Who is racist, sexist ‘Tosh.0’ really making fun of?

Hank Stuever

The Washington Post

I have vague memories of giving Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0” a tepid review when it premiered, coming up on five years ago.

I have pangs of regret about that review, seeing as how “Tosh.0,” which returns for its sixth season at 10 tonight, eventually became one of my “off-duty” shows that I watch every week simply for the sick, cruelly cool pleasure of it.

On camera, Tosh, who is now 38, appears to be everything his detractors say he is: jerk, troll, obnoxious man-brat, complete jackass.

He wants only to say what one should not say, but unlike other comedians who specialize in that sort of thing purely for shock value, he instead has come to personify our worst impulses as anonymous online commenters.

In his television and comic persona (and perhaps in life), he accesses what could, in a humorless clinical sense, be described as rationalized examples of racism and sexism: He affirms long-standing and socially unacceptable stereotypes (women are bad drivers, for example) and then weakens those beliefs by making himself the smart-mouth who declares it so.

It’s up to you to recognize, privately or by hashtag, if his riffs and rants ring true or if they ring abhorrently false.

Teenagers and college kids and regressive adults love “Tosh.0” because he meets them right where they are, intellectually and emotionally.

“Tosh.0” thrives on a kind of blundering exploration of race, class, gender, life.

“Tosh.0” thrives in a world where a little racism or misogyny or homophobia makes perfect logical sense — if you’re sort of a jerk.

“Tosh.0” invites everyone to be sort of a jerk. Most shrewdly, it’s also an excellent place to make fun of jerks.

But let’s not overthink it, either. “Tosh.0” is still primarily a TV show about the Internet, literally and thematically.

It is filled with videos that capture moments of terrible decisions and painful outcomes: Skaters and urban acrobats and base jumpers mauling themselves in amateur stunts; a man attempting to slice a watermelon with a machete who instead cleanly slices his hand open. Broken bones sticking out of flesh; dogs defecating on car seats.

And most of it has already been seen by millions, who were first linked to it from sites such as Reddit, Gawker, BuzzFeed, anywhere.

When it debuted in 2009, “Tosh.0” was billed as a digest of shockingly funny, gross or embarrassing videos that had recently gone viral, which provided Tosh, in his role as the ur-commenter, ample opportunity to mock the everyday people in them.

The show went on the air at just the point when your television and your computer and your phone all started to merge across platforms.

My initial mistake was to view “Tosh.0” alongside its perceived competitors: “Web Soup” in which Chris Hardwick snarked wise about viral videos or late-night talk shows and even local news stations who were covering whatever YouTube was coughing up from the grand theater of human misbehavior.

For all its venom, “Tosh.0” has somewhat ingeniously stuck with one of its original features, called a “web redemption,” in which the star of viral video who has been mocked globally by millions of viewers is invited to participate in a sketch — a redemption — in which Tosh makes more fun of them but also somehow makes it all better.

But along with his image as a sort of professionally licensed bully, Tosh covertly plays the sympathizer here.

Unless I’m misreading certain cues, he seems almost protective of these accidentally, fleetingly famous subjects.

“Tosh.0” is one of the few places where anyone bothers to seek out such people and find out what happened to them after the Internet chewed them up, spit them out and left them behind.

Tosh’s viciousness as a comedian extends to the culture at large. he loves to insult most of the rest of Comedy Central’s programming.

The insults never cease: Tosh mocks blind people, deaf people, little people, gay people, transgender people, you name it.

He doesn’t like spin classes or CrossFit enthusiasts, or people who propose marriage in grandiose public displays.

When I first reviewed “Tosh.0,” I thought that a TV show built around online content and the nature of the Internet was an unnecessary.

Later, I started to see Tosh as an essential misanthrope. Television is filled with comedians and hosts who all cultivate an image of rudeness and cutting remarks but who still never manage to be half as mean as the anonymous vultures who gather in the Internet’s shadows.

Tosh’s hilarious use of cruelty feels as black as the online soul, and as fleeting and ephemeral.

The unfortunates in those viral videos get hauled off to emergency rooms with broken bones and concussions, and Tosh is unafraid to rub it in and make it worse with his jokes. Can we in all honesty praise this sort of thing? Somehow, eventually, yes.

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