Saturday, August 8, 2015

After Jon Stewart, Can We Find the Funny?

I had a colleague at Chicago Theological Seminary, Dr. Phil Anderson, who used to teach a class called "Humor as Healing and Grace." The premise of the class was that the world hurts and harms us so much that finding the funny, finding the humor, is crucial for finding a spiritual center and healing from these wounds.

Last night, at the end of his last "Daily Show" program on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart told his audience and viewers that they were the ones who had to carry on the work of finding the humor in the hypocrisy of the world. The world shovels out a lot of bad smelling hypocrisy (Stewart used a pithier metaphor), and it is now the job of everyone to sniff that out. "If you smell something, say something," Stewart instructed, at the same time ridiculing the paranoid security culture in which we all now live.

Can we do it? Somehow, we must. Comedy is essential to combating the true soul poison of a constant barrage of bad smelling hypocrisy and outright lies.

On MSNBC, John Fugelsang, comedian and radio host of Sirius/XM's Tell Me Everything observed to host Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, that what has made Stewart's comedy great is truth. "If there's not an element of truth to a joke, people won't laugh. That's why people trust comics more than journalists or politicians." Fugelsang himself remarkably combines political and cultural critique, humor and what I can only call the 'real politics of Jesus.' One of Fugelsang's favorite lines is, "Jesus never called the poor 'lazy,' fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes or asked a leper for a copay." Fugelsang is finding humor as healing and grace, in the same way Dr. Anderson taught.

But did Jesus do comedy?

Though it is actually never recorded in scripture that Jesus laughed, the Gospels do say that he cried. The Buddha, on the other hand, is said to have laughed all the time. In between these religious poles lies the truth of the human condition. There is plenty of cause for mourning in human life, but sometimes the best thing you can do to puncture your own inflated sense of self-worth is to laugh. Jesus and the Buddha knew about good and evil--and that makes laughter and tears part of the same religious response.

But what will we do without Jon Stewart and his particular blend of truth, humor and political insight? 1999, Stewart took over The Daily Show and gave it a more political bent than had been the case on other Comedy Central shows. With the invasion of Iraq, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart became a source of profound criticism of this pre-emptive war and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction when "embedded" journalists of the mainstream media were unable or unwilling to provide critiques.

From "Rubble Without a Cause" (04/08/03) to "Moment of Zen: Iraq Weapons" (01/27/04), to several segments called "Farewell to Arms," in both 2003 and 2004, Stewart was the constant war critic the rest of the media lacked.

Stewart also repeatedly did segments on torture, including "Headline: A Few Bad Men" (05/04/04) and "Moment of Zen: Donald Rumsfeld" (05/06/04) when torture was under-reported, or misreported as just 'enhanced interrogation.'

Comedy can help foster critical thinking and self-awareness that is, in a universal sense, a response of conscience. It can be especially effective in puncturing the balloon of over-whelming human self-confidence and inserting healthy doubt. Indeed, comedy can more accurately reveal the convoluted relationship between the human capacity to reach and create, and the human temptation to overreach and destroy. It sometimes does this far more better than straight-faced analytical articles or even blog posts like this one.

It was wonderfully ironic that Stewart's last show followed the Fox News televised primary debates of Republican presidential candidates. Angry bombast was the affect of the majority of the candidates. John Oliver, when a "reporter" on The Daily Show, offered a revealing insight into why there is so much anger in politics. Oliver explained that the emotionally unstable relationship of uncertainty in the country is directly related to the amount of angry protestations of certainty. "The amount of certainty you have is in inverse proportion to how stubborn you are and how angry you get," intoned Oliver in a segment called "Solving the Economic Crisis." Oliver's humorous observation perfectly explains this conservative bombast--there are no easy answers to the country's problems today. They know it, you know it, and nobody in among these GOP candidates wants to admit it. So they yell a lot.

So perhaps Jon Stewart is not unique, as we do have John Oliver, John Fugelsang, Stephen Colbert and other comic cultural, political and even religious comedians to carry on. Jessica Williams is a rising comedic star, and Stewart is succeeded by Trevor Noah. From Chris Rock to the late Robin Williams, comedy has been repeatedly torn from pain and made into consciousness.

Yet, as individuals, I think we should answer Stewart's challenge and try ourselves to become the 'comedians we have been waiting for.'

Just not today. I can't find the funny.

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