Sometimes we’re too close to an idea or feeling to understand it and we need a different entry point. To me, comedy is typically the clearest lens to look into the soul of the culture. And in 2019, a year filled with political turmoil, culture wars, and increasing despair over inequality and the climate, comedy was a way to laugh about everything that was depressing us.
In many ways, 2019 was a year of recovery, of creating new ways to joke about our pain and laugh through the healing process. In other ways, comedy was one of the tools in which we challenged the power structures that oppress us by making fun of them, in comedy clubs and online.
At the same time, the comedy world was its own political and cultural battleground. As comedy culture grows more diverse and inclusive, audiences are increasingly holding comedians accountable for keeping with the times. Notably, some of the most powerful comedians can’t hang, and it’s made for some difficult, ugly moments as we argue over what is acceptable and expected when trying to make each other laugh.
But when I think about 2019 and the important cultural moments, I also think about the funny commentary that helped me understand and get through it all. This list isn’t necessarily the funniest or best from the year but rather the moments that help sum up the joys and pains of life this year. So, here are the 10 moments that defined comedy in 2019:
I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson | “Instagram” and “Focus Group”
It’s been a while since a sketch show so absurd and idiosyncratic has impacted pop culture as dramatically as I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson has. On April 23, Saturday Night Live alum Tim Robinson and The Lonely Island crew dropped six episodes on Netflix packed with painfully awkward and anxious characters crumbling under the weight of their stupidity, cowardice, and arrogance. It was aggressively dumb, thrillingly brilliant, and incredibly reflective.
The comedy lies in how quickly sketches escalate out of control. In “Instagram,” the false modesty a group of women has captioning an Instagram post feels painfully familiar (“When You post a pic of yourself where you look really cute, then you have to say something a little self-deprecating so it doesn’t look like you’re just bragging,” one friend explains) until it quickly devolves into the shockingly grotesque and morbid (“So, are we the pig dicks or the bags of meat?”).
If you strip away the context of “Focus Group,” it becomes about an outsider relentlessly confusing everyone with nonsense before wielding total control by slandering and bullying someone taking their job too seriously. If you don’t see that as a perfect metaphor for our times, then you probably love your mother-in-law.
Eva Victor explaining straight pride.
Eva Victor was easily one of my favorite funny people on the internet in 2019. Her work appeared in Reductress, Comedy Central, and The New Yorker, but Victor’s absolute best appeared on her Twitter. “Oh my god, babe, pack your bag, we’re going to straight pride!” is just a fucking brilliant way to start a sketch.
me explaining to my boyfriend why we’re going to straight pride pic.twitter.com/ZtXpLaV05s
— Eva Victor (@evaandheriud) June 4, 2019
Victor’s explanation of why she wants to go to straight pride to her offscreen boyfriend in a fragmented, rapid-fire antilogic perfectly summed up why straight pride was complete bullshit.
Aziz Ansari “Right Now”
Aziz Ansari’s return to stand-up was going to be controversial no matter the subject matter given the sexual misconduct allegations he faced in early 2018. After a year-and-a-half of laying low, Ansari begins his Spike Jonze-directed special with “Pale Blue Eyes” by The Velvet Underground and a quiet, quick silver lining. Ansari then spends the next hour tackling some of the biggest questions in our culture: Are you racist if you think Crazy Rich Asians is just okay? Why didn’t we care about R.Kelly’s sexual abuse until there was a documentary? Is the problem that we believe anything, or is it that we don’t really believe in anything?
Black Lady Sketch Show | “Bad Bitch Support Group”
The excitement on Twitter for Black Lady Sketch Show was infectious, and miraculously, the show delivered sketches that truly slapped. One of the most poignant was “Bad Bitch Support Group,” a commentary on the impossible beauty standards neatly packaged and marketed into the “bad bitch” mentality. Does it feel like someone is watching and preying on your basic bitch insecurities? Spoiler alert: they are, bitch.
SNL hires Shane Gillis
As the summer came to an end, SNL announced its three new cast members. In the comedy world, this announcement can be controversial, but in 2019, the ritual ignited a Twitter frenzy when it turned out that new cast member Shane Gillis had a penchant for racist and homophobic remarks. Clips of Gillis making racist jokes about Asians and using homophobic slurs quickly made the Twitter rounds. Gillis offered a condescending statement about pushing boundaries and needing to take “risks.”
Thinking of “taking a comedic risk” where I just like say a slur and then there’s no joke attached to it because it is just my actual opinion????
Will report back!!!!!!
— Patti Harrison (@Party_Harderson) September 13, 2019
It was a sad start to the SNL season and overshadowed writer Bowen Yang’s promotion to feature player, which made him the first Asian cast member in SNL history. Fucking typical, right?
SNL fires Shane Gillis
... and on the following Monday, SNL fired Gillis. The correction came after many in the comedy world criticized SNL for it’s subpar vetting process or its willingness to cast a problematic comedian to appeal to conservative viewers. Gillis, for his part, posted an impressively ungracious statement handwaving the entire situation away, concluding that he “was always a MadTV guy anyway.”
Todd Philips says you can’t be funny with “woke” culture
In a profile on Joaquin Phoenix, Joker director Todd Philips told Vanity Fair that his idea for the film came after his rejection of comedy in the new “woke” Hollywood system. The comments quickly became a point of discussion on Twitter. It was another instance of a powerful white man working in comedy who was unwilling to hear criticism of marginalized viewers and evolve with the culture. Many were quick to point out Philips’ straw man argument but none were as ceremonious as Alan Sepinwall’s “I miss comedy, too” Twitter thread.
Jenny Slate “Stage Fright”
Jenny Slate’s Netflix special has plenty of moments that speak to our collective anxiety (government gaslighting, antisemitism, and predators in Hollywood) but it’s her willingness to share her loneliness and disappointment in the wake of the Me Too movement and her divorce that is the most memorable. She tries going on dates, working out, cutting back on weed, but nothing works, and she eventually moves back in with her parents and masturbates to the moon. You read that correctly.
Kelly Bachman, Zoe Stuckless, and Amber Rollo confront Harvey Weinstein
When Harvey Weinstein, the man accused of sexual assault or harassment by more than 80 women, entered a Manhattan bar for a comedy show with young talent, he was protected by his entourage and the venue. But that didn’t stop Kelly Bachman from addressing the boogeyman in the room. “I didn’t know we had to bring our own Mace and rape whistles to Actors Hour,” Bachman, a survivor of sexual assault, said during her routine. Actor Zoe Stuckless and comedian Amber Rollo also confronted Weinstein directly.
It was a painful reminder that, even in the middle of the Me Too movement, the accused still have power and aren’t afraid to wield it. And yet, it was also an incredible demonstration of strength on the part of Bachman, Stuckless, and Rollo, who refused to be intimidated or silenced.
Louis C.K. comes back
Almost a year after his surprise appearance at the Comedy Store at the end of 2018 and two years since admitting to masturbating in front of female comedians without their consent, Louis C.K. made his comeback official with the kickoff of his stand-up tour in Richmond, Virginia, proving that if you’re big and powerful enough, you can survive the Me Too movement.
C.K.’s routine is everything that Ansari’s is not, full of denial and mean-spiritedness, but it’s the LA Times’ description of a man wandering outside unable to get someone to take his extra ticket to the show that defines where comedy might be going in 2020.