Here’s to irreverence, and comedy’s crucial role in navigating the New Normal
It seemed fitting that the morning after this year’s Golden Globes, when a glitzy gaggle of A-list actors and showbiz who’s who’s had witnessed a comedian unleash an opening monologue that doubled as a surgical strike of derision, Ricky Gervais took to Twitter the following morning to retweet a reporter who’d taken offense at Gervais’s jokes from the night before, proving in the process that she’d totally missed the point of his Hollywood haranguing.
I wish I’d been alive in the early nineties to witness political apparatchiks gush over, or godsmack, the idea of The End of History, Francis Fukuyama’s premise that with the fall of the Soviet Union, democracy was cemented as the ultimate form of societal control—I mean, government. Now, with that thorny problem settled, we could turn our collective attention toward other pressing matters, like plotting how to get to Mars.
During a recent perusal of Adam Alter’s book Irresistible, ostensibly about technology’s inherent addictiveness and our utter helplessness before its ever-onrushing waves of updates and all these glittering new gadgets, I learned that this End of History syndrome is a universal phenomenon that has echoed throughout the ages, each passing generation not only sure they’ve witnessed the craziest epoch in world history, but also certain that nothing much will happen henceforth.
Here we come to the precipice that seemed to spring up upon us all of a sudden-like, a precariousness precipitated by an End of History rhetoric that has been foisted upon the masses by willing media disseminators, sensing some serious swells of upheaval emanating from the lower depths, and looking for a way to dilute that energy into something more manageable. Ergo, the tried-and-trued procedure of funneling it into the ever-growing tumor of partisanship.
Politics should be viewed with a healthy skepticism; but of course at the moment we’ve got two political parties that are followed by ever-increasing ranks of rabid fans who view any defeat to their chosen cause as death and any victory, whatever it’s import, as life itself.
If this sounds like tug of war, or some other game that belongs on an elementary school playground, you’re not far off. Glorification of youth culture has metastasized into an inclination to remain in a state of permanent high school, welded into cliques and unwilling to venture one foot outside of them. Or maybe it really is a few grades back, with the two camps lined up across from each other thumbing their noses at the opposition and thinking that, somehow, has won them the day.
Whether it’s Nancy Pelosi sauntering maskless through a San Francisco hair salon, or Donald Trump emerging from a weekend’s bout with COVID to exhort his fellow Americans to live lives free from fear of the virus, any reasonable citizen might just think the simulation settings had been calibrated in recent months for its architects’ maximum enjoyment.
At the very least, after watching two presidential candidates shout at each other for over an hour, you’d think we might take a step back and think, With leaders like these…maybe we could take a break from the life-and-death tenor news has taken on since 2016, which has ramped up considerably this election year. Maybe turn our focus to matters we have a better chance of controlling, rather than taking the bait coming through TV screens and news articles about events unfolding far beyond us, which get us so mad, or so giddy, that either way we remain in a perpetual state of stimulation. And half the population continues hating the other half.
Waking up in the morning and scanning our carefully curated news feed to imbibe whatever worldview we’d like to engage in that particular day. Events are occurring, just like they’ve always occurred, but perhaps now more than ever we’ve decided that we’re allowed to interpret them through our chosen political filter. It is not so important what happened, but rather how it affects our chosen political party. I think I saw this called “post-truth” somewhere. Which augurs well for a society. But this is the reality we’ve settled upon, and we proceed apace, two separate camps marching ever closer towards an intractable impasse.
But before the doom and gloom, back to Gervais, who has pinned a tweet with the video of his Golden Globes monologue to the top of his Twitter page. Perhaps unsurprisingly, before one can click into its contents, one must first pass through a warning for “sensitive material”.
I still have some hope, however, and that’s largely thanks to the likes of Gervais, and a comedy scene that was booming pre-lockdown. So many of the art forms have been co-opted by a political avalanche, with people deciding that it’s more important to send the right message. Don’t you dare take shots at both sides.
Comedy—at least, good comedy—has largely been able to shrug aside this socialist realismus pulpit-eering. With our political leaders happy to indulge our view that we’ve reached the apex of thought, comedians are there to usher us back through a mapped world and show us new arteries and veins we would otherwise miss. Poke a hole in the blowhards dominating discourse. Here we find ourselves with a new power, observing a crumbling societal framework and finding a way to laugh amidst the gloom.
There’s something about comedy that can perhaps best encapsulate the mood of the masses. Maybe it’s the most democratic medium. One of the most interesting wrinkles to emerge in the run-up to the 2016 election, when a Hillary Clinton victory was sold as certainty, was comedians quietly offering a rebuttal to that notion. These comedians had been going around the country, talking to people at shows, and they got the sense that this thing might swing toward Trump. Us normies could overhear this when they’d discuss it on podcasts.
Cut to the New Normal, and the lockdown, and instead of taking to social media to proselytize, as so many actors have done, comedians again have by and large put their heads down, and simply put out good material in a format more conducive to social distancing. Podcasts are booming—none more so than the Joe Rogan Experience, which this year has become one of the biggest hot-button issues thanks to its big-money move to Spotify.
While so much of Twitter, or Instagram, seems carefully curated—politicians delegating that detail to staffers, maybe with the sole exception of Trump—or debates where, when the candidates aren’t verbally brawling, they’re back to spewing the minute-long sound bytes that network TV executives have decided are all that Americans need take into account when making their vote.
This is why the idea that Rogan moderate a debate between Trump and Biden took off like a rocket. Here was the medium so many have grown to love, where a host sits down and just talks about things with a guest—the longer the better—that has eviscerated all the hand-wringing about Americans’ infinitesimal attention spans, and pretty much nuked the idea that we even need these debates. At least in the format we’ve grown to endure.
Instead of the browbeating tone so many of our societal leaders resort to—VOTE (of course it goes without saying just which party one would vote for)—comedians take a step back from the fray and, armed with a bit of perspective, are able to laugh accordingly. The ones who don the cloak of impartiality, punching right and left, appear to be the more genuine interpreters of that great adage of Simone Weil’s, that “One must always be ready to change sides with justice, that fugitive from the winning camp.”
There’s this idea that the citizenry is expected to check anyone in power—not decide that, their side having won, all they have to do is run interference for them against their enemies.
Maybe jesters really are the best judges of justice. They will be hated for going against the grain, just as we’re being told from every angle that it is of utmost importance to choose a side.
When we finally emerge from this New Normal, and are allowed to frequent shows like we once did, I’m looking forward to nursing my sides the next morning, having laughed so long the night before. Until then, I’m glad we’ve had this look at comedians, who rather than be cowed, have bided their time by coming up with some pretty cool stuff. Maybe it’s just that they’re more accustomed to a more personal interaction with crowds that they don’t see the need to talk down to the public.
Maybe they see the need for a simple diversion from the non-stop madness, shorn of political intrigue.
They just do as Ricky Gervais has done so often since March. Take to Twitter, sans fanfare—this will not be the “serendipitous” drop-in carefully curated for maximum impact in the blogosphere—and just talk for twenty to thirty minutes about…well, whatever. Have a pint, and chit-chat.
The lockdown has poked a giant hole in the entertainment industry, and it’s brought our political landscape to the brink. With everything explored, and nothing new to find under the sun, thank God we’ve got comedians to take us back to the basics and forge that path back through the absurdity. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but maybe that’s just from me laughing.