Letter to the Editor: If laughing at Jack Chick is wrong, I don't wanna be right

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I was disturbed to read Paul Constant’s editorial about Jack T. Chick. Much like Paul, I used the comics as a source of laughs. I use the word "disturbed" because the editorial points at a kind of revisionism that paints us, the kind of people that Jack T. maligned (a very broad category, I’ll admit), as being powerless subjects under him and our ironic consumption of his comics as acquiescence to his ideology.

The worst part about Jack T. Chick’s death is finding out that we can’t laugh at and mock bigotry anymore. It's finding out that hectoring morality and overweening earnestness are not the sole provenance of the Christian Right. It's finding out that irony and camp, which have saved countless lives, are unacceptable aesthetic categories.


Matthew Spencer

Hi Matthew,

First of all, thanks for reading and for writing in. I very much appreciate your taking the time to read and respond to our site.

For the sake of readers who are coming in late, let me just clarify: I believe you’re referring specifically to my statement that when I reappraised Chick’s comics after his death, I found them to be ”not fun anymore.” And I also said that when I collected them back in the 1990s, it “was easy for me, as a young straight white male, to enjoy Chick’s comics.”

This is something that’s been on my mind a lot, lately: I’m part of a generation — I guess it’s the tail end of Generation X — that was known for its over-exaggerated sense of irony. Like many people in my peer group, I liked a lot of pop culture in my youth specifically because it was so bad it’s good. If you were to ask me when I was 22 whether I liked Elvis because of the kitsch factor or because I genuinely liked Elvis’s music, I don’t know if I could have honestly told you. (Now, for the record, let me say that I definitely like his music, though maybe I was initially attracted to Elvis because of the kitschy trappings.)

I think one of the more damning legacies of my generation is that we never collectively moved past irony into a more meaningful cultural conversation. Millennials, as far as I’m concerned, have much more sophisticated interactions with culture than people my age ever did in their 20s. Scoffing was always the default cultural response for people my age, and I spend a lot of time wondering how many opportunities we passed up because we were too afraid of being scoffed at.

Not to date myself too much, but let me pull another example from my early 20s: Wesley Willis.

Wesley Willis was an “outsider” musician who created atonal, repetitious music, and a lot of people my age went crazy for him in the late 1990s. They bought his albums, went to his concerts, and proudly displayed his art in their homes. I was always uncomfortable with Wesley Willis fandom because I could never tell if people were laughing at him or laughing with him. Some might accuse me of being overly critical, but I think the idea of a theater full of relatively wealthy white kids gathered to see a schizophrenic African-American man is a culturally freighted event, and to me, it demands a little investigation. Are they mocking Wesley Willis? Do they genuinely enjoy him? Does their mockery matter, if it supports him financially as an artist?

It’s not the same as Wesley Willis, but Jack Chick also carries a charged dynamic. When I was laughing at Jack Chick strips, I was literally laughing at someone else’s hatred. Meeting hate with laughter seems like a good and decent response, but the hate was not, strictly speaking, aimed at me. It was safe for me to laugh at the hate, because I wasn’t the target. Of course, I know gay men who loved and collected Chick tracts, and so I’m not saying it’s impossible for the targets of Chick’s ire to find him amusing, and I wouldn’t dream of judging the way my gay friends laugh at Jack Chick.

It is all very complicated.

Of course humor is an intensely complicated thing, and it’s impossible to draw moral lines around why we find something funny. But I often think about this paragraph from a TIME profile of Dave Chappelle that explains why he ended The Chappelle Show:

The third season hit a big speed bump in November 2004. He was taping a sketch about magic pixies that embody stereotypes about the races. The black pixie — played by Chappelle — wears blackface and tries to convince blacks to act in stereotypical ways. Chappelle thought the sketch was funny, the kind of thing his friends would laugh at. But at the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loud and long. His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. "When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," says Chappelle. "As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f_— time out after this. Because my head almost exploded."

I absolutely believe Chappelle: there are many different ways to respond to a racially charged joke, and not all of them are positive. Not all humor is constructive; in fact, plenty of humor is actively destructive. Was Chappelle right to deny the world new seasons of his show because he was worried about how some people would receive it? It doesn’t matter what I think; he’s the artist and so his choice is what matters.

Am I saying that we should ban destructive humor? Of course not. Laughter is speech and speech should be free. But as far as I’m concerned a little more inspection of why we find things funny isn’t a bad thing. (And sure, you can kill a joke by examining it too closely. But the wonderful thing about life is that humor is everywhere and even at the darkest moments in history new funny things are happening all the time. Comedy is an eminently renewable resource, and so dissecting a joke or two won’t rob the world of any opportunities for laughter.)

Of course, the biggest example of this complicated-laughter phenomenon right now is Donald Trump. In the early days of the Republican campaign, in the late summer of 2015, everyone treated Donald Trump like he was a joke. I think if we were smarter about the way we laughed back then — if we laughed at him, rather than with him — we might not be in the disgusting situation we find ourselves in right now. And I’m not saying that I don’t find humor in the things Donald Trump says anymore; my Twitter feed is pretty much 90% gallows humor about Donald Trump these days, and without that comedy I sometimes don’t know how I’d get through the day. But the quality of laughter has changed as the severity of the situation has changed.

And so that’s what I meant about Jack Chick: it’s not as easy for me to laugh at his comics, now that I’m not in an enclave of ironic young white people, now that I know a lot of wonderful same-sex married couples who Chick considered to be subhuman, now that I routinely listen to the voices of women he would relegate to second-class citizens. The stakes, for me, have changed as I’ve aged and become a citizen of the world and met more people and learned about more experiences. At the time, I was a sheltered young man who surrounded myself with homogeneity; I think that in some respects there was a part of me that was laughing with Chick back in those days, not at him, and that realization makes me deeply uncomfortable.

So, finally, back to your letter: let’s be clear, I’m not saying that the people Chick maligned are “powerless.” But I am saying that I, as someone who enjoys a great deal of privilege from Chick’s perspective, feel strange about blithely being entertained by his comics. I’m not saying that you “can’t laugh at and mock bigotry anymore.” I am all for laughing at and mocking bigotry; I do a fair amount of it on Twitter most days. But I’m also interested in doing so responsibly, and examining the idea of what responsible mockery might be.

In the end, I don’t think we’re at odds, here, Matthew. I’m not calling anyone else’s behavior “unacceptable,” or “hectoring” anyone. You are free to laugh however you choose; I promise I’m not going to take away your right to laughter. The reason I used my own experience in the review isn’t because I’m a raging narcissist — well, it’s not just because I’m a raging narcissist. I did that because I wasn’t comfortable judging other people for the way they consumed Chick’s comics. If my piece somehow sapped your enjoyment of Chick’s comics, I apologize. But I also think that opens up an opportunity for you to ask why your enjoyment was so easily derailed. A good joke can survive investigation; in fact, intelligent comedy blossoms and reveals hidden layers under scrutiny.

So in the spirit of all this — comedy, Trump, hate, ignorance, introspection — I want to share the single best piece of comedy writing I think I’ve seen this year, a sketch that uncovers, investigates, and mocks some of America’s greatest problems in such a way that everyone is invited to laugh. This is what good comedy can do:

Sorry to talk your ear off.

Thanks again for writing in!