Writing oppressive humor for dummies

Nine seasons in and the characters of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” have committed handfuls of felonies and societal faux pas in their endeavors to be sophisticated and accomplished. And yet for all its dark comedy each episode seems to exist almost in a vacuum, (almost) never needing the characters to learn from their mistakes in the past. It’s curious, since the show has covered themes like cannibalism, arson, scamming, adultery, murder, terrorism, welfare, child exploitation, abortion, fraud, alcoholism, and (good lord) even more, why “It’s Always Sunny” would be widely considered one of the smartest comedies on TV right now.

Indeed in an age of heightened awareness around helping groups who were previously marginalized, it’s because “Always Sunny” is political incorrectness at its best, because it does what so many comedians try to: it punches up.

In a culture so over-saturated with jokes at the expense of oppressed people — often defended by bullshit arguments like “first amendment” or “don’t be too sensitive” — it’s a rare comedic gem that can so wholly call itself on its bullshit. It never quite crosses the line into self-aware, but the show does manage to make it clear that the joke is on the characters themselves. This narcissistic gang of children are the ones who are really at fault. “Always Sunny” has often joked about homophobia, trans*phobia, racism, sexism, but the aim is to put those who further oppressive culture, rather than make light of those who carry the burden of these -isms.

Though the show isn’t perfect (what media is these days?) it’s not telling offensive material just for the sake of being edgy, or even just because the aloofness of these questionable acts so often verges on ridiculous. It’s real “edginess” comes from the fact that the butt of the joke is the characters who are so insensitive and cavalier in their unconcerned way.

Who we feel we are allowed to laugh at reveals larger cultural discourses. Pretending that comedy exists in a vacuum of culture or should be free of awareness is a fool’s errand; analyzing humor in all our media allows us to better understand assumptions we take for granted. “Always Sunny” just makes it look easy.


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