In Beyond a Joke, Liverpudlian stand-up Adam Rowe explores the nature and purpose of comedy in today’s “increasingly divided, febrile, and hostile world”. The film is divided into two parts; in the first, he speaks with a diverse array of people about cultural appropriation, what it is, and their experiences with it; in the second, he delivers a ten-minute standup set to a room of people who have been affected by this issue.
Cultural appropriation is a thorny issue, and one that is hard for white people to connect to: Rowe admits to beginning his journey not understanding or caring about it. He speaks to people from myriad cultural backgrounds with a range of lived experiences and somehow ends up back where he started, not caring much about the issue.
Beyond A Joke
The film’s highlights are the segments where he speaks to funny, smart, articulate people about the matter at hand, letting them explain and highlight cultural appropriation in an accessible way. Unfortunately, Rowe undermines these wonderful discussions, being deliberately crude and stubborn.
Rowe points out, rightfully, that it’s often very cathartic to jibe about the bad things in life but fails to examine the power dynamic that exists when he, a cis, straight, white, English man, makes fun of issues surrounding other cultures, which he has not gone to great lengths to understand. Cassie Leon, producer at The Cocoa Butter Club, states that to her and many others, ignorance when handling other cultures’ issues is never truly funny. “I disagree,” says Rowe, ignorantly and unfunnily. Rowe finds himself extremely funny throughout.
The both-sides-ism of the film also grates. Along with the diverse voices he speaks to, Rowe also talks to two white men who are diametrically opposed to taking cultural appropriation seriously. One of them compares having compassion for cultural appropriation to Nazism, setting up a strawman so obvious a bird tries to make a nest out of it. The other revels in woke-bashing, saying that everything was better in the 70s when comedians could just say whatever they wanted. The film never addresses who it was better for.
His ten-minute set gets the crowd in the room laughing in parts, but much of the comedy falls flat. Rowe might address the topic of cultural appropriation head-on, but that doesn’t stop him from falling down the well-worn, easy path of cultural stereotyping – his joke about black men’s penis sizes is perhaps the tiredest “joke” out there.
As his closing thought, Rowe says that comedy can do many things, from knocking down walls to building bridges, but its purpose is to be funny. Rowe fails to accomplish any of these possibilities in Beyond a Joke.
The film ends on a shot where Kemah Bob, an African American comedian, summarises the documentary we just watched: Adam Rowe spoke to a variety of diverse voices and turned each conversation into a joke, packaged up into his own crude style, and delivered it as his own material, for profit. And that is exactly what it is.
Featured image credit: Steve Ullathorne