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This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
The stuff of late-night LOLs used to be quippy monologues, vapid celebrity interviews, Stupid Human Tricks both official and less so. It still is, to some extent. More often, though, TV comedy that self-consciously defines itself as “comedy”—the stuff that originally airs on Comedy Central and FXX and HBO, the stuff that is firmly rooted in traditions of sketch and standup—is taking on subjects like racism and sexism and inequality and issues including police brutality and trigger warnings and intersectional feminism and helicopter parenting and the end of men. Its jokes double as arguments. “Comedy with a message” may be vaguely ironic; it is also, increasingly, redundant.