Do comedians and journalists need bad things to happen?
The next four weeks in Denver will see a tsunami of comedy events. There are four killer standups at Comedy Works (Craig Ferguson, Mike Birbiglia, Marc Maron, Kevin Nealon), two comedy festivals (High Plains, Funstival) and the Oddball Comedy Tour (Dave Chapelle, Flight of the Conchords). It's raining microphones in Colorado's capital. And yet, at the same time, there isn't one single goddamn tragedy in the world for us to laugh at.
Patton Oswalt compared George W. Bush presidency to "sodomy demons" in 2009. "Not worth the comedy."
Yes, I know, this is a fucked-up thing to wish for. It feels fucked-up just to write it. But it's something you have to come to terms with if you're a comedian, a journalist or a journalist that writes about comedy. How many times have you have you heard a comic ironically thank God for some comment by Sarah Palin, Kanye West or the Westboro Baptist Church? And no name sold more newspapers this summer than Trayvon Martin. We're not responsible for these bad things -- but does wanting them make us bad people?
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Most tragedy is only half-funny. It was sad that San Diego Mayor Bob Filner put his female staff members through such duress, but his photo alone was worth the news story. It's abhorrent that Russia is developing all of these draconian laws around free speech and sexuality, but who doesn't love to see the words "Pussy Riot" in their CNN newsfeed? The War on Drugs is responsible for a trillion wasted dollars and millions of incarcerations, but the goofy propaganda about a "marijuana injection" trend was one of the funniest things I read all summer.
There aren't many of these gems floating around the blogs right now, though. There's nothing less funny than the massacre in Egypt, Dick Van Dyke escaping a flaming car isn't funny without a prostitute or at least some showtunes involved, and the governor of Maine recently saying "Obama hates white people" is so five years ago. As of this week, both Bill Maher and the Daily Show are on summer break; the crews of both will likely be spending that time hoping another Republican is reluctantly outed as gay. Because right now the news is about as sexy as an Amish orgy.
Unless they're drag queens or Comedy Works regulars, though most local comics will weather this storm without much turbulence. Topical humor isn't a hot trend in the regional scene here in Denver, where many comedians rely on autobiographical and non-newsy observational humor (or are just sane human beings). So I imagine an essay like this is pretty annoying to them.
In his 2009 special, My Weakness Is Strong, Patton Oswalt recorded a whole bit about how sick he was of the comedians-are-gonna-miss-George-Bush argument.
I tell you what, I would happily give back the ten minutes, tops, I wrote about George W. Bush if we weren't torturing people and our money wasn't on fire. It was not fucking worth it. Imagine if for the last eight years there were demons just flying around in the sky, and they would randomly swoop down and sodomize people. And then I wrote ten killer minutes about the sodomy demons. But then the Pope banishes them to another dimension, and people say, "Hey, Patton, I bet you're gonna miss those sodomy demons." I'd try to adjust.
This is a fair argument, but it misses the point. No one is saying that George Bush was good for America (well, some people are, but most of them are rich, blond gun-owners, categories that few comedians fall into). I didn't want Paula Deen to prove that oblivious racism still exists in the South, but there was a wormy little side of me that jumped for joy when she did. Because it was interesting.
Comedians often argue that we laugh at tragedies as a coping mechanism, and that humor shines a clearer light on ethical paradoxes than grief does. But this is also only half the argument. Because in America you don't have to look at the ugly news of the world.
I used to date a girl who was not very interested in politics or tabloid gossip. So naturally, she didn't understand many of the jokes made in the hours of Russell Brand, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher comedy that I forced her to endure whenever we'd watch TV. "I should be more up on things," I'd often hear her say after the predictable John Boehner or Donald Trump reference would fly over her head. But she really didn't need to be -- at least, not from my perspective.
I spend hours every day keeping up on current events, but my only motives for this are a) it gives me something to write about and b) it's fascinating. Neither reason has any nobility. I watch the news the same way I watch Breaking Bad: It's a serialized drama I like to follow, and eventually write about. Only the news is even better because it doesn't take a break between seasons.
I don't want to speak for any comedians, but my assumption is that many of the topical standups and cable-news satirists of the world have the same nihilistic approach to current events that I do. And does this make us bad people? It doesn't make us good people, since we're only interested in the news of the day in order to find the humorous commentary inside it. But how wrong is that? We're not actively responsible for the evil behavior in other people; we're just entertained by it.
Jesus, as I re-read that statement, I realize I just made an argument for The Hunger Games.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.