Jason Zinoman

(Illustration by John Jay Cabuay)

Not just kidding

New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman, AB’97, on the power and peril of jokes.

In 2011 the New York Times debuted its first-ever column dedicated to comedy. To its author, Jason Zinoman, AB’97, On Comedy was “a symptom” of the boom that brought stand-up, improv, sketch, and late night to new levels of importance. Today, a decade into his tenure as the Times’ comedy critic, Zinoman feels he’s witnessing another revolutionary moment for comedy, as cultural shifts and the pandemic prompt both a crisis and a rebirth. A former theater critic, Zinoman has also written a biography of David Letterman and a book on 1970s horror films. His comments have been edited and condensed.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your time covering comedy?

When I started, the stand-up special was an often ignored form, but over the past 10 years, it’s become the meat and potatoes of our cultural diet. In terms of the business of entertainment, stand-up specials are the backbone of the growth of Netflix.

In terms of artistic ambition and in terms of cultural impact, you have people like [stand-up comedians] Hannah Gadsby and Ali Wong who completely dominate the cultural conversation. That kind of figure isn’t so unusual anymore. It seems like every year there’s a couple of those.

There’s been a wave of comedy theaters closing since the pandemic. What does that signal?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I would have guessed that we would have seen more institutions collapse. They’ve been hurt for sure, but they haven’t collapsed.

My suspicion is that the pandemic didn’t revolutionize culture so much as it accelerated trends that were already there, and in the case of improv theaters, which have been hit harder than other genres, it exposed the weaknesses of their business models. Being for-profit, making your money through schools, keeping ticket prices low, and basically exploiting performers by not paying them turned out to be a very rickety business model, and I think it made them vulnerable to collapse. It also made them vulnerable to having a very homogenous group of artists.

What will be different about comedy after the pandemic?

There are business models that have started during the pandemic, like online comedy clubs, that I think will continue. Before, you could only have a couple hundred people at these shows. Now, people all over the world can see them. So even if you charge less, you can make more money.

The question is, will audiences return? One school of thought says that there’s pent-up hunger to go back to these clubs, and there’s going to be a boom when people can go back. And then there’s another school, which is that people are going to be scared. I think the truth is somewhere in between.

There’s also a school of thought that says people are going to leave cities. Part of the excitement and the reason to come to New York or Chicago was to be around all these other performers and the press, and going to these crummy little spaces to see amazing work. Young artists who are coming from somewhere else to take risks—I don’t think that’s going to stop, but maybe it will be more decentralized and spread out in different parts of the country.

How is covering comedy different from covering theater?

Comedy is way cooler. Theater is really lame. I say that as someone who loves the theater, but I was the youngest person in all the theater audiences, and I’m the oldest person in a lot of the comedy audiences.

Theater isn’t as culturally resonant now. There was a time when it was. Young people 20 years ago who would have gone to Juilliard or Yale to study acting, they are now going to Upright Citizens Brigade or Second City to study improv, and they’re learning a different set of skills. As a consequence, a lot of the stuff that used to be in experimental or avant-garde theater is now in comedy. Comedy has gotten, in part for commercial reasons, more artistically ambitious and diverse. And theater has—although I should say I’m not covering it as much—gotten less so.

What does it say about us, that comedy has become so culturally important?

This will be my most U of C answer, because I’m going to bring up Aristotle. For thousands of years, there’s been this question, is comedy good for you? Aristotle was very skeptical of comedy. He believed that you should ban certain kinds of jokes. 

For a long time we forgot that. There was the sense that comedy was this unifying force. And then there started to be a backlash to that, which is the idea that Aristotle knew what he was talking about, that comedy has an ugly, dark side.

This is part of the success of Hannah Gadsby. She had a grand unified theory, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t, about how comedy can traumatize and freeze us where we are and prevent us from growing. When you think about the rise of Trump, a lot of his appeal had to do with his weaponization of cruel jokes, jokes in which you feel superior to the butt of the joke.

But that idea became so popular and so dominant that I think a lot of people forgot there’s a sunny side to laughing. In the pandemic I’ve become a little more sentimental about the pleasures of comedy, and the kinds of things comedians say to me in interviews about how you need to laugh to lighten your load. The pleasure of dumb jokes shouldn’t be underestimated.

You’ve written about comedy, Letterman, and horror. Does writing about things you love make you love them less?

I don’t see stuff as a fan, so there’s an unmitigated, gushing love that I lose access to. I do think you lose something when it becomes your profession. If you ever go to a club, and you look in the back at the comedians, they’re not laughing. I noticed that myself—I started to laugh less, even when I thought things were hilarious. I also think, and I get this in part from Chicago, that there’s incredible pleasure to be had from tight, close focus on a work of art. The best classes I took were ones that were just on one book. There’s a whole other universe of pleasure to be had from single-minded focus on a joke or a comedy set, and I’m lucky in that I have a job where that’s what I’m supposed to do.