Columns / Discourse / October 17, 2018

The Diagnosis: Can irony save us or is comedy dead?

If tragedy is the birth of comedy, then judging by the marketplace we might conclude that we are all doomed. Our generation, specifically the young Americans of today, are practically bombarded with the comedic. Going through Twitter is like shock therapy but with memes; expressing absurd frustration at the smallest and most mundane, and the most grand and political. Emphasis on the latter, because as old as the tradition of political satire is, it seems like more than ever we are turning to it for some kind of comfort against the tidal wave of hopelessness we seem to be demographically eclipsed in. Against rising student debt, a scarce and terrifying career marketplace, political uncertainty and underrepresentation, apocalyptically eroding climate and culture war, are Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, John Oliver, the occasional Saturday Night Live sketch and a million memes and Twitter accounts mocking the president or our respective political situation and using snark-wit to dismantle them.

And they fail. Every time. They contribute nothing, they change nothing, and instead only support the kind of milquetoast, weepy liberalism which have failed to block the most atrocious rise of hate politics in recent American history. Why? The answer is in their comedy itself.

What’s in a joke? A lot of things; setups and punchlines, truths and untruths, goofiness and darkness. The most common analysis of jokes, probably, is the idea that they are cathartic. By extracting from our real life fears, by twisting and turning them into absurdity, and by laughing at them, we accomplish a kind of bloodletting that allows us to forgo our greater insecurities and fears about life. Oftentimes, it makes things make more sense or at least makes them seem surmountable. But comedy has also historically been able to exist with a purpose; it has adorned and enhanced some great arguments, conversations and mockups of politics and society. This kind of political satire succeeds in part because it is meta-aware; it understands and mocks the conventional structure of political situations in a way that brings new light to them.

And it should be said that our present age has never been more ripe for this kind of comedy-for-a-purpose, mainly because we are the generation of irony. It defines so much about us. We are children of postmodernism, and in our modernity have extended its virtue of irony to many corners of life. We are cynical, we are self-aware, we mock things for their conventions and accept them for what they are. But this cynical irony has no real purpose to our generation if it is not motivated with an undiluted and clear purpose.

After all, irony is so convenient because it allows us to think we understand or can make sense of our difficult reality simply because we know enough about it to mock it. That’s probably why memes have taken such a prominent place in the culture among young people. Quite frankly, the America before us has handed us a broken country, slowly crumbling and melting at the same time, and nothing really makes sense anymore as political and social norms and expectations are being consistently broken. It is easy, again it is cathartic, to snark at it with a witty cynical comment and resign ourselves from looking deeper. That is the problem.

Trevor Noah cannot and never will fix anything about America, nor will any others whose sole comedic purpose is to use irony to escape reality. Not unless that irony comes with a distinct, dedicated, purposive approach. And that approach, historically the most efficient, ought to be to use that cynical meta-awareness to expose and dismantle political untruths and normative oppressive systems. The purpose of political comedy in our age should be a deconstructionist one; to pull out the things we mock and are “aware” of, and to dig into it with a critical and cynical eye, driven by a sincere human want and need for freedom and rightness that our current irony just isn’t giving us.

To close, my favorite joke: A skeleton walks into a bar, and orders a beer and a mop.

I love that joke. I love it because it’s so much more complex than it seems. It’s not just funny as an image, it’s funny in that it supposes that not only is this skeleton doing something surfacely-pleasurable that is ultimately unfruitful to him, but he’s done it before so much that he’s learned from it; yet he continues doing it. So he is aware of his situation and its implications, and how to prepare and respond to it, but not aware of the actual absurdity and futility of the act itself. I hope you understand what I mean to say with this metaphor.

 

Matt Milewski

Tags:  comedy political correctness the diagnosis

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