Chiseled Cheekbones and Comic Chops: Why We Don’t Like Our Stand-Ups Hunky

My first thought upon seeing the stand-up comic Matt Rife, before knowing much of anything about him, was that I didn’t like him. This wasn’t a considered opinion, so much as a knee-jerk prejudice.

Critics should be transparent about their biases, so let me confess one: I am skeptical of hot men in comedy. And I’m not the only one.

To be clear, I’m not proud of this. Matt Rife can’t help the fact that he has high cheekbones, which have played a role in both his meteoric rise and the grumbling in some comedy circles. Rife, who makes his Netflix debut on Wednesday with “Natural Selection,” went viral on TikTok during the pandemic and then put out two specials on YouTube that together racked up nearly 30 million views, a staggering achievement. Of these three hours, he addresses his appearance most directly in the first, when he says it’s tough to be handsome in comedy. Sure, he gets plenty of attention from women, he explained, but that doesn’t help his confidence or anxiety. “I can’t even hang myself because my jawline will cut the rope,” he says, with an additional curse word.

It’s my favorite of his jokes, a candid mix of self-pitying and boastful that takes you by surprise. But it also forces us to grapple with an uncomfortable question: Is it wrong to discriminate against hunks?

Matt Rife in his Netflix special, “Natural Selection.” His looks have played a role in his rise. Credit…Mathieu Bitton/Netflix

Comedy has been the rare field where square jaws and chiseled features can count against you. Bob Odenkirk once said that it was impossible for men to be funny and sexy. One problem discussing this subject is that you quickly face the eye of the beholder. The question of whether John Mulaney is handsome, it turns out, starts arguments. But the assumption in stand-up has long been that it’s better to be relatable or ridiculous than ravishing. When Anthony Jeselnik got started, he quickly noticed that his looks prevented him from getting laughs at self-deprecating jokes, so he built a villain persona.

Attractiveness has entered the maw of the culture war because the stigma against beautiful men has been fading.

When Pete Davidson sang, “I guess I’m hot for dudes in comedy because it’s an ugly industry” in a “Barbie” spoof on “Saturday Night Live” last month, the quip already seemed dated. An early sign of change may have been when the boyishly good-looking Jimmy Fallon took over as host of “The Tonight Show” in 2014. But you now see handsome men everywhere, even at small Brooklyn shows like the one where a comic introduced the endearingly cute Lucas O’Neil by citing not his credits but his cheekbones. The dimply Trevor Noah and Colin Jost — comics stunning enough that no one is shocked that they dated movie stars and models — are also part of what one annoyed late-night writer described on Twitter as Prom King Comedy, complaining: “You’ve let the popular kids appropriate the very art form that helped you deal.”

Every year it seems a comic gets buff. Kumail Nanjiani most famously, but Chris Rock showing off his abs in The Hollywood Reporter took me more by surprise. When The Daily Beast runs the headline “I Regret to Inform You That Jerry Seinfeld Is Hot,” it just goes to show that a new cultural anxiety has been born.

Nothing, however, represents this shift more than Matt Rife, whose sudden fame came not from the clubs or a festival spot but social media, where you’re rewarded for looking gorgeous in a close-up. While the early fame of Eddie Murphy (in his leather suit era) and Dane Cook anticipated Rife’s heartthrob stature, he feels like a new kind of cultural figure. His relationship with the audience, an integral part of the crowd work videos that built his celebrity, is closer than that of previous comics, and if some fans are responding to his attractiveness as much as his jokes, he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s not playing down or managing his looks. He’s not spoofing or winking at it the way Alec Baldwin did on “Saturday Night Live” early in his career.

Rife leans into his sex appeal. You can see it in the swaggering way he poses for photos or shows off his biceps. Like a boy band star, he invites you to admire him — and says from the stage that his audience is mostly women. Part of his charm is that he speaks like a Teen Beat cover boy, saying things like, “Homophobia is a massive pet peeve of mine.” His debut special was called “Only Fans” and he flirts with the audience. He posted workout clips on social media and uses a topless photo for his Instagram avatar. His road manager is a male model. If Zoolander started doing open mics, he would act like Matt Rife.

This is touchy territory because we already live in a world where every young musical star is attractive, male politicians need to be tall to get elected president and the advantages for actors pleasing to look at are taken for granted. Now comedy too? Is the algorithm going to make the out-of-shape nebbish standup an endangered species?

Rife flirts with the audience in his work.Credit…Courtney Asztalos for The New York Times

Female comics, who face relentless amounts of sexist objectification, navigate an even thornier terrain than their male counterparts, but that’s an altogether different discussion. Comedy is where a homely bald accountant like Bob Newhart could become a superstar. Many comics were first motivated to be funny to compensate for not being popular in school. On the “Too Far” podcast, Sarah Sherman said, “Do you know there are comedians who were not bullied now?”

Once again, none of this is the fault of Matt Rife, a hard-working stand-up with generic punchlines about cancel culture, the irritations of social media and girls who love crystals. Rife once joked that he identified as an ugly person. Put aside the overdone joke construction. What that tells me is he knows the double standard he is facing and wants to get ahead of it.

The idea that handsome people can’t be funny is far too sweeping a generalization. Paul Rudd exists.

I judged Rife too harshly on first glance, but I’m no bigot. Some of my best friends are handsome men. To better empathize with their plight, I FaceTimed one, Misha Collins, an actor who is most famous for playing an angel on the hit show ‘Supernatural” and who was my friend long before he became the subject of online lust and erotic fan fiction.

When I asked Collins about the hardships of the handsome, he looked more uncomfortable than I’d ever seen him. “I’d rather talk to you for a story on Gaza,” he said, adding that there is nothing worse than an actor admitting that he thinks he’s handsome. “Everyone wants handsome people to fail, including me,” he said, flashing the sad but soulful eyes of a self-hating handsome man.

There was something poignant about hearing my friend grudgingly admit that he knows he’s good looking. But as I started speculating aloud about the dangers of being attractive, I noticed him shaking his head and smiling as if I was saying the stupidest thing in the world. Don’t get it twisted, he told me; being handsome is amazing. “You can coast on it in so many situations,” he added, laughing off any sympathy from me.

It reminded me of a joke by Raanan Hershberg comparing getting romantic advice from a hot guy to being taught how to bowl by someone who has only done it using bumpers.

Resentment toward hot men is both unfair and understandable. Beauty is not the enemy of humor, but it is a rival. People always say that what they want most in a potential partner is a sense of humor, but who believes them?

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