Comedy took a hit on Sept. 11. A strange,
difficult-to-explain kind of wounding that is going
to require some time and intellectual surgery to set right again.
Not long after the attacks on the World Trade Center,
someone cut the power to the mikes. The comedy trains didnít even run.
It seemed like the culture as a collective said they
just didnít want to hear that shit.
The instant national silence imposed on comedy brings
up an essential question, maybe one we donít try to answer
when times are good, but which we must if we are to hold on
to the free speech rights that let us say whatever we want
instead of being reduced to clown makeup and happy puppets.
The question: What does comedy do for a culture?
I donít even want to hear the trivial responses, the
bullshit clichť that "people need to laugh now more
than ever." Thatís trite and untrue. There are times,
often long periods of time, when humans donít need to laugh,
where laughter is at best immature and hollow and at worst
insensitive and inhumane, trivializing and distracting. Do
you want a clown sitting next to you at your fatherís funeral,
poking you in the ribs and blowing his fucking horn? And Iím
not asking for your joke answer, but your real one.
What does comedy really do for, or to, a culture?
Neil Postman wrote a book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," in
which he argued our entertainment makes us unable to stomach
the truly important work of life, that it distracts us from
what is important. In this perspective comedians are one of
a multitude of voices that crowd into the public forum known
as The Media, along with newscasters, politicians, academics,
preachers, writers, singers, actors, and whoever else can
shoulder their way through the doors and clamor their way
to the microphone. In this view, comedians, even well-intentioned
comedians, are basically hired by the capitalist system in order
to yap in ways that keep the audience happy and stupid, both
of which are essential characteristics of a money-flow culture
that wants us to buy, not think, to vote for what weíre
offered instead of wondering why weíre only offered the same
simpering choices year after year. In other words, when we
spend most of our time listening to chirpy talk, we donít
have the energy or ability to listen to truly penetrating,
So comedy harms the culture by distracting us from
important activity. Thatís one possibility. And if you
look at just how much of their lives and brains that
"ordinary" people fill up with media pap,
itís a very real possibility.
On the other hand, Kenneth Burke wrote a book called
"Attitudes Toward History" in which he says that comedy is
a cultureís greatest achievement. That all cultures strive
to get so relaxed and fulfilled that they can take time to
indulge and explore their humor. He says also that comedy
is the only system that sees through all things without any
reverence for what is in its gaze, and because of this it
is like linguistic DNA, you canít ever predict what it will
create. And he believes that the comic interpretation of
life is ultimately the only one that bonds us together, that
only comedy is optimistic enough to keep us all off the edge
of the abyss.
So for Burke comedy breaks open untruth, keeps us fluid
and searching, keeps us constantly discovering, and
encourages us to enjoy each other rather than blame and
try to kill each other.
So which view is true? Comedy with good behind the
laughing mask, comedy with bad behind the laughing mask?
Iíd love to say Burke is truer, because I am in the
comic world, but itís more complex than that. Burke wasnít
talking about comedy in a media-saturated culture where
humor crawls like kudzu onto every living thing, where we
hear the Lenoís and Lettermans yapping away within minutes
of nearly ever single important political or social event
in our world. Burke wasnít defending a comedy that had to
keep sponsors happy, or that was edited and super-sold by
On the other hand, the proliferation of comedy made
possible by a capitalist media is sure to escape even the
control of the corporations. Somewhere inside all of this
verbal chaos there are good things being said, and if you want
to find them you can. Without the media you wouldnít ever
have so many options.
Hereís what I think the answer is, and it again this comes
from another writer. A Russian philosopher named Mikhail
Bakhtin says in "The Dialogic Imagination" that all human
activity is dialogue, that at our core we are simply a
conversation going on that will never remain stable or
predictable. For Bakhtin, comedy is a voice of response.
It grows up and exists in relationship to what already is.
Comedy is a response to an individual, or a philosophy, or
a worldview, or a culture. It morphs and changes according
to who is speaking. No matter what is dominating the airwaves
at the moment, comedy is simply awaiting its turn to speak the
In this view comedy is ultimately pluralistic, it is
necessarily a hodgepodge of good and bad because it will
respond to whatever is said, be it good or bad. Comedy
thus has limitless variations and multiple functions. Itís
an undirected symphony that can be cruel or gentle, barbaric
or mannered. It can help or hinder, be artistic or base.
You canít predict it because it responds to so many voices.
So if comedy is a voice of response, itís possible to say
that the last decade in America was marked by peace and the
end of the cold war, and so comedy has largely been mean-spirited,
indulging our darker side, fully licensed to explode taboos and
run amok because the culture wasnít haunted or threatened by
any immediately looming evil. Because things were settled
comedy has been unsettling.
But what now? What does comedy become now, after the
attacks on the WTC?
The question canít be answered until we see what the
culture becomes. If we lurch into a brooding conservativism--
retrenching to core "values," stiffening the
military, giving up freedoms, being scared of the boogeyman,
wanting the stern father to keep us all in line-- then maybe
comedy will soften and weíll see a return of the Cosby-esque
sweethearts who make us feel good with their innocence and
their life energy.
If the big media machine keeps rolling along telling us
life is good and buy, buy, buy (all those happy, happy
commercials), then comics will necessarily have to keep
using their black markers to deface the smiles on the billboards.
Where are my bets?
Iím betting the "feel good and buy" culture
wins again. Itís already trying to win, as George Bush
tells us to go on with our normal lives and that the economy
is "sound." His people know that if Americans get
scared and stop spending we are going to have a very hard
time funding the "war against terrorism."
I have no doubts that comedy will ramp up again, fully
and just as disharmoniously as ever. It will be just as
open to all voices, both petty and cruel, inane and insightful,
ignorant and antagonistic. The consumption culture needs all
of that constant banter. It needs people to be distracted and
chirpy, and thatís where comics excel.
And I have no doubt that within all of that swirling,
petty talk, there will be comics who will spin out some
crystal insight that brings things together and gives us
cause to pause and look at what is happening around us in
a different way.
Oh, just as an add-on, because I like lists, here are
arguments on both sides about whether comedy is a good
thing or a bad. Maybe some of these fragments will help
you argue with the reactionaries as to why comedy needs to
continue, unhindered and free to tell as many "Bush is
still an idiot" jokes as it wants. Add in where ye may.
Comedy encourages honesty, truth; is a truth finder, truth teller
Comedy encourages different thought, ideas, new configurations on old stuff
Comedy breaks down taboos that repress us in unhealthy ways
Comedy attacks power, debunks, satirizes powers that be, mores, morals, structures
Comedy encourages change, fluidity
Comedy is high art, difficult, complex, interesting
Comedy can align with other forms to uplift, inspire
People actually listen to comedy
Comedy is a way to temporarily escape, or not so temporarily
Comedy is deeply human, we have no choice in the matter, weíre going to laugh
Comedy keeps capitalism humming
Humor is forgiving, social, celebrational, bonding
Comedy is inherently trivial, and that is its appeal and genius, it doesnít have to accomplish anything, isnít caught in the modernist dictum that everything must have the illusion of progress, is simple motion, not action; donít mix weightier things in it, or at least donít expect that they are real in the mix
Comedy is art; language- based art; play with morality art; play with restrictive energy art
Comedy forgives; it doesnít paralyze life by seeing only the serious
Comedy is aligned with play, and play is generative
Comedy trivializes human experience
Professional comedy takes humor out of life and into
a capitalized media
Comedy makes it hard to believe in anything, be
wholehearted, is cynical
Comedy gets in the gears, gums up the normal working
of the world
Comedy is inherently shallow
Comedy tears down, isnít much good at building back up
Comedy stereotypes, typifies, makes easy judgments
Comedy creates psychological distance between us and
those we laugh at
Temporary escapes are distracting, false, keep us
The village idiot is a scapegoat, the fool is executed
Comedy is low art
Comedy doesnít build, it reacts, tears at, disrupts
Comedy has no hierarchy of truth, it allows no
structure, it is anti-structure
Comedy is too easily replicated, too pastiche