Comedy and Culture

I’m not as funny as I used to be, but I like to make people laugh. In fact – this may come as a surprise to some of you – I’ve always been a clown. In school I was sent to the principle’s office routinely for disrupting the class with my jokes. At that time it was mostly an ego thing, wanting to be liked and to be the center of attention. But there are better motives for comedy, and I had some of those too. Humor is a good thing and it’s something I once cultivated.

I can’t prove this, but I think the all-pervasiveness of comedy is a modern phenomenon. Somehow I don’t think our ancestors spent as much time and energy being funny as we do. They laughed, sure, and there were probably clowns among them too. Harmless in the right proportions. But there is something different about our times. Today we are inundated with comic strips, comic books, comic plays, comedy clubs, comedy channels, and indeed a booming Comedy Industry requiring a large professional class of comedians and humorists. There is a “comedy and humor” section in your local bookstore. There’s another one in your local video store. Humor is no longer something injected into other activities to provide a little levity, but is pursued as an end in itself.

One possible explanation is leisure and prosperity. In a prosperous society, things that were once scarce can now be produced and sold. Everyone likes to laugh: there’s a market for comedy, but it’s a prosperity purchase. You won’t find a booming market for comedians in Burma or Bangladesh.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. Humor can be a diversion from reality, much like drugs and alcohol, and when reality is difficult people often retreat into humor. Certain kinds of humor are born of alienation, loneliness, failure, and helplessness. My own “comic period” was also one of the most painful times of my life. Modern life, for millions, is empty and devoid of ultimate meaning, and comedy for them is a palliative. Furthermore, the funniest people are often tragic personalities: comedy attempts to fill a spiritual void.  As a professional class, comedians have earned a reputation for high rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

Good comedy requires a certain distance and detachment from the norms of society. Because the norms in our society were once broadly Christian, many of our comedians developed an anti-Christian posture, which was deemed necessary in order to think thoughts the rest of us don’t think, and to say things the rest of us can’t say. As our cultural norms continue to shift, modern comedians “push the envelope” in order to remain outsiders. The Christianity may have left our society, but the anti-Christian posture of our comedians remains.

Comedy, then, is not without dangers. It can be like a drug, promising to fill a spiritual void, providing a false escape from reality. It is not only born of alienation, but it can perpetuate alienation, creating certain patterns of thought and behavior which become habitual.

Finally, though, comedy can be a means of social control – bread and circuses. The people of the United States are particularly vulnerable in this respect. Barack Obama appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno last year. He’s a man with a good sense of humor. If I didn’t know anything else about him – such as this and this and this – I’d enjoy his company. But in watching the Tonight Show clip we ought to consider, instead, Hilaire Belloc’s “Barbarian”:

“We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.”

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