Coping with Comedy

“No profit grows where is no pleasure ta[k]en” -William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

For a while it escaped me that the title you just read is a double-entendre, as is the epigraph by Shakespeare. They may respectively refer to how comedy is employed as a coping mechanism to deal with life’s harsh realities, and how pleasure is essential to the process of learning and human growth (i.e. “profit”), or, they may regard the fact that if you’re serious about effecting political progress, you may view comedy as something to cope with, as in something to put up with, and that pleasure is essential to the process of making money (i.e. profit) by narcotizing the masses. In this way the title and epigraph capture the reality that political satire is a double-edged sword: it makes political discourse more appealing to the American public and thereby allows them to learn who would otherwise opt out of the discourse, and yet it is consistent with the culture surrounding television which can be described as a culture of anesthesia and something insidious at that. How are we to reconcile this paradox surrounding “fun” in political discourse? It’s not so silly as it might seem to wonder, can fun be a bad thing? Is it dangerous? What does too much fun look like,[1] and what about not enough fun?[2] Like all our favorite vices it seems that fun is best and safest applied in moderation.

There is quite a deal of research that defends pleasure as an essential component of the learning process, but if you’re at all familiar with Freudian psychoanalysis you’ll be familiar with Freud’s pleasure principle. The pleasure principle maintains that pleasure-seeking, characteristic of the id, is among the most primitive and uncivilized aspects of human behavior. It is driven by our fundamental aversion to pain and betrays something inherently selfish and destructive about human instinct. Indeed, in the interview linked above David Foster Wallace pins the pleasure principle distinctively to the American public in terms of its addiction to televisual culture. He states, “since there’s always been a strong and distinctive American distaste for frustration and suffering, TV’s going to avoid these like the plague in favor of something anesthetic and easy.[3]” While political comedy programs like The Daily Show are intended (?) to inform and enlighten and awaken people to the reality of the world they live in, such programs may inspire a certain complacency in the status quo by giving a false sense of activism. In fact, Wallace continues that “TV-type art’s biggest hook is that it’s figured out ways to ‘reward’ passive spectation.” It’s not hard to see how there’s money to be made from programs that reward passivity by creating in its audience the feeling that one is somehow enacting social progress simply by watching television. Political satire programs may then be no exception to the rule that television is an anesthetic to which our society is hopelessly addicted. These programs may provide the illusion of collective activism, but they are consumed within the isolation of one’s own home and thus contribute to the reality of alienation in modern society under the apparition of connection and unity. Yet I still find it hard to sit here thinking I’ve grown so cynical that I would try to persuade you that fun is a bad thing, so let me proceed in defense of fun.

It’s well-documented that in the last decade or two, political comedy programs have displaced mainstream news outlets and become the predominant source of information and criticism regarding sociopolitical affairs, at least on the left wing.[4] As many have indicated in their reading responses to “Hillary’s First 100 Days,” such programs play an essential role in making American political discourse(s) more digestible, accessible, and downright pleasant to people who are otherwise allergic to politics. Bringing pleasure to any discourse is not something to scoff at, as it creates the will to engage with the discourse and therefore advance our knowledge, deliberately or not. If you’ll allow me to get meta for just a second, I’m pretty sure the whole purpose of this assignment is to allow pleasure to motivate our learning by indulging our curiosities with inquiry and whimsy without subjecting ourselves to the crippling self-consciousness inherent in formal writing. And hey, I think it’s working! The most politically active friend I’ve ever had once divulged to me his belief that “life is an inherently non-serious endeavor,” so if life were meant to be enjoyed, how much of our time should be spent feeling dread and despair about political affairs? Coming from a person who is incredibly engaged with political discourse, and who cannot himself escape his anxiety towards political affairs, that’s not at all to say we shouldn’t pay attention to these affairs or that they aren’t important. The question he’s really trying to get people to think about when he says this is, “is this dread really productive? Does it benefit anyone?” The answer is that this dread is not only self-destructive, but the consequential apathy is destructive to our society because it alienates us from each other; it inhibits us from organizing ourselves and taking an active role in political discourse and the change we’d like to see. I mean, if we’re just going to sit around doing nothing about anything, shouldn’t we at least try to enjoy ourselves without abstaining from politics altogether? We might not do anything about the world’s problems John Oliver tells us about, but that doesn’t mean we should stop watching. And perhaps in the act of taking pleasure in political comedy programs, we turn our despair into something productive. Perhaps we can use pleasure as a platform to not just educate ourselves but activate those who would be willing if only it weren’t such a painful experience. This act of making light out of the darkness in the world we live in may be something greater than a selfish way of coping. It may actually be something not just educational but motivational,[5] something that allows us to not just reflect critically on our own attitudes and outlooks towards the world around us but act on these reflections. Creating pleasure in the face of trauma may be something to unify us and use to the advantage of others, to the benefit of our communities and those that need our attention and aid the most.[6] This, after all, is the very trade of great comedians, whose humor typically betrays some amount of trauma and disappointment both in one’s past and in the present condition of our world. But they use humor to provide a sense of connection and kinship (haven’t you ever wondered why comedians tend to be Mets fans?) The crux of all this, then, appears to be whether we as an audience choose to act on the information presented to us in the act of taking pleasure, rather than allowing our culture of “passive spectation” to get the best of us, having us commit to a sense of complacency, to the illusion of being an activist which makes us complicit in the very realities that induce dread to begin with.

­­ There remains the case made that the popular aversion to politics and the need to make political criticism into something fun and consumable betrays something much darker about the American people’s political consciousness in much the same way as a comedian in both are developed in response to some amount of disappointment and suffering. Perhaps, though, there is a distinction to be made that humor is a much healthier response in an individual than it is for a whole society. In the individual, it is a sort of self-medication which seems to work, but on the scale of nations it could be called an epidemic, anesthetizing our sensibilities to world’s horrors. Now, I can think of a whole lot of way unhealthier coping mechanisms than managing a laugh at things that aren’t really funny: there’s bigotry for starters, which I’ve always believed is rooted in self-loathing (which returns us to why there’s so little political satire, i.e. fun, on the right-wing); there’s self-harm, egoism, and every form of abuse and addiction under the moon and so forth. But as I say addiction I’m returned again to America’s addiction to entertainment. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that this widespread addiction to entertainment treats the symptoms of disillusionment with without curing the disease. And when the allergen is political discourse, satire may be a way to treat symptoms without addressing the real cause of the problem.

Except, well, it does seem to be working doesn’t it, comedy and satire? I mean, identifying a problem is the first step to fixing it right? And here we all are being informed and confronting our aversion to the problems of the world (even if not the problems themselves), and we’re managing to enjoy ourselves while we’re at it (or try at least try) and then we’re maybe talking about the last episode at work or the grocery store and having a dialogue and bonding and what. Is there some sort of utility and/or aesthetic to political satire, or does it dull our motivation to effect favorable change? Does it awaken us to our better sensibilities or put us in a sleep filled with dreams of altruism that prove mere delusions when gone unheeded?

Whether political comedy programs have some sort of philanthropic effect on its audience or rather a hallucinatory one should be important to the way we choose to spend our time and dedicate our energy and faculties. It seems harmless and even healthy to spend the time pleasurably informing ourselves that we would otherwise use to knit or do crossword puzzles or whatever else it is that soothes your soul. But then again we can’t spend our whole lives knitting, even if we are knitting afghans with the emblems of noble causes. It’s for us to decide if we’ll make our passive spectation an active and positive force. On their own political satire programs represent the potential for progress to be made, but if we don’t convert that potential to something tangible and productive, it creates stasis in both senses of the word: it creates a period or state of inactivity (viz. in its audience) as well as civil strife. How to go about acting on what we learn from comedy and satire I’d have to ask you to help me out with, because I wonder if just talking about it is really enough.

Image result for tv thinker statue political cartoon

[1] Spoiler: it looks like addiction.

[2] It looks like the Republican Party, among other things.

[3] And when we talk about things like a culture’s aesthetic, he encourages the reader to “think for a second about the etymology of ‘anesthetic. Break up the word and think about it.”

[4] If you want a picture of what total abstinence from fun looks like, just observe any right-wing news source. Why is it that there are so few comedy and satire programs on the right? Is it because there would be no truth or wisdom in their mockery? Is it because they already have an outlet for their repressed anger in the form of prejudice and bigotry? Perhaps they have their own humorless way of taking pleasure at the expense of others.

[5] Indeed, education without motivation se\ems like a recipe for despair. Ernest Hemingway writes in The Garden of Eden that “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

[6] And here we’ve come a long way from the sentiment that political comedy creates the mere illusion of unity and activism.

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