From ‘Ziwe’ To ‘Hacks’ To ‘SNL’s’ Low Ratings, Comedy Is Finally Healing

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Ziwe’s eponymous Showtime series features the kind of no-holds-barred satire in which the best comedians of yore used to specialize. It’s dry, drawing from the well of youthful irony in a way that may not resonate with older viewers, but it’s also effective as humor, provocation, and both. That’s according to the first few episodes, at least.

The show mixes taped sketches between centerpiece interviews, with no standup a la Chapelle or fictional plot a la Silverman. There have been some standout duds so far (the extended American Girl doll commercial) but Ziwe shines as an interviewer.

The chattering class continues, understandably, to fawn over Fran Leibovitz, basking in the glow of Martin Scorcese’s captivating recent docuseries on the comedian. But in her debut episode, Ziwe knocked the unflappable Leibovitz off balance, subjecting a media darling to the kind of funny friendly fire that high-profile comedians seem to steer away from these days, especially when it’s politically charged. But the segment is really funny and sharp elbows can be useful.

one thousand percent Not a New Yorker pic.twitter.com/TGuMnSKntA

— jules (@thecityofjules) May 24, 2021

Polarization begets conformity and groupthink, even among artists. Ziwe might have leftist politics, but comedy needs comedians who still believe in it, not the woke version of the purist Christian fare Pete Holmes satirized on “Crashing.”

In the grand tradition of Joan Rivers, comedians should also revel in the opportunity to skewer our celebrity class–think Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes–not give them easy platforms to peddle their wares and burnish their reputations. (See: Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh at the Golden Globes.)

Maybe the bar is low. Maybe it’s fallen so low since Jimmy Fallon had to apologize for ruffling Donald Trump’s hair that anyone even slightly funnier than Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert seems like Lenny Bruce. But Ziwe’s genuinely doing something different and it’s pretty funny.

Speaking of Rivers, HBO Max’s new show “Hacks” explores the relationship between an aging Vegas comedian-in-residence and her rumpled new writer, a recently canceled millennial leftist from the world of television. It’s hard to separate Jean Smart’s restless Deborah Vance from the legacy of Rivers, who famously couldn’t stop working and refused to change her tone along with the times.

Smart is incredible as Vance, although she benefits from a sharp script and beautiful directing. The tension in her relationship with Ava is emotionally compelling, but also serves as a poignant meditation on the broader generational tension in comedy and our culture.

The show isn’t over yet but it makes for an interesting juxtaposition with “Ziwe,” and even for the “Saturday Night Live” finale. It’s always been an exaggeration to say wokeness “killed” comedy, although it did neuter some good comedians (Colbert, Noah) and create a generation of pathetic partisans ill-equipped to make anyone laugh outside the Democratic National Committee.

“Hacks” explores this cultural adjustment, forcing woke Gen Z comedy to confront the industry’s old guard and work it all out. The show isn’t over yet, but Vance is winning the tug-of-war–and appropriately so.

“SNL” let PC critic Chris Rock take a well-deserved swipe at the show during its season finale, joking about Jim Carrey’s departure as Joe Biden. After Carrey’s widely panned run as Biden in the fall, “SNL” hardly ever wrote the president into sketches. That’s amazing given that Biden is a self-described gaffe machine who’s constantly providing mockable material. (The Onion has always known this.)

All this is to say the left’s rapid cultural radicalization left mainstream comedy in a sorry state, exemplified by “SNL’s” partisan mediocrity. But like the Tipper Gores of the 21st century, the left’s silly new boundaries are giving comedians more material, and the more ridiculous those boundaries get, the more comedians seem to feel comfortable skewering them.

Corporate cultural arbiters just need to give them the space to be funny. Since they tend to be persuaded by cash, perhaps the market demand exemplified by someone like Ziwe’s success or a program like “SNL’s” failure will finally bring this adjustment period to an end.

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