Comedian Louis CK has a new standup special out on Netflix. Entitled simply 2017, it may be his most audacious yet. In fact, he devotes the first ten minutes to material on abortion and suicide. And it’s hilarious.
Now, before you write me off as cruel and insensitive, hear me out. It’s easy to dismiss comics like CK as taking refuge in shock value, taking the lazy route to a laugh by being as offensive as possible. And yes, a lot of comics are guilty of this, but in this case, I think something else is going on.
There is plenty of pain to go around.
One of the things that makes me marvel at a good comedian is how they can take a thoroughly unpleasant subject and make everyone in the room feel good about it. CK is a master at his craft; can tackle these controversial subjects artfully enough to avoid alienating half his audience.
Everyone likes to laugh, of course, but too few appreciate the therapeutic qualities of a good chuckle. I’m not just talking about the physical health benefits, although those certainly exist, but also the importance of laughter for emotional health in the face of tragedy.
To Keep from Crying
In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the protagonist is an alien from Mars who spends much of the book trying to understand the human condition. He is a quick student, but one thing eludes him: the phenomenon of laughter. Many humor theorists have attempted to dissect what it is that makes us laugh, but none, in my opinion, has come closer to hitting the nail on the head than Heinlein’s Martian, who eventually discovers that people “laugh because it hurts so much… because it's the only thing that'll make it stop hurting.”
“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have?”
With shootings in San Bernardino, bombings in Syria, and a country bitterly divided over politics, there is plenty of pain to go around. That’s why it’s more important than ever to find something that makes you laugh. Laughter is how we cope.
You can argue that it’s cruel and inappropriate to make light of suffering, that we should treat the subject with the seriousness it deserves, but there’s a difference between schadenfreude and empathy, although the two are more easily confused than you might think.
Most of the time, when someone makes a joke about a tragedy, it’s not about taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others, but about trying to cope with and make sense of the senseless tragedies of an unfeeling world.
So, Lighten Up
It’s when we’re able to see the humor in our own misfortunes that we are truly sane.
Director Preston Sturges understood this as well. In his 1948 farce, Sullivan’s Travels, a screenwriter sets out to travel across America, to experience the suffering of the common man and bring all of life’s great tragedies to the silver screen. After experiencing firsthand the plight of the poor and downtrodden, he ultimately concludes that he’d rather make a comedy. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he says. “Did you know that’s all some people have?”
Comedy is not frivolous or superficial. It’s vital to our ability to make sense of a world that’s filled with suffering. Steve Allen once observed that “tragedy plus time equals comedy,” but the time element is not so important as most people imagine. It’s when we’re able to see the humor in our own misfortunes in real time that we are truly sane.
It’s easy for all of us to get emotionally wrapped up in politics and global affairs, and it’s good that we do. It shows we care. But the intensely disturbing nature of these subjects can drive you nuts if you’re not also able to see the absurdity of it all. Regardless of whether you’re on the front lines or just watching from wings, we can all use a good laugh now and then.