Comedy is truth and subversion. As the truth evolves, the jokes change with it. Humor subverts old ideas and clichés. It clears debris and makes room for the new.
In the era of cannabis legalization and cultural acceptance, the standard tropes of weed-based humor are ready for the gong and the hook.
A Brief History of Weed Humor
For nearly a century, cannabis has been a source of subversive yuks. During prohibition, simply bringing it up made one a bit of a rebel. The most familiar clichés around weed humor crystalized during the ‘60s and ‘70s as part of the hippie counterculture.
In the '70s, the magazine High Times did more than anything else to define the sensibility, aesthetics, literature, and humor of marijuana. Founded by an outrageous character named Thomas King Forcade, it broke the law, stuck it to the man, and opted out of square culture. It began as a parody of Playboy, with centerfolds featuring splayed-out weed plants. As the years went by and the Reagan Administration militarized the War on Drugs, High Times ventured further into the peripheries of Amercian culture, spreading conspiracy theories and radical libertarianism.
Meanwhile, the comedy stylings of Cheech and Chong, the misanthropic surrealism of cartoonist R. Crumb and director Ralph Bakshi, the experimental funk of George Clinton, and characters such as George Carlin’s “hippy dippy weatherman” brought that offbeat humor into view of the mainstream, even if prohibition meant that it could never fully assimilate. It became a dominant style. The alternative was to get high and watch Reefer Madness, ironically.
The basic tropes of weed comedy has stayed fairly consistent through the decades. The stupidity of prohibition, by itself, provided a lot of comic fodder. Stoners reject authority by indulging in a forbidden hobby, but are almost always limited by overindulgence, rendered too hapless to affect much change in society. Their rebellion is passivity. Weed enhances their ability to make a mockery of the system but limits their potential to fight it.
“I don't think it changed much until a few years ago,” says Scott Dikkers, author of How to Write Funny and founding editor of The Onion. “It had its heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s for sure, when it was always shock-based, making fun of stoners or stoner culture. Then I feel like it took a break in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with the exception of a couple of stoner movies.”
The successful stoner films and shows of the ‘90s owed a significant debt to Up In Smoke and High Times. If they weren’t set in the ‘70s (Dazed and Confused, That ‘70s Show), they used familiar gags, characters, and plot conventions (Half Baked, How High, Friday, or Dude, Where’s My Car?).
Stoners are loveable schlubs. They stumble into hijinks and capers mostly through confusion. Their primary superpower is their inappropriately chill and subdued reactions to wild and improbable events, as long as they don’t have to hear "the fuckin’ Eagles."
The sensitive geeks of the early Kevin Smith oeuvre are distinguished by their witty pop-culture patter, but their love of weed is still tied in with their depiction as shabby, detached outsiders. Weed is a key element of the humor that runs through hip hop, but it’s still used to augment the same defiant worldview. Devin the Dude and Snoop Dogg may not be particularly threatening, but they qualify as lackadaisical outlaws because their defining characteristic is, or at least was, against the law.
Without prohibition, these jokes lose a lot of their punch.
“I know a lot of comedy writers who use weed to feel more creative, but somehow they aren't using it to make better jokes about weed,” Dikkers says. Now that the societal currents around cannabis are changing, maybe humorists will find fresh ways to crack wise about it. They can start by laying to rest a stock character who's been loitering in comedy for 50-odd years.
Is the Stoner Over?
He's dopey. He's messy. He’s usually a duuude, although female variants exist. He's antisocial in a dumb, non-threatening way. Although he may have moments of sublime, savant-like wisdom, he's generally at the mercy of circumstance. He's a loser, someone to be looked down upon, not one of us.
And that goes for his whole subculture. In comedy, stoners don't accomplish much, and their scenery rarely changes. They're left out of the larger conversation because they lack ambition. They're lazy, solipsistic, and never really pick up the rhythm or connect with those beyond their dens and front porches.
Historically, the stoner scene has been a place for misfits. But now that all sorts of people are using cannabis to relieve stress, treat their medical ailments, explore their psyches, and get more pleasure from their normal, respectable lives, it’s time for the stoner to evolve, to find new and more interesting ways to rebel.
On to the Next Scene
“I'd love to see more observational humor about using weed,” says Dikkers. “There are so many relatable aspects at this point. Just stories and experiences recounted about what being high is like, of what it's like to use marijuana in this day and age when it's not stigmatized anymore. I don't hear that much. Also, stories about new weed users who don't fit the old stereotypes could be funny.”
Some emerging writers and performers are already experimenting with new angles on weed:
- In his groundbreaking series First High, the big-hearted comedian Mike Glazer showcases the endearing and relatable personality traits that weed can coax out of people who’ve never smoked it before.
- The elaborate parlor games of Abdullah Saeed also show how weed can enhance creative exuberance and promote social engagement
- Some of the most fresh and unusual takes on weed comedy come from women:
- The work of Rachel Wolfson is grounded in enthusiasm for mental health and entrepreneurship, and her observations on weed culture avoid the shock value associated with prohibition.
- Adrienne Airhart presents herself as a responsible and sophisticated high-status figure who knows exactly what she’s doing with her drugs (notice how she contrasts herself with a badly drunk interviewer)
- Abbi and Ilana of Broad City are classic stoners in some ways, but their respective neurotic obsessiveness and Machiavellian hustle are modern adaptations to the economically and socially unforgiving landscape of 21st Century New York
The next wave of stoner comedy will call for a new cast of characters. There will be snobby connoisseurs who exclude others in defense of their own social status. There will be naifs who stumble in and refuse to take responsibility for eating an entire edible. Commercialization will bring with it all the excesses of marketing and capitalism.
Prohibition hasn’t ended overnight — we’re still in the transition period. Some of the old gatekeepers, scaremongers, and bumbling mall cops will hang around for a bit, pulling their old shenanigans, and they will be as ripe for mockery as ever.
“The best satire comes from comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, so I'd like to see comedy writers making more fun of officials who still think weed is dangerous or a gateway drug,” Dikkers says. “We should be celebrating people who are able to use weed legally in the face of such anti-freedom nonsense. There are plenty of jokes to be made from that subtext.”
Cannabis can help us appreciate paradox, absurdity, and hidden irony. It can open us up to the weird, the wacky, and the counterintuitive. It can help us draw connections that elude the merely caffeinated. A culture in which weed is a part of the mainstream may be a markedly different one from the one we know. It will call for new strains of satire and mockery, especially when there’s more than ever to be wigged out about.