There’s a lot to like about Jim Jefferies the comedian. The 43-year-old Australian-American’s comedic persona is a little more subtle than your average misanthrope’s — to borrow a professional wrestling term, he excels at playing the ‘heel’. The show GLOW explains it in a superb sequence: the heel’s the villainous weirdo in the outrageous costumes, true, but they’re also the ones who plan all the stunts. As the wrestler cast as the ‘hero’ says, “He’s (the heel) the guy who makes me look good”. Jefferies has a similar narrative trick running through most of his extended routines. As he escalates his foul-mouthed provocateur routine, he trusts his audience to be in on the joke (you know, like grown-ups at a WWE match). He’s the self-aware bad guy and so his anger must, inevitably, circle back to himself, thereby ‘absolving’ the same people (including sections of the audience) he’s been cursing all night.
It’s a fine line to walk but when he gets it right, Jefferies can be a very enjoyable heel, the kind you’d feel for even if he flips you the bird. Even if you wind up watching him defecate right outside your front door, and it’s “everything from liquids to solids, to everything in between”. This is how the framing joke (essentially, a 15-minute joke chopped up into three acts) in his latest Netflix special Intolerant ends (the ending is the least important part). Unfortunately, the show itself leaves a lot to be desired at the writing level — while Jefferies is a skilful and versatile performer, he simply hasn’t thought this one through.
Fifteen-odd minutes for the framing joke leaves Jefferies a full 45 minutes to work with here, and he devotes about 30 of those to a scolding, sniveling, embarrassingly outdated pantomime act that takes aim at millennials and wokeness. Indeed, this is spelt out in the introductory montage for Intolerant, where words like ‘toxic’, ‘safe space’, ‘transphobic’, ‘binary’, ‘problematic’, and, of course, ‘cancel culture’ flash onscreen in quick succession, followed by homilies like “be wiser”, “logic” and so on. I admit it’s mildly amusing that this is the word cloud Jefferies has chosen for millennials (as opposed to say, a cumulonimbus comprised of ‘EMI’, ‘ransom-slash-rent’ and the ever-popular question ‘university or food?’) but the underlying message—your fears are stupid and beside the point—is neither funny nor original.
Which is a shame, because as I said, Jefferies is great fun when he gets it right, like he does in a joke about his Dad, who recently voted ‘yes’ in Australia’s gay marriage referendum — but remains a product of his conservative times, which is why he isn’t very educated about trans rights, drawing the ire of a much younger person at a wedding. “This guy just got used to gay people yesterday,” Jefferies drawls in his best outraged Aussie accent. “Let him have his fucking victory lap, you’re gonna scare him off!” The joke works because of Jefferies’ delivery but also because it questions our characterizations of people — he isn’t claiming the moral high ground, just making a case for ideology to coexist with robust pragmatism.
It was vapid and humourless when Louis CK and Aziz Ansari said it, and worryingly for Jefferies, his version somehow makes the drivel sound even worse.
It’s one of the few moments I liked in the show. The rest is predictable, sadly — millennials are thin-skinned social media addicts who swear by “cancel culture” and consider comedians to be “enemy number one” (really? I must complain to Millennial Gazette because I missed that issue). There are about six and a half jokes about this one-line pitch, I kid you not. It was vapid and humorless when Louis CK and Aziz Ansari said it, and worryingly for Jefferies, his version somehow makes the drivel sound even worse.
“You’re the most progressive generation, true, but that’s true for every generation, you’re not special” he says at one point. Well, that’s not fucking true, is it, Jim, ya incontinent little liar? Your generation, which lords it over mine at offices everywhere, has set America back by decades when it comes to reproductive rights and labour rights, to name just two major issues. What is this progress you speak of as a ‘progressive’? Basically, read a fucking book, Jim.
But let’s forget politics for a moment and stick to the comedy: Jefferies believes, among other things, that people who ask comedians to apologize for a joke are the real assholes. “How can you ask me to apologize for a joke I made ten years ago”, asks Jefferies — well, if artists can be praised for (and profit off) being “ahead of their times” through their art, why can’t the same art be critiqued for being crude or primitive or hurtful?
Jefferies’ position here is what we millennials call “a galaxy brain take”, a rare and quite incurable neuro-degenerative condition. Makes you believe all kinds of things, like black people should apologize for questioning the peerless humour of white male comedians.
It’s this kind of sloppy thinking that leads Jefferies, inevitably, to sabotage Intolerant. Even worse, it places him alongside Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Aziz Ansari and company: male comedians spending more and more time every week holding forth on the evils of ‘cancel culture’. To them I say, if there really was such a scarily efficient cultural guillotine, and we (which is to say, millennials) were in charge of the bloody thing, wouldn’t your currently-yapping heads be well and truly in the basket by now? Your antics are merely making comedy a more and more divisive space every day.
All these minds allegedly attuned to irony, and not one of them sees the problem in scolding a generation more likely to use food stamps than comedy tickets — that, to me, stinks more than Jefferies’ lactose-driven expulsions.
This article was first published in DeadAnt, an online publication and new-media venture focused on stand-up comedy in India.