By Barry Neenan
Here’s a sentence I have difficulty saying aloud: I am a big fan of Ninja Sex Party. It’s the one name harder to praise publicly than Kung Fu Panda.
But my history with Danny Sexbang and Ninja Brian – aka Dan Avidan and Doctor Brian Wecht, PhD, No Really He’s An Expert On String Theory – was not always rosy. With the band’s latest album, ‘Cool Patrol’, out in one week (August 17th), now is the perfect time for some reflection. Sit with me awhile and I will explain how the dick-joke ninja boys exemplify a fundamental concern of modern comedy. Or don’t. I’m not a cop.
First formed way back in 2009, Ninja Sex Party is a band consisting of two exaggerated comedic personae; Ninja Brian, who provides the Ninja, and Danny Sexbang, who provides the Sex and also the majority of the Party. While the first ever video claims that Danny is also a ninja – “the toughest fucking ninja that you’ve ever seen”, no less – he abandons this in order to do a sex on ladies. Or attempt to, at any rate.
NSP toiled for a few years in that unforgiving hinterland all small entertainers must navigate: Youtube Dot Com. Slowly, they made a name for themselves, partly thanks to Donald Glover sharing one of their early videos. Yes, that Donald Glover. [Ed: The actor who looks an awful lot like Childish Gambino?] NSP also networked with other Youtubers, giving them roles in their videos as an effective form of advertising.
Indeed, my first exposure to NSP was a song in which JonTron guest-stars. As a big fan of Jon back in 2013, I eagerly checked out ‘Let’s Get This Terrible Party Started’ – a sadly prophetic title. Having since listened to NSP’s entire discography, this might actually be their weakest song, both musically and lyrically.
‘Let’s Get Th- ugh, let’s just call it ‘Party’. ‘Party’ has Danny invite the listener to a party. He is very excited for the party but it turns out to not be very good. That is the joke.
There’s nothing especially objectionable about this concept, but the specific jokes left me cold. The first indication the party is not cool and fun is that the guests are playing Dungeons & Dragons: this joke does not make sense, because Dungeons & Dragons is the most cool and fun thing there is. Danny also insists that “when the music starts to drop, the vibe’s gonna change/We’ve got the country-themed Bar Mitzvah band, Shalom on the Range”. This is, granted, a cute pun, but you’ll forgive me if I’m a little wary of Youtube videos where the punchline is ‘ha ha! The Jews.’
Unimpressed, I closed the video. And NSP would be filed in my head for some time as Bad Youtubers.
But the Internet is an endless ocean of change. No more than two weeks later, Game Grumps saw JonTron’s departure, with his place as Not-So-Grump filled by – oh, god. That guy from that band with that not very good song. I decided it was perhaps a good time to leave the channel as well.
That lasted just a few months. I wandered back to Grumps on the promise of more Barry, since Barry is a true exemplar of among all Barrys and indeed my role model for Barry-ness. Over time and countless dumb videos, my wary distrust of Dan subsided, then grew into a deep fondness. But I still didn’t rate his musical endeavours as worth listening to.
Then, Dan released a video that truly gave me pause. In January 2015, in support of the original book’s author, Dan released a(n entirely free) cover of The Last Unicorn’s main theme. Not only does Dan’s genuine love of the story shine through – not only is it a thoughtful and commendable gesture – but Dan’s four-part vocal harmony is nothing short of haunting. “Goddamn,” I thought. “Dan’s been a good musician this whole time.”
And so, before I could change my mind, I moved my mouse to Recommended Videos and clicked on my second ever NSP song.
I chose well. ‘Dragon Slayer’ is a song that demonstrates NSP at their best. The lyrics are humorous. The video is ridiculous (Brian stares into the camera in every shot, sometimes impossibly). And most importantly, the song itself is an absolute jam. After the intentionally bumbling ‘Party’, here was NSP at full power. I checked out the rest of their videos, and here we are.
But my history with NSP isn’t just as simple as hearing a bad song and then hearing a good song. Through Game Grumps, I had learned more about Danny, garnering an affection for him (an affection which is, at this point, very deep). But saying I like NSP’s comedy more because I like Danny more is also too simplistic. I had learned more about him as a person, and this knowledge had reframed the jokes themselves.
This brings us to ‘punching up’ versus ‘punching down’.
Artsy comedians may wax philosophical to you about how comedy is a fundamental force for justice. The noble comedian is a clownish crusader against tyranny, questioning authority and mocking dictators. The comedic impulse to defy power structures helps keep the world free and fair. This is known as ‘punching up’, and is generally considered good. Remember when Donald Trump tried running for President, but JK Rowling Perfectly Destroyed Him In One Tweet and his entire body was atomised and we never heard from him again? That. That’s what they mean.
You may infer from my example that I consider this concept somewhat romanticised.
Comedy can most definitely be a force for good, the same way a brightly-coloured assault rifle can. Like any other weapon, it comes down to who’s wielding it. Some particularly edgy comedians claim the oppressive power structure they are rebelling against is “””political correctness”””, which they bravely defy by mocking marginalized communities. Some comedians are more straightforward, and just mock marginalized communities because that works for them and they genuinely think it’s funny. This is known as ‘punching down’, and is generally considered not so good. It is the other side of the coin.
What has this got to do with our sensuous pal Danny Sexbang? Well, there’s a third side of the coin – the… circumference, I guess – which we might call ‘punching sideways’. There’s an unspoken but generally accepted rule in comedy that jokes about marginalized groups are fine if the comedian is from that group. This makes sense intuitively. We’re always able to talk about our own communities, even negatively, but it’s generally gauche to intrude on others without good reason. A black comedian can mock black people (sideways) and white people (up) without much comment from audiences, but going on a vicious tirade about the Koreans might not go down so well.
To use an example closer to home, imagine you hear the following joke:
“Paddy Irishman reads an article about the serious damage that drinking can do to your health, and it gives him a terrible shock. So he decides, that’s it! From today, no more reading!”
Imagine you hear that for the first time from your local plumber, born and raised in Stradbally. Now, imagine you instead learned it from an English tourist you meet at a bar. Same joke. Different vibes.
In short, audiences are generally cool with comedians mocking their own communities. This principle is in play when Danny jokes about Jewish people or nerds. (Not to remotely imply those are two groups who have suffered equally throughout history, good god.) There’s no weird ethnic angle on the Judaism jokes beyond being self-effacing, and indeed, they become steadily less frequent to the point Danny has effectively retired them outright. The jabs at D&D are toothless in light of Dan’s long history as a gamer and general nerd. And it’s clear Danny Sexbang’s absurd obsession with sexing ladies is less a celebration of male heterosexuality and something closer to a parody of it.
Yes, I seriously just dropped the ‘uh, it’s a PARODY’ excuse. I truly have no shame.
But this brings me to my final point. Knowing Danny better made me more amiable to his jokes. But should it?
Sorry to leave you without a hot take, but I’m genuinely not sure about the grander ethics at play here. I don’t think anyone is. The best you can do is take things case by case, exercising your own judgement. This extends not just to comedians, but the individual jokes thereof; it’s not like you must either Love or Hate a comedian’s entire repertoire. I still think the joke in ‘Party’ about D&D being lame is neither original nor well-executed. Knowing Danny better has just removed what I perceived as malicious intent, while also allowing me to discover the NSP jokes I do enjoy, like pretty much the entirety of ‘Dragon Slayer’.
But crowing endlessly about the underlying intent and meaning and he’s a good dude I swear-ness behind every dick joke is just pointless. Exercise your judgement over whether you like a thing, then exercise it again if you’re considering whether to recommend it to a friend, based on that friend’s tastes. I don’t blindly recommend stuff like Rick & Morty – and not, in fact, because it takes an extremely high IQ to comprehend. Quite the opposite. It’s a show with a character named ‘Mister Poopybutthole’. It ain’t for everyone.
Danny is an adult man, almost 40, and one of the chillest people on the Internet. He won’t be heartbroken if you don’t listen to his songs about ninja genitals. He and Brian have found success living their dreams, and that’s the important thing. The metatextual dynamics of ethical comedy are just something I chew on in between enjoying such hits as ‘Samurai Abstinence Patrol’ or ‘Orgy for One’.
Even if Ninja Sex Party doesn’t strike you as your kind of content™, I absolutely recommend taking five minutes to check out their heartfelt new single ‘Danny Don’t You Know’. It’s a rocking jam with a sweet, important message and also one of the kids from Stranger Things, in what is a mutually beneficial professional relationship because turns out even internationally famous 15 year old boys enjoy video game Youtubers.
But mostly the thing about the sweet, important message.