Comedienne and libertarian commentator Kat Timpf’s first book is a serious examination of comedy that is also quite funny and challenges many well intentioned but mistaken myths about social taboos. A regular on TV’s Gutfeld! and former National Review writer, Timpf taps personal experiences, extensive observations, a slew of studies, and relentless logic to make a convincing case that humor has remarkable power to help us heal, face our fears, grow, and come together. Despite some disappointments, her book makes a reliably witty, warmly candid, and solidly convincing case that the present censorious atmosphere surrounding comedy harms us on many fronts.
Indeed, Timpf persuasively argues that our society is mired in an unprecedentedly restrictive cultural climate constipating much of our public and private dialogue, including comedy. As proof, she cites a passel of comics’ careers that have recently been destroyed by a single joke that upset the cancel culture mob on social media, as well as survey data documenting that over three times as many Americans say they censor themselves today than in the supposedly straitjacketed “1950s — the era of McCarthyism.”
Noting instances of violence against individuals for mere controversial jokes, Timpf posits that this is in fact inevitable.
Despite their self-righteous boasts of being devoted to protecting “marginalized” communities, Timpf contends that today’s “woke” censors are generally totalitarian bullies virtue-signaling in the pursuit of power. In fact, she argues that “claiming ‘words are violence’ is a tool to dictate and control, all while engaging in a massive fraud that they are on the side of compassion.” The reality, as she sees it, is that “the words-are-violence crowd doesn’t want conversation — at least not one that is an equal playing field. . . . They want to make you afraid.”
Noting instances of violence against individuals for mere controversial jokes, Timpf posits that this is in fact inevitable: “When you say that words are violence, you inherently are saying that violence is an acceptable response to words, because violence is universally considered an acceptable response to violence.”
She holds that
Humans have actually treated words as violence for most of our history. From the caveman days all the way through the Civil War, dueling to the death was a socially acceptable way to deal with a dispute. If you consider words violence, you’re not a forward-thinking progressive; you’re a knuckle-dragging troglodyte. It’s only as we have become more modern and civilized over the past few hundred years that we have moved away from this, opting to instead respond to words that insult us with words.
At the core of the book is its case for the healing power of humor. Citing a plethora of personal experiences, as well as a multitude of observations and respected studies, Timpf believes poking fun at even our most painful ordeals can not only relieve stress but create connections with others. Of her early days performing standup comedy, when her life was a miserable mess, she fondly recalls:
There was only one thing to do: Go to open mics and tell jokes about my dumpster-fire life onstage. Everything was awful, but I’ll never forget how great it felt to turn my pain into jokes that made me — and other people — laugh about all of it. During the loneliest time of my life, comedy became my means of connection. It was my one refuge from hopelessness, the only thing that gave me power over the things that were making me feel so powerless. . . . I didn’t feel powerless or lonely when the audience was laughing along with me.
She boldly asserts that “the darker the subject matter, the greater healing that laughter can bring, disarming the darkness and making the people who are feeling isolated by their trauma feel less alone.”
Perhaps the book’s best and most brilliantly original chapter points out many parallels between comedy and religion, including medicinal ones. Regretting the loss of the comforting Catholic faith of her youth, Timpf confesses that “the closest thing that I have to any sort of religion is comedy” and cites research showing both worship services and laughter “are associated with an increase of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin in people’s brains, making them feel happy.”
As to “the power of comedy in terms of coping emotionally with difficult or even traumatic situations,” she cites “Vietnam War prisoners who claimed making jokes about their captivity was even more helpful than religion in getting them through it.” Timpf goes on to reference research showing that, like religious faith, “laughter can make a difference in terms of physical healing, too.”
The book’s best and most brilliantly original chapter points out many parallels between comedy and religion, including medicinal ones.
Echoing legendary standup comic Lenny Bruce, the book claims that, as with religion, satirical comedians “have been using their platforms to call out behavior that they see as socially or morally unacceptable, or even just as annoying, by mocking it with their jokes.” Thus, “just as religion seeks to shape human behavior with its teachings, so does comedy with its jokes.” Like religion, Timpf maintains, “comedy can offer a sense of meaning, too. It gives you that Zen perspective you can’t get many other ways.” Likewise, I suspect the keyboard cancel culture warriors find significance in trying to ruin the lives of comics (and anyone else) they see as socially toxic.
Arguing that both religion and comedy can provide a powerful social connection, Timpf observes that “a comedy club isn’t all that different from a worship service. It’s a group of people gathered together to hear someone talk about life.”
But the lapsed Catholic confesses that there is “something that religions seem to do better than comedy: forgiveness. Most religions make it a point to contain some path to forgiveness.” In fact, “even one of the most fire-and-brimstone religious texts out there — the Old Testament — has a more lenient standard of punishment than what our [secular] culture sometimes levies for making an errant joke.” Timpf argues that not just professionally sensitive seculars but all of us should understand that “if we really want people to be on the side of love and acceptance, we have to be willing to love and accept them even after they’ve made mistakes.”
It is a testament to the book’s many strengths that it has much to offer readers who are not libertarian, secular, or even fans of comedy.
You Can’t Joke About That has many virtues. Amidst a national epidemic of emotional incontinence, the book’s consistently clear logic is refreshing, as is the tremendous number of illuminating examples used to prove its points. Timpf is remarkably candid about many personal struggles and comes across as totally sincere, consistently kind, and thoroughly likeable. It is also a major relief that, despite the book’s often disturbing subject matter, Timpf can be hilarious — and her self-deprecating humor is endearing. Further verifying her authenticity, she is up front with her libertarian political bias and her no-government-interference stance on every issue she mentions. She is remarkably even-handed in calling out censors on the left and right.
Such a frank, boldly insightful, and funny book would have been a home run if not for some drawbacks. It’s generally well written, but too many sentences are poorly worded, end with a preposition, or contain a typo. Timpf’s frequently profound points and smart humor are way too good for the promiscuous profanity. Though her candor is disarming, perhaps it is a little too personal at times, especially in her graphic accounts of some physical ailments. While still sympathetic, she can come off as somewhat whiny, especially when not trying to be funny. Some historical references are likely needed to provide context for younger readers. Who, for instance, was Christopher Steele, and what was the significance of “weapons of mass destruction”? Ironically highlighting the fear factor among contemporary comics, Timpf is too deferential to the speech police. Her final chapter, about what not to say if confronted by police, is totally incongruous with the rest of the book.
Nevertheless, You Can’t Joke About That, which is the first outing for its 34-year-old author, is incisively original, completely candid, constantly witty, and extraordinarily timely. It is a testament to the book’s many strengths that it has much to offer readers who are not libertarian, secular, or even fans of comedy. Pervading its humor and biographical details is an honest and superb analysis of several significant sober subjects. Near the end of the book, Timpf provides what may be its raison d’être:
Without forgiveness, comedy just can’t exist. Mistakes are inevitable when it comes to comedy. It’s going to be more common when it comes to situations where you’re joking about a tough subject, but tough subjects are the ones that need jokes the most.
What a swell way to rest her case.
Review of You Can’t Joke About That: Why Everything Is Funny, Nothing Is Sacred, and We’re All in This Together, by Kat Timpf. Broadside Books/HarperCollins, 2023, 226 pages.