Home Video Hovel- That’s Not Funny, by Aaron Pinkston
When Daniel Tosh made his controversial rape joke and response in 2012, I was taking improv classes at iO in Chicago. When the news hit, I thought I would use the situation to open up a dialogue with my classmates, questioning if we had any responsibility as comedians and performers to not indulge in controversial topics. It proved to be a pretty fruitful discussion, with different people coming in with different opinions – some thought every topic is fair game without question, while others declared that they would never broach this territory. I was somewhere in the middle. While I don’t necessarily think that there is a taboo topic that can never be approached by a comedian, I often cringe when a comedian makes homophobic, racist, misogynistic jokes that dehumanizes victims. There will always be good jokes and bad jokes, comedy is subjective, etc. but how can this line be determined? Should there be a line at all? Mike Celestino’s documentary That’s Not Funny is an extensive look at these (and more) questions on the nature of comedy through the personal journey of its filmmaker.
Despite being only 90 minutes, That’s Not Funny covers a great deal of history using hundreds of clips from television, film and stand-up performances. Told through Celestino’s steady, slightly-monotone narration, the film is broken into six chapters (with a few sub-parts to add context), told chronologically – starting with a background history of vaudeville and the rise of slapstick silent films and then marching through the stand-up trifecta of Carlin, Pryor and Bruce. Once this background of comedy and, more specifically, controversial comedy has been established, Celestino then looks at a few specific hot topics and uses specific events where a comedian was popularly thought to cross the invisible line into indecency.
The most engrossing examination of comedy comes in the chapter regarding race and gender. Here, Celestino takes the time talk about intent. The major thesis of That’s Not Funny comes in line from South Park “everything is OK, or nothing is” – I can agree with this in a general sense, but I see the idea of intent as very important. Celestino may not feel that the bad apples we’ve come across should be banned or silenced, but he is very thoughtful when approaching controversial comedy that may negatively impact an audience that has gone through a personal trauma that is now being laughed about without a satirical slant. He is still able to realize that something like Michael Richards’s on-stage breakdown in 2006 isn’t coming from a true place of comedy and shouldn’t be given a free pass.
Overall, this element is the best and most important quality of the film. Our narrator may ultimately decide to use the emotionally charged words that tend to offend people, but he absolutely does his due diligence in explaining his point-of-view and intent. Moreover, he is self-aware enough to examine his own biases when approaching certain topics in comedy. Building the film over talking head interviews of comedians and pop culture critic would have had a drastically different effect, even if the themes and opinions were the same. By keeping the film personal, the opinions feel more personal, more daring. Even if you can’t wholly agree with all of his opinions and theories on comedy, there is no way to complete dismiss them. A few of his concluding thoughts are controversial, but Celestino’s persona is so level-headed, so thoughtful and self-effacing that he comes from an honest place. Incidentally, some of the comedians who have come up against controversy would gain from this honest approach.
I can’t overlook that while That’s Not Funny is thorough and at times like a history lesson (Celestino even describes the film as a “serious” film about comedy), it is also incredibly entertaining. I mentioned the film is a lean 90 minutes, but it zooms by feeling even quicker. Films like this that tend to be found footage covered with voice-over narration need to be very precisely edited, and That’s Not Funny always keeps the energy moving forward – the film is edited by Celestino and co-producer Robert Garren. Fans of any form of comedy will be able to relate with That’s Not Funny and the personal story at its center. More importantly, the film has a great historical research base without sacrificing entertainment. That’s Not Funny can be seen in full and for free on YouTube.