Monday, August 11, 2014

The Darkness That Powers the Laughter

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Comedy fulfills a number of functions in a society, ranging from a pressure valve to keeping egos in check. However, in order to work the comedian needs to be able to look at his subject in the most truthful way; a great comedian does not merely make jokes but exposes the reality of his target. If he's a truly great comedian he does it because he sees something good in the target; he wants to bring out the best in the target and he hopes that his humor will do exactly that.

And that defines the difference between someone who merely tells jokes and a true comedian. Jerry Seinfeld merely tells jokes; he thrives off the attention, but his humor lacks a certain bite. He has actually hit the point where he just mentions something and hopes his audience laughs. He tells stories, but those stories are generic; he puts in just enough detail that anyone can fill in the details with their own. Because he doesn't really offend anyone and let's them do the work he has become a sort of mac and cheese comedian; he's great for assuring people but he doesn't really stand out, just like yoiu reach for that bowl of mac and cheese when you need a comfort food rather than something that will actually fill you.

On the other hand, Christopher Titus is steak. He actually explores the subject matter; he doesn't just describe his decidedly dysfunctional family but he looks at what made them that way, how they could have been different, and what makes them both hero and villain of their own story; he shows that no matter how different families are they are still composed of people that love one another. More to the point, he's not afraid to offend, to just out and out tick someone off, and roll with it; he's not interested in sugar-coating things but getting to the heart of the matter.

Seinfeld is the comedic equivalent of a merry-go-round; sure, he makes you feel good about taking a ride, and sometimes it's sorta fun to take things slow, especially if you're on a date, you have the bond of a shared experience, but the ride itself is quickly forgotten. It's a pleasant experience, sure, but sometimes you need a roller coaster.

Titus is that roller coaster. When you emerge from one of his performances it's almost cathartic because you've undergone the full range of emotions. You become so wrapped up in his world that youi actually experience his memories, and get to explore his world, and that allows you to link to another human. There isn't just a small bond, but something tight and strong; after you leave, you have a greater appreciation for the people around you, and feel a greater connection to them. order to create that greater bond you need to be willing to take a long, hard honest look at the reality around you. Seinfeld just comes off as not having taken that look, and only have taken a quick look around. Titus, on the other hand, has taken that long, hard look, and it shows in his humor. That look is required for any good joke, as it is not just good enough to know why it is funny, but you also need to how it connects to others, so that the joke doesn't remain a mere joke but a glimpse of reality, and it's offering that glimpse of reality that makes the difference between a great joke that can affect who you are and a mere diversion.

There is a payment, however. Taking that long, hard look requires the ability to plumb one's depths, and to look at one's personal abyss. As everyone has that spot within them that they wish they could forget, and so by looking at that abyss, that one area we all share as humans, a comedian sees who they truly are and who those around him truly are. By exploring what it means to be a person he learns what it takes to be a human, and thus how all of us are connected. For a comedian this can be a powerful advantage.

However, sometimes that abyss looks back. If the person lacks any grounding or preparation for that look back, it can harm them, and if they do it a lot then the harm is magnified. It's entirely capable for one to become the best comedian ever, but the person needs to be willing to stare long and often at that abyss, and that gives the abyss plenty of opportunity to stare back. For someone without grounding or without those that ground him, that look back can destroy the person. Not necessarily in that moment, or that hour or even that day, but eventually that abyss will destroy him.

A comedian is capable of showing us our true selves, and from there affecting great changes in his audience and therefore the world. The power to create laughter means the power to allow us to laugh at ourselves and in that moment take stock of whether our behavior is acceptable and just part of being human, or whether we need to change in order to be better humans, and if we listen we can be better people.

As I write this Robin WiIliams has lain cold for two days, a victim of his own abyss. He was a true comedian, one that changed the world in ways even he may not appreciate. This is a man who explored the alien, the teacher, the friend, the eney. He looked at humanity from dozen of different angles, even from that of a frog. He showed us what we could be become, all of us diamonds in the rough that could choose to be rough or shine, but the decision is ours. He will be missed, but hopeflly his abyss has been relaced with something brighter. 

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