Comedy is Not Pretty

Ross E. Lockhart

Comedy is not pretty. Or so said the great Steve Martin, and he’d know. Comedy is ugly and visceral and gross. It is bodily and bawdy. It points out the worst about the human condition, sometimes focusing in on the differences between us, sometimes exposing terrible traits we all share. It speaks truth to power. It punches up. It punches down. Sometimes it even punches itself in the balls. Comedy is jokes about shit and dicks and the weird things our bodies do. Comedy is over the top and under the radar. But it is never pretty.

Horror is about affect. It’s right there in the name. Horror seeks to make your hair stand on end. For comedy, however, you need to dig a bit beyond the singer of songs with happy endings suggested by the etymology. Instead, you need to look at the root of humor, bodily fluids, and the whims, moods, and states of mind they produce. Comedy and horror are weird twins in the way they seek to tap into something beyond reasonable, cognitive thought. Something primal. Something deep in that lizard brain of ours. Comedy, like horror, gets under your skin. Comedy may go for the gross-out, but it’s never pretty.

I grew up listening to comedy records. Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Bill Hicks, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Rusty Warren: These comedians were like gods to me in my formative years. Comedy is where I began to understand the way the world worked. Comedy was a way of understanding race, and sex, and gender, and religion, and fear. Comedy was—and is—a way of coping. Comedy is laughing so the werewolves won’t tear you apart. Comedy is looking into the gaping, carnivorous maw of the universe and having a chuckle. It ain’t pretty, but it may just keep you sane.

I’ve done stand-up comedy, mostly before every joe had a videophone and a bad joke could travel around the world at the speed of light. I’ve played in bands, mostly badly. I’ve read horror stories in front of crowds. It’s terrifying. It’s baring your soul. It’s taking a swing at injustice. It’s paying attention, it’s watching the audience. It’s learning where they laugh, where they cry. It’s directing their emotions, and hopefully changing the way they see the world. When it works, it’s beautiful. But it’s never pretty.

Over the last few years, I’ve been performing stand-up bits as part of the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown at BizarroCon. These are timed performances, with a break after a couple of minutes where the audience decides whether the comedian gets to go on. Ultimate Bizarro Showdown performances tend to be crude, absurdist things with lots of physical comedy, strange props, and gross-out humor that sometimes is highly intellectual. They tend to be gut-bustingly savage and funny.

The first time I performed, I read a strange review of an anthology I’d recently published, The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron. The review had been written by a Russian guy named Andre, likely using some sort of machine translation, and it remains one of the strangest things I’ve ever read, and includes such lines as “I admit I am neither fan, nor any kind of masturbating-gay, when it comes to reality & Laird Barron” and “And that ‘mysterious’ broken circle we see on the book-cover, and those works it attempts to be associated with: It means the ‘benefactors’ are actually what occultism knows as black magicians. They gather people who can be deceived via sex & party, to sacrifice them for their own advantage.” I read Andre’s review in a faux-Russian accent and had the crowd rolling, but ultimately the performance was disqualified, regrettably, because it had been a real review.

My second Ultimate Bizarro Showdown was a true, off the cuff, shaggy dog story about meeting with a bunch of occultists at a rave, but it fell flat. My third was a silly piece where I wore a Mexican wrestler’s mask and shined a laser pointer into a glass of water while talking up “Lazario! The greatest laser light show in all of Chula Vista!” in my best announcer voice. It got a few laughs. It mostly worked. But it was goofy.

Last year, I decided to return to the formula of the original performance, interacting with a recent “review.” There’s a lot of context to unpack here, and, like comedy, it’s not pretty.

H. P. Lovecraft biographer S. T. Joshi has spent the last year or so going after various members of the weird fiction community, producing numerous long-winded “reviews” of authors, editors, and works that amount to little more than mean-spirited tantrum-throwing mixed with retroactive copyediting. Frankly, it’s the sort of material that is unbecoming of someone who purports himself to be the leading scholar on H. P. Lovecraft, and I think Joshi himself realizes that, as he has later back-peddled, referring to these “reviews” as satire.

Now, I’m mostly inclined to ignore this sort of thing, but after he pitched a fit targeting a friend of mine, anthologist Ellen Datlow, I posted a bon mot to Twitter, musing that apparently, the S in his name has stood for “shitlord” the whole time. Soon, it was my turn in the barrel, and Joshi posted the following defaming screed in early October:

“On a related note, I observe with (minimal) interest a new recruit to the undistinguished cadre of Joshi-haters. (Is it not remarkable that all these individuals amount to almost nothing, whether it be in terms of literary accomplishment or honour and decency?) It is one Ross E. Lockhart, who has taken it upon himself to launch several unprovoked attacks upon me. His latest salvo is a conjecture as to what the S. in my name stands for. In Mr. Lockhart’s opinion, it stands for ‘s—tlord.’ One wonders what inspired this devastatingly witty jibe, on which Mr. Lockhart no doubt worked diligently for days. What, in short, have I ever done to him, aside from pointing out certain painful and obvious deficiencies in the books he has edited and/or published? If I had more time and inclination, I might advocate the boycotting of the books published under his Word Whore (er, sorry, I mean Word Horde) imprint—but since I cannot imagine why any sane and intelligent person would want to buy these books in the first place, I shall dutifully refrain and let Mr. Lockhart’s imprint descend of its own accord into the oblivion it so richly deserves.”

So I read this as part of my 2017 Ultimate Bizarro Showdown performance, interrupting occasionally to puzzle over his accusation of “several unprovoked attacks”—would that be the times I mentioned him favorably in the introductions of two of my anthologies? Could it be the time I blurbed his Searchers After Horror, praising his “scholarship and understanding of the genre and its history”? Maybe it was the time I named a character after him in my short story “No Fault when Stars Grow Right” (Naw, I doubt he’s even read that)—before moving along to say that I believe it’s best when others go low, to go high, to be as positive a force as one can in this world, but that I felt, in this situation, the best tactic was not to go low, but to go subterranean.

And with that, I launched into a series of one-liners directly addressed to Mr. Joshi. These are the kinds of jokes that were old when Don Rickles stole them. They’re the kinds of things Nick Mamatas collected in his Insults Every Man Should Know. They’re dumb. They’re inelegant. They’re rude. They’re scatological. They are insults, meant to insult. They’re definitely not pretty.

“Mr. Joshi: As an outsider, what do you think of the human race?”

“Mr. Joshi: What language are you speaking, because it sounds like bullshit.”

“Mr. Joshi: I’d like to see things from your point of view, but I can’t seem to get my head that far up your ass.”

“Mr. Joshi: You’re so old that you get nostalgic when you see Neolithic cave paintings.”

“Mr. Joshi: You have two parts of brain, ‘left’ and ‘right.’ On the left side, there’s nothing right. On the right side, there’s nothing left.”

“Mr. Joshi: Is your ass jealous of the shit that just came out of your mouth?”

The audience laughed. I felt like I had pointed out the absurdity of Joshi’s malicious reviews. I felt like I was punching up. I felt like I was getting back at a bad actor, an intellectually dishonest critic, by using the best weapon available, comedy. It wasn’t pretty, it was vicious, and taunting, and crude, and it felt wonderful. And at the three-minute mark, the host polled the teary-eyed, guffawing audience, asking, like Caesar, if I should be allowed to go on.

The applause was deafening. So I continued. I didn’t win the showdown—didn’t even come close—but I did get a lot of things off my chest and made a lot of people laugh in the process, so I’ll count it as a win.

There’s a video that shows the last three minutes of the performance, so I’m not going to repeat the jokes covered therein. Some of them are hilarious. Most of them are terrible… by design. The video lacks context. It’s three minutes of increasingly scatological humor. It spares no one’s feelings. A few of the jokes imply various things about S. T.’s family; one contrasts S. T.’s wife with a walrus in a particularly Groucho Marx-ian manner. It’s the sort of thing no sane person would take seriously. The audience laughs, and occasionally groans. It’s not pretty, but it is comedy, and not just mean-spirited bloviation posted to a blog and excused after the fact as “satire.”

I’d prefer there was either no video, or a full video, with the context fully intact. But it is what it is. Because it was only the last half of the bit, I asked the original poster to remove it, and he complied. There are a couple people out there who have copied and hoarded that video, who seem to think they hold some sort of threat over me by hanging on to this thing, that they might send it out to their mailing list or forward a copy to my mom. I’m not going to be blackmailed. I’m also not going to apologize.

Comedy speaks truth to power. At its best, it mocks the powerful for punching down, for taking advantage of people, for hurting people and then playing the victim. It frankly saddens me that S. T. Joshi has apparently decided to spend the latter years of his career defaming the hard work of others and pretending that somehow that gives him the last word on the matter. Weird fiction has outgrown you, Mr. Joshi. I’d give you a nasty look, but, as the comedian says, you’ve already got one, and it sure ain’t pretty.

 

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ROSS E. LOCKHART is an author, anthologist, bookseller, editor, and publisher. A lifelong fan of supernatural, fantastic, speculative, and weird fiction, Lockhart is a veteran of small-press publishing, having edited scores of well-regarded novels of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. He runs Word Horde.

 Lockhart edited the anthologies The Book of Cthulhu I and IITales of Jack the RipperThe Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron (with Justin Steele), Giallo FantastiqueCthulhu Fhtagn!Eternal Frankenstein, and Tales from a Talking Board. He is the author of Chick Bassist. Lockhart lives in Petaluma, California, with his wife Jennifer, hundreds of books, and Elinor Phantom, a Shih Tzu moonlighting as his editorial assistant.

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