Public Comment

Commentary: Comedy: Cliches or Contradictions

By R.G. Davis
Friday June 30, 2006

Sitting in a local theater a few weeks ago and watching the audience listen to a political comedy I wondered why some people were laughing at things I thought were rehashed slaps at the Bushites. A giggling older man I watched was bouncing up and down on his chair. I thought that must be fun—the jiggling, not the giggling. There is after all, an important function to jiggling while giggling or just jiggling the body. More oxygen, the blood flows and the body is alert—all to the good. The problem is that current political comedy theater is not capable of digging deep enough into the malaise to face a number of reactionary factors. 

The thesis here is that the socio-political-economic-environmental conditions are so convoluted and horrific that simplistic comic determinists are irrelevant and even obstacles to understanding. The American knee-jerk notion that to make a political point one has to use comedy is in part derived from George Bernard Shaw’s dictum somewhere next to the one “If you can’t do, teach.” The “sugar coated bitter pill” is supposed to make it possible for an audience to receive disturbing news. The problem within this culture, such comedy is a distraction and makes the audience think it is smarter than the dumb dumbs in office. Commercial comedy rarely cuts to the bone, because satire is shallow—“rapid transitions … unwillingness to ponder any situation or investigate it thoroughly… fragmentary quality … demonstrating the continuous movement that never brings about change.” (Alvin Kernan Modern Satire) No matter, it makes the audience “feel good” pays the bills and is addictive like junk food. 

Take subjects that are taboo. Consider doing a comedy about Rachel Corrie—a straight play rejected in New York by an art theater group but being done by Peter Shuman’s Bread and Puppet Theatre—most likely not a comic piece. 

Al Franken, when asked by KPFA’s Dennis Bernstein “Would you do comedy on Palestine,” responded, “I avoid that topic.” Franken is no Lenny Bruce. Make jokes about Zionists shooting Palestinians in the occupied and now free-fire-zone of Gaza strip? What? The American Jews used to be famous for their Borscht Belt comics, now the Borscht belt is a chokehold on the brain. One might observe there are levels of comedy in which the matter turns into humor if it is dialectical. Dialectics is that side of intelligent critique that turns into an “ahah moment” in which the recognition of something familiar yet not obvious is made clear. The connection between the Zionists and the right wing “raptus” people might bring a breathy “ahah” but not a giggle since the matter is so bizarre and historically farcical that any laughter is likely to relieve the body of its tears rather than of increasing its oxygen. 

If we consider preemptive strike as a break with previous policy (epistemological break?), if we recognize global warming as dangerous to human habitat, if we recognize the current regime and their clones in the Democratic party as a major problem of which semi-barbarians will replace the barbarians, if we consider the loss of civil liberties and the militarization of American foreign policy and life riddled by patriotism, nationalism and militarism—in high schools and in the religious groups—additional anti Muslim Arab, anti anti, anti xenophobia (an immigrant country—“No Spanish spoken here!”) add the argument that the 9/11 event was known to the current regime and was allowed, or was known and amplified by the implosion of the buildings the composite, the collection of factors causes deep angst. Given that the usual answer to angst is a psychological one—buy a pair of shoes, go to a movie, treat yourself to a good restaurant, it takes a sophisticated method of anlysis to be able to even hear the list. Most people have little time to consider the vast corruption of the empty category “democracy” nor are they able to countenance that their cherished cliches no longer explain current events. People with little theory or ability to engage in negation of the negation or more likely negation of the negation of the negation—until overwhelmed by events crisis, jail, or choking from pollution, are likely to begin giggling. To understand where we are jiggling and giggling won’t help.  

My second thesis: The means by which we have in the past dealt with wars, militarism, invasions, imperialism no longer applies to the Age of the Empire. The Reagan years and the Clinton “no-fly zones over Iraq,” NAFTA (an ecological disaster) distortions, consumerism and the rising costs of gasoline, energy, heat, rent, medical care, education—along with corporate millions for the CEOs, together make for a necessary change in cliches. 

I was at a global warming/carbon depletion presentation, and when the articulate explainer finished, the moderator said “Well, that sort of doomsday approach is ...” and tried to make light with a babble of cliches. It’s tough to argue for a complex explanation of ecological matters without some positivistic moderator objecting—uh oh “You’re getting serious. And negative. We have hope.” Contradictions are our only hope. (The possibility of thinking like that may be the only joke in this article.) 



R.G. Davis is the founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.