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You can’t joke about that… a review

Comedy is a serious subject: A book review of Kat Timpf’s You can’t joke about that: Why everything is funny, nothing is sacred, and we’re all in this together (2023)

By Dr. Douglas Young, U. of N.GA-Gainesville political science professor emeritus

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, You can’t joke about that: Why everything is funny, nothing is sacred, and we’re all in this together 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 so much of our public and private dialogue, including comedy. As proof, she cites a passel of comics’ careers recently destroyed due to 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.”

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: “[c]laiming ‘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 “[t]he 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 even violence against individuals for mere controversial jokes, Timpf posits this is in fact inevitable because, “[w]hen 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.”

Interestingly, she holds that:

[H]umans have actually treated words as violence for most of our history. From the caveman days all the way through the Civil War, duelling 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 not only can relieve stress through laughter but knock down walls to create connections with others. Of her early days performing stand-up comedy when her life was a miserable mess, she fondly recalls:

[T]here 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.

Reflecting the book’s title as she examines lots of times when humor helped her endure a variety of traumas, Timpf boldly asserts that “[t]he 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.”

To further reinforce this theme, 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 “[t]he power of comedy in terms of coping emotionally with difficult or even traumatic situations,” she cites U.S. “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.”

Echoing legendary stand-up 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, “[j]ust as religion seeks to shape human behavior with its teachings, so does comedy with its jokes.” Also like religion, Timpf maintains that “[c]omedy 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 nowadays.” Timpf argues that not just professionally sensitive seculars but all of us should understand that “[i]f 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.”

You Can’t Joke About That certainly has many virtues. Amidst a national epidemic of emotional incontinence, the book’s consistently clear logic is especially refreshing, as is the tremendous number of illuminating examples 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 the self-deprecating humor is especially endearing. Further verifying her authenticity is not only her being up front with her libertarian political bias, but her consistent no-government-interference stance on every issue mentioned and the fact she is remarkably even-handed calling out hypocritical censors on the left and right.

Such a frank, boldly insightful, and funny book would have been a home run if not for some unfortunate drawbacks. Despite being well written overall, too many sentences are poorly worded, have a split infinitive, end with a preposition, or have a typo, and 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 with how graphic she gets about some physical ailments. While still sympathetic, sometimes 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, such as regarding who Christopher Steele is and in which war “weapons of mass destruction” often dominated public debate. Ironically highlighting the fear factor among contemporary comics, occasionally Timpf is too deferential to the speech police, and the last chapter on what not to say if confronted by police is totally incongruous with the rest of the book.

But I enthusiastically recommend You Can’t Joke About That since it is an especially fine first outing for a 34-year-old author: often incisively original, completely candid, witty throughout, 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’etre:

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.

7 comments to You can’t joke about that… a review

  • Bell Curve

    Good review, will definitely read this book

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Q. How many reviewers would it take to change a light bulb?
    A. None- they’re having too much fun complaining about the bulb being broken!

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Q. How many comedians would it take to change a light bulb?
    A. A whole gaggle!

  • Stonyground

    A few years ago I ran the North Lincs Half Marathon. The course goes through some wooded areas and at one point there was a flattened squirrel on the road. It was funny on it’s own because it resembled a character in a cartoon. As we passed it I quipped “Looks like the squirrel gets a DNF” I thought this was hilarious but nobody laughed. I commented that no one seemed to like dark humour here.

    DNF = Did not finish.

  • Paul Marks

    “Marginalised communities” – the Herbert Marcuse doctrine that Freedom of Speech (indeed freedom in general) is “Repressive Tolerance” – because freedom supposedly harms “marginalised groups” (the “exploited” and “oppressed” – the Marxist line, specifically, in the case of Marcuse, the Frankfurt School Marxist line).

    Senator Joseph McCarthy was not actually much interested in the Marxist take over of the culture – he was interested in Marxist agents of influence in the government (and he was correct about those agents of influence – see M. Stanton Evans “Blacklisted by History”). It was the members of the House Committee (Senator McCarthy was not a member of the House Committee – and if anyone does not understand why, Senators are not members of House Committees) who were concerned about Marxist influence in the culture.

    And they were right to be concerned about Marxist influence in the culture – for example, neither the post does not mention that this censorship agenda (punishing “Hate Speech” as it supposedly “harms marginalised groups”) is Marxist inspired – that the education system and the other institutions (including Big Business) are pushing Frankfurt School Marxism.

    If people dare not even name the enemy – how can we fight it?

    “Marginalised communities” “words are violence” “makes them feel unsafe” – it is Frankfurt School Marxism, and if we are not allowed to say it is Frankfurt School Marxism, then we have already lost.

  • Paul Marks

    “There is something that is leading to the censorship of just about everything, including comedy, and the persecution of anyone who dissents – but I dare not tell you what the something is”.

    We can not win like that. We must honestly use the name of our enemy (Marxism) – if we dare not do that, then we have already lost this war.

  • Paul Marks

    Although the economy is heading towards Corporate Saint-Simonism (“public-private partnership” in the tradition of Mussolini and Klaus Schwab) the cultural attack is Marxist – and it is Marxist (Frankfurt School) justifications that ate given for “Cancel Culture” – that Freedom of Speech is “Hate Speech” (although “silence is violence” – i.e. one must actively agree to the doctrines of the Frankfurt School, DEI, and push them by speech and action) which “harms disadvantaged groups”.

    Marxist influence in the culture was not first exposed by Senator McCarthy (who had other interests) – it was exposed by the “Reece Committee” (a subcommittee of the House Committee on subversion) led by Congressman B. Carroll Reece (1st Congressional District of Tennessee – perhaps the best Congressional District for a very long time indeed) with the help of chief investigator Norman Dodd.

    Nothing was done – the Eisenhower Administration thought that Communists were on the way out anyway, and there was no need for the embarrassment to “good families” (wealthy families) of exposing pro Marxist people in the universities and the “charitable” Foundations – which are huge.

    This was a strategic mistake – but by the time Communist (Marxist) influence became obvious, the 1960s, President Eisenhower was out of obvious – and Congressman Reece was dead.

    B. Carroll Reece died in 1961.