In Comedy, Saying Nothing Is No Longer an Option

Filmmaker, TV writer and podcaster Gaby Dunn ponders the necessary shift that took place in her work after the 2016 election.

I got dumped five days before the 2016 presidential election. “Well,” I remember thinking between bouts of sobbing, “at least in a week we’ll have the first female president.”

On the night of the election, I pulled myself together and went to a gay bar in West Hollywood. One small blonde lesbian friend brought a bunch of American flag memorabilia, assuming that after Hillary won, we were going to all put it on and party through the night. Instead, we cried in each other’s arms. The plastic bag filled with red, white and blue hats and streamers remained untouched on the bar top.

My ex dumping me, and America dumping Hillary Clinton, didn’t leave me feeling very funny.

But my work is in comedy. I am a filmmaker, TV writer and podcaster, and I have a popular YouTube channel where my friend and I post both comedy sketches and sit-down talks about the minutiae of our dating lives, relationships with our families, personal neuroses, and other such Seinfeld-ian fare. But as I am queer and she lives with obsessive compulsive disorder, we have historically used the channel as a platform for feminism, LGBTQ rights and mental health advocacy. Now, post-election, our scripted sketches don’t get as many views as the videos where we sit, chatting as ourselves. Our subscribers increasingly crave authenticity and sincerity, and thus, seem less interested in comedy for comedy’s sake. You know what? Me too.

Gaby Dunn (right) with her on-screen partner Allison Raskin on their “couch show”

“The personal is political,” a rallying cry for second-wave feminism, means in part that when taking on the system seems insurmountable, you must make your daily life and work reflect your politics. My work was always political — purposefully, as I proclaimed my feminism, queerness and sex positivity at every chance I got, and also inherently, for existing as a queer woman. (It’s a privilege to get to decide if your work is political or not – and that privilege is not afforded to marginalized people.) Before the election, in the same way Issa Rae famously told reporters at the Emmys, “I’m rooting for everybody black,” I was rooting for everybody queer. Being at the table at all, in my mind, was political. But now that feels like my excuse to stay neutral. I, and many audience members, viewers, subscribers and followers, can’t help but watch all entertainment, even “pointless” comedy, through a political prism. How can you not in 2018?

In 2007, when I was in a college comedy troupe, there was a ubiquitous problem with the endings of our sketches. It was always hard to find a funny “out” once the game had run its course. So, if we couldn’t figure out a way to end a sketch, we’d just have a random character pull out a gun and kill everyone. Blackout. It wasn’t funny then, but it worked because of the shock value. At the time, it elicited chuckles or groans. Now, it would rightfully cause walkouts.

In the two years since the election, what I find interesting to watch and what I find interesting to create has completely changed. I find myself asking: Why does this exist? What is it saying? How is it helping? This is about my own work, and the work I consume. If the answer for others is simply, it’s making people feel better or it’s a distraction, then that’s legitimate.

But for me, right now, that’s not enough.

When in early 2016 I launched my lighthearted podcast about my personal financial woes, Bad With Money, the point was simply to expose my own money mistakes and make a relatable, self-effacing millennial money show. The problem was, the more I learned, the more I realized how political money is. It’s impossible to have a show about money without examining the system that puts people like me in trouble in the first place. In interviews, I often say that the show went from “finances and feelings” to “idk throw a brick through a Bank of America window?”

Gaby Dunn giving a talk at XOXO Festival 2016

At a time when the leader of the free world is a failed businessman and “economic anxiety” is a “legitimate” reason to be racist, it’d be absurd to do a money show without getting political. Even choosing to remain unaffected by politics in your work is inherently political. By not saying anything, right now, you’re still saying something. Look at Taylor Swift; up until recently, her silence gave the wrong people the ammunition to assume she was on their side.

And it’s only gotten more immediate. It’s harder and harder for political comedy shows to find material to laugh at as the absurdity of daily life reaches an apex. It’s tough to schedule a new light-hearted podcast episode or comedy video the night before, never knowing what tomorrow’s headlines will bring. I’ve more than once cringed at a poorly timed piece of content involving an old-timey gunfight or a joke about fire or Russia or the military, seemingly recorded weeks before, and then posted on the same morning we’ve woken up to tragedy.

These times are exhausting, and we do need escapism. We do need to watch and read and listen to art that doesn’t have any sort of message at all. But that’s hard to accomplish when now even what seems to have no agenda, can’t help but be imbued with meaning. Even when the creator themselves insists there’s no meaning, people are looking for it in everything. If the audience is going to do that anyway, I’d rather have a say in what they’re reading into it. I’d rather it be a message that helps. Think about how Rihanna stopped Trump from using her songs at rallies by having her music publisher remove her catalogue from campaign licensing. Was there originally a political message behind “Pon de Replay?” Maybe not. But the artist has a choice in what their voice is used for. And that choice, to do or do nothing, is incredibly loud.

I am Gaby Dunn. I am a TV writer and actress living in Los Angeles. I’ve sold shows to MTV, FX, FOX, and YouTube Red. I appeared on the second season of Take My Wife, a sitcom you can watch on Starz. (I was kind of a bad guy!) I currently write on Netflix’s Big Mouth. I have a podcast called Bad With Money, which was named one of the top 10 podcasts of 2016 by the New York Times. The show’s third season comes out in April 2018. The book version of Bad With Money will be published by Simon and Schuster in Jan 2019. My comedy partner Allison Raskin and I produce the YouTube channel Just Between Us, which has more than 750,000 subscribers. Our novel I Hate Everyone But You was a New York Times Best Seller. (Wow! Cool! Awesome!)

(Photo by Doug Frerichs)