I love comedians and comedy, the late night talk show hosts. First Carson, then Letterman. I catch occasional snippets of Fallon. I was never a Leno fan; Conan bored me after a few episodes. I don’t stay up late enough for Craig or Kimmel but I’ll watch them in bits and pieces on YouTube.
I think a sense of humor is an essential skill for living, much like reading, writing, knowing basic math, having empathy, and being able to swim. For the last few years I’ve regularly watched Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Just recently I’ve gotten hooked on John Oliver’s new show, Last Week Tonight.
But over the course of the past five months or so, I’ve stopped watching The Daily Show and Colbert Nation. Because those talented men cannot make the bleak state of our world into something funny, even while riffing off the buffoons at Fox News. Irony only takes you so far.
Stewart is spitting mad most nights. And his anger feels entirely appropriate. He points out insanity wherever he sees it. But we don’t need to have it pointed it out; it is staring us in the face. Open any newspaper, print or online. There’s nothing but undigestible horror, and it is everywhere. Colbert basks in his faux celebrity, which has, ironically, become real as we anticipate his position as the new Letterman. But the glow wore off in short order. And his satire grows thin as the state of the world grows relentlessly more tragic. There’s no balance anymore. We’ve reached that point: there’s nothing funny or even hopeful to offset the Gaza strip, Ferguson, the Ukraine, ISIS, or Ebola. When ISIS beheads journalists—Foley attended my alma mater and Sotloff was a friend of a friend—as if for the pure murderous sport of it, because surely there’s no logic behind such lunacy, we have moved into a realm well beyond laughter, far beyond lightness. We can only shake our heads at the madness and wonder when we’ll be able to laugh again, and at what. We certainly won’t be laughing at a nine year old girl with an Uzi.
John Oliver’s show is, of the three, angrier. I respect that. He seems less driven by a desire to find humor, more driven by true and well-researched outrage. Moral outrage. Justifiable moral outrage. There’s courage there. It might be hard to recognize because we see so little of it in the context of American broadcast journalism. But every week he wants to make a point. And his points are diverse and in your face, as well as giving you tips for how to get in the faces of others. Hooray for John.
It occurred to me today that while humor might seem like a survival skill, it is also, perhaps, a luxury. Because it requires some distance. Distance from pain and suffering. We don’t have that right now. Imagine what it’s like to be living in Gaza or Israel or Liberia or Ferguson or Syria or Iraq or any of those places that we read about fearfully, that cause us to lose our collective sense of humor. Imagine being those people and trying to laugh. I suspect it is more than difficult.
People tell me I’m good at humor so I want to find something funny to write about. But apparently I’m not good enough.
In my yard, there are turkey vultures; they’re big and ugly and incredibly uncoordinated. They land on my roof with a thud; they galumph across the grass. I don’t see anything dead and have no idea what they’re doing in my neighborhood. I would like them to go away; they are terrifying. I preferred the hummingbirds and goldfinches from summers past. But I realize that perhaps they are simply a metaphor for something larger, something I prefer not to acknowledge. We are living through dark days. Those of us who live without Ebola, without marauding murderers on our doorstep, who have roofs above our heads, who aren’t worrying about bombs or beheadings have much to be thankful for. There is nothing funny about gratitude. A moment of silence seems more in order.