The Last Laugh itself actually has zero answers to its questions. It leaves the audience even more puzzled what comedy is and should be.

But there is a hint to all this madness what comedy, even unintentional ones, can do. It is found in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, one of the most important and underrated films in American cinema history. The film features two businessmen conspiring to scam the whole musical audience by creating the worst musical of all time, Springtime for Hitler. As the musical begins, the audience gets disgusted at the glorification of Nazi Germany and plans to leave. One of the woman even cries out, “Talk about bad taste!” before leaving the theater. But the musical plays on and the characters start spouting over-the-top lines that are interpreted as satire. Everyone starts getting “the joke” and returns to their seats before calling the musical a masterpiece on dark humor.

This is a funny meta statement of sorts about The Producers. When Brooks announced he’s making a musical about this subject matter, people’s mouths were open too like everyone in the audience in the film. How can someone make a joke about this? But he sure did and made people question the woman who left the theater. If she stayed when the bizarre “comedy” happened, would she retract the phrase? Everyone else who remained in the audience found it hysterically funny after all, so she probably would have.

That is the positive element of normalization. A change of taste for the better Before The Producers came about, there was a time when Hitler jokes weren’t even made. It was considered offensive to joke about Hitler. Potty humor or even sex jokes weren’t allowed either. All of this we’re taking for granted. Without the film, I think we may never see what is so funny about Hitler.

Comedy doesn’t have to be witty; it can just be a dirty little thing that shocks people into thinking something important. We think about the effects of normalization, taste, and the subject matter in a more personal way. If a politically inappropriate joke has failed to arouse laughter, we actually subconsciously think about why that happened. And if a potentially offensive joke made us laugh, we also ask questions why.

I think it’s a fascinating subject that deserves more exploration. Comedy is after all an intellectual journey to the mind.

Well, maybe.

The さばげぶっ! anime adaptation is extremely out there. Nothing short of the word, “inappropriate.” First of all, it’s from a shoujo manga about girls who plays survival games. Jokes about guns, violence, and war are everywhere. It was already questionable material, but the anime upped the ante and featured the girls murdering each other. The anime’s Momoka is a role model to assholes, ready to backstab friends for pure gain, and she wouldn’t mind popping some people off. She makes antiheroes look like pussies. When it doesn’t have girls shooting each others in the head, the late night anime adaptation would also throw its audience into a whirl with fat people jokes, old people jokes, sexual harassment jokes, and an ending that can’t be interpreted as anything else but rape.

さばげぶっ! and shows of its like (which includes あいまいみー and さよなら絶望先生) don’t have any grand statements except to make people laugh. All these jokes come from one element in common: shock humor.  Instead of playing niceties like the comedians in The Last Laugh, さばげぶっ! never gives a break in finding ways to shock its audience. This isn’t the shock humor American media has. There are no dead baby jokes to be found — though I’ve heard Momoka in the さばげぶっ manga kidnaps a baby so I’ll be looking forward to that — but rather, the shock comes from how absurd the situation becomes.  The surprise is what makes you laugh.

Nothing about さばげぶっ is, for lack of a better word, intelligent. At most, it subverts expectations on how plots should go and parodies famous films, but they are funny. The humor is well-crafted, but they aren’t the type that would make you think as deeply as any of the jokes — good or bad — discussed in The Last Laugh.

This can be problematic if it’s neither good or bad. Media can normalize morally bad behavior and make even the worst acts look alright. Panties shots, stalking, and sexual harassment are real life crimes. Growing concerns of these issues have created the rise of websites like Anime Feminist. This isn’t just sexism; people are finding shows like さばげぶっ! and Girls und Panzer troubling because it makes “military fetishism” look normal. Making guns and tanks look cool should not be done by a country like Japan. As much as most people don’t think it’s that big of a deal — it’s just a joke — the problem with it being a joke is the real deal.

What was once called taste has now become identification. Being a fan of some work means you identify with the work in question. It doesn’t matter if you think some element in your favorite work is in bad taste; you are immediately seen by the general public condoning said element. Fanbases have few ways to defend an onslaught of voices from everyone. Even acknowledging the faults of the work might drive the discourse worse.

So it isn’t unusual to see fanbases retaliate against these critics of normalization by citing the usual arguments: freedom of speech, marketplace of ideas, it depends on how well-written it is, taste (a bizarre thing to talk about today to be honest), and “it’s fiction”.

All of these arguments are something I find quite boring and this mostly is because I come from an authoritarian country where freedom of speech is a myth. People have argued better than I will ever do on these grounds. But I also do share the concerns of the concerned critics who find normalizing this kind of humor disturbing. None of this is after all no laughing matter.

But I don’t entirely agree with it being evil. The arguments against normalization strikes not only a resemblance to the normalization discussions in The Last Laugh but the whole debate on video games promoting violence. We know how that debate went: nowhere. Very little empirical data suggests a correlation. Yadayada. No need to beat up a dead horse.

And it’s weirder when you try to identify with an anime like さばげぶっ!. There is no way in hell someone would identify with its “politics” when the humor is the off-the-wall kind. There’s no consistent political stance this show has. You can’t call it a left-wing or right-wing show. It’s just a stupid show about cute girls with guns.

This goes against the loved tenet that “all art is political”. Comedy is after all “art”. But I have difficulty swallowing さばげぶっ!, あいまいみー, Girls und Panzer, and others as political works. Their premises are too bizarre to take seriously. The idea of them normalizing anything is silly. The only political statement it will ever say is “cute girls are cute”.

Let’s also remember さばげぶっ! is a shoujo manga. I doubt little girls reading it will join a survival game club and ask the Japanese government for the equivalent of the US’s Second Amendment, but they might think Momoka is really cute when she becomes an asshole. They probably identify with her in particular because who in the world really wants to “make friends” for the sake of it? Real humans being say nasty shit about one another and this isn’t some romanticized view of the world either. The world of さばげぶっ! is idiotic. The fact that it makes zero sense is funny. Everything around Momoka revolves around BB guns. The plain stupidity of it all has no politics. I won’t say that all comedy is apolitical, but this manga sure is.

I personally think that the dumb humor is refreshing for this one reason: it has nothing to say about the world. There are no politics. Comedy’s real purpose is to make someone laugh and it will do whatever it has to do to achieve that goal. For some people, politics is the key. Others like さばげぶっ! just need cute girls and guns to make good jokes.

In the realms of humor charged with politics and reality, there is always normalization going on — but there is another type of comedy that is rarely talked about: the nonsensical, stupid kind. It won’t affect the lives of impressionable children because they know it’s stupid. No one takes the sage advice of the Sonic Sez segments seriously, no matter how well-intentioned they are; they are attached to a ludicrous show about a hedgehog that likes chili dogs. That’s where さばげぶっ! belongs.

This is also why the “anime was a mistake” meme doesn’t ring any alarms in my head. Sure, it generalizes a whole medium — but Miyazaki is a meme too. Friends who have the energy to treat the medium as something more than a craft use this joke all the time. Who would take a grumpy Luddite of an old man seriously?

I see this kind of comedy normalizing one thing however: having fun is alright. Much like how The Producers allow comedians to make Nazi jokes, media like さばげぶっ! allow fans to laugh their asses off without giving a care about the world around them.

I like to believe in the future comedy will follow the apolitical and stupid humor of さばげぶっ! and co. These shows are unconventional because they dare make fun of comedy being an intellectual venture. Comedy doesn’t have to. Fun for the sake of fun is the most apolitical thing comedy can do now and something we desperately need this year. Not everything needs a dose of politics.

Comedy can just be cute girls doing cute stuff.

Of course, someone can say that making comedy — even at its most apolitical — at the expense of someone or a group is rude. That’s something I can’t argue against. There are works where comedy doesn’t offend anyone.

But I’m that little girl who thinks Momoka is great and someone to aspire to. I don’t want a happy world where everyone is nice and makes friendly jokes. I want the most inappropriate shit in my shoujo manga because it’s fun. I don’t care if it’s stupid or unsuitable for my age; it’s the best manga series I’ve found recently and I’m going to marathon the hell out of it. No one is going to stop me.

See you in hell, baby. All hail shitposting.

2 thoughts on “The Normalization Politics of Comedy in the Year 2017: The Last Laugh and さばげぶっ!

  1. datsflaze January 24, 2017 / 11:10 am

    Entertaining and nicely written article – I didn’t expect it’d be so long when I started reading it, though. I’ve never thought too deeply about this before, but it’s certainly something interesting enough to spend time pondering upon.

    • Kastel January 24, 2017 / 11:26 am

      Sabagebu made me think of many things in life………………..

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