When you stop to think about it, stand-up comedy is funny — not just ha-ha funny, but peculiar funny — massive audiences roaring in unison at one person speaking informally about trivial annoyances. What’s going on there? What’s that about?
Peculiar though it seems, it epitomizes one of the best possible uses of art and even religion: a communion not in reverence for heavenly perfection, but in irreverence for our untiring, unrequited quest for perfection.
Oversimplifying, I’d say there are two uses for art and religion: One indulges dreams of perfection; the other honors those dreams while disappointing them. The latter is poignant irony at its best, a soothing acknowledgment that although we’re all romantic at heart, wishing that we could be as one with perfection, we can’t be.
Though history records Darwin's theory of evolution as rubbing people the wrong way because it diminished God’s role or revealed that we came from apes, I don’t think that’s the hardest news it broke. Rather, it made clear that there’s no timelessly perfect formula for living. A formula that succeeds in one context fails in another. Dominant species rise and fall, as life rolls onward by trial and error, guesswork about what will work. Just when you discover the meaning of life, it changes.
Stand-up comedy performances at their richest unite audiences in life’s bittersweet reality sandwich, people relaxing together into what it’s like to be us, the conflicted monkeys we are, striving for perfection we cannot achieve. It’s the church of the Sisyphean toil, striving uphill ever to fall downhill.
There are comedians who tilt toward indulging dreams of perfection, comedians who encourage what I’ll call “we-glee,” the glee of being members of we, the in-crowd, the know-it-all smart set, unlike the dunderheads elsewhere. Trump rallies are pure we-glee.
We-glee comedians make fun of other people, maybe even people in the audience, but rarely, if ever of themselves. Their humor is bitter, not bittersweet, bitter about having to suffer fools when you’re as perfect as they are. Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones can be funny sometimes, but always at other people’s expense. They posture as though they see truth unclouded by their own biases since they have none.
Billy Crystal’s 1992 movie, Mr. Saturday Night, is about a comedian who, with age, tilts toward this kind of self-aggrandizement at other people’s expense and about the way it hurts his career, leaving him alone and bitter.
We-glee comedians are rare on the comedy circuit. Most comedians invite you to laugh at them as much as you laugh at others. They balance self-effacing humor with other-effacing humor. They demonstrate a healthy contentment with their own imperfections, neither entirely at peace nor overwhelmingly anxious about them. You can hear it in their relaxed frustration with their own haplessness. Being in their presence invites and encourages audience members to cultivate their own self-acceptance.
The best comedians are romantiskeptics. Romance, as I use the term here, is not limited to romantic partnership, though that's certainly included. Romance, broadly defined, is the dream of finding some path to perfection, a safe and perfect plateau, solid high ground that one can stand on happily ever after. The romantic urge in partnership is like that, but so too is the dream of reaching enlightenment, heaven, nirvana, or some once-and-for-all philosophy perspective that lifts you up above the mess of human life.
People crave romance. Finding a perfect formula for living one’s life would be like the relief that tightrope walkers feel when, exhausted by the hard work of maintaining their balance in winds gusting from all directions, they land on a sturdy platform — the safety of having something solid to stand on. The relief that romance promises is like landfall after sailing stormy seas, arriving at the mountaintop after a difficult ascent, or landing on solid ground after a terrifying parachute drop.
All of our lives are anxious balancing acts. No wonder we harbor dreams of arriving on safe, solid ground, the perfect plateau, and with it, freedom at last from life’s anxieties and doubts.
Skepticism pulls the rug out from under everything seemingly solid — a banana peel to slip on, no matter what confident stride on solid ground we think we have found. Comedy is the bittersweet blend of romance and skepticism, the setup and the letdown, high hopes and hopelessness. We laugh with and at someone who expresses what’s there in all of us: an unrequitable craving for romantic perfection.
I count two ways to judge comedy. One is from a posture of perfect purist authority declaring what crosses the line as though from some high and solid position; an individual gets to play supreme justice, arbitrating what’s allowable.
The other values humor that is human and honest, based on whether there’s rough balance, an equal-opportunity irreverence, as self-effacing as it is other-effacing. This honest, human humor can cross all sorts of lines. Its quality isn’t judged by whether it crosses them, but on whose behalf it crosses them. If it only crosses lines at other people’s expense, it’s lower quality. If it crosses them at the comedian’s expense about as much as it crosses at other people’s expense, it’s higher quality, because it affords us a chance to commune not in we-glee, but in our universal imperfection.
How does this relate to the other arts? There is romantic art that glorifies the One True Perspective on reality — some religious art, a lot of commercial art that romances products, or propaganda art like that produced by authoritarian regimes. But most great art expresses the ironic poignancy of life, often with the rug-slipping skepticism only suggested. Paintings of Christ’s suffering or great gospel music exult the perfection, but with a hint at the relief that such perfection would bring. After all, why would we exult such perfection, if it weren’t for our suffering in the confusing muck of life?
And religion? Fundamentalist religions indulge in we-glee. Plenty of churches exalt a perfect God apologizing for his humble, fumbling servants, who fail to meet his perfect standards. Some, though, are as bittersweet as great comedians, providing communion in our futile quest for perfection (like in this video, for example).
I decide which people I trust the way I decide which comedians to trust. I trust those who, like the best comedians, are equal-opportunity deflators, as calmly self-effacing as they are other-effacing.
That’s not the way we often assume that we earn people’s trust. We often think we gain people’s confidence by talking about the fools we’ve suffered, our horrible bosses, co-workers, and exes. We coerce people into agreeing with us about what idiots those people all are.
That can earn you trust so long as you’re interacting with people who are desperate to trust you or with likeminded we-glee trolls, but the result is trust within a mutual admiration society built on tribal exceptionalism, the self-impressed living in a world of fools.
One of the challenges we face is that self-effacing humor loses battles with self-certain perfectionists and their we-glee allies. You might have experienced something like this in a debate with someone. If you try to de-escalate by saying, “Hey, you know I could be wrong,” hoping that they’ll reciprocate by saying, “Yeah, me too,” they might instead say, “I agree completely. You could be wrong and you are.” A political comedian who plays his own fall guy gives the self-certain ammunition, which is why self-effacing humor is kept to a minimum in the halls of power.
One master of self- and other-effacing humor is our national treasure, Al Franken. I’m reading his new book and getting a sense of how to play fair (and funny) and fight hard in those halls of power.