Comedians occupy a special place in our society. These are the folks that provide relief from the day-to-day grind, and make us laugh at our predicaments, problems, and troubles. When things get really tough, humor can see us through even the darkest times. During the Falklands War, British sailors from the HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry sang Monty Python’s classic, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” while waiting for rescue after their ship sank. Even at wakes and funerals, people will sometimes make great dark jokes, often at the expense of each other and even the deceased. Humor helps keep our sanity.
Comedians also perform another important service – they can tell the truth about the world (and in a very clear way) that can even sway public opinion. From Dick Cavett’s commentary on Nixon and Watergate, to John Stewart’s calling out of countless situations in politics, comedy has an important, if not critical role to play in helping bring up and illuminate what is wrong with society. Comedians, either alone or in groups, can distill the idiocy of policies in a standup routine or skit, which can have an impact far greater than any book or dry scholarly article. And, although people and groups who are poked fun at can and do sometimes retaliate (the Charlie Hebdo incident comes to mind), usually, the net result is to make their own cause look even worse than before their counter-attack.
The Peak Oil world/blogosphere is filled with great writers; a good bunch of those (and the folks who write comments) on the blog roll in the side bar give some great milk-through-the-nose one-liners in their weekly rants and discussions. Yet most of them (if not all) are unknown outside the Peak Oil world. If you come to the Peak Oil/Climate Change/Financial Catastrophe world because of your temperament, that’s great, but we still seem to be losing the battle, as they say, “for hearts and minds.”
Thankfully, there is a good long list of comedians who raise serious questions (in a funny vein) about some of the outrageously obvious and sometimes taboo-to-discuss problems with modern society. Some of my favorites are the late Bill Hicks, the still living Louis CK, Dennis Miller, Chris Rock, Lee Camp and the entire crew at Redacted Tonight, and of course the granddaddy of them all – the late George Carlin. His famous quote, “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it,” is something that he had said in front of countless audiences, and who knows how many people might have been enlightened by his combination of biting humor and sharp critical commentary.
There are, of course, lightweights in the comedy world. Now, this doesn’t mean they aren’t funny, in that they can’t tell a joke. For a world in crisis, yes, we need to laugh to prevent ourselves from going off the deep end, but to completely ignore what is going on in the world in your work, when you have the power to be wildly funny at the same time seems a bit of a shame. Jerry Seinfeld, the man who made millions by creating a comedy about nothing, is a driven individual, who (from what I’ve read) is one of the best joke writers in the business, but nothing from his world strikes me as being overtly political or cutting edge. Perhaps this goes along with his extensive automobile collection, and his popular “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” His world is framed by the automobile, and it is hard to see beyond that when so much of your life is surrounded by internal combustion engines.
The ironic part of this is that when George Carlin died, Seinfeld wrote an article praising Carlin, and mentioned speaking to him within days of his death. But his interaction with George doesn’t seem to have rubbed off. Perhaps Jerry Seinfeld does do cutting political comedy, but that isn’t the immediate vision that comes to mind when his name comes up in conversation.
Imagine George Carlin as Obi-Wan (beard and all, but a hell of a lot more cranky), Jerry! Learn from the master; use your awesome powers for good! Sell a good chunk of your cars (keep the first and last Porsche 911s, as a symbol of the death of the old infernal combustion world, of course), rail against the system, and bring up the issues that George Carlin and other comedians have brought up.
The comic book character that has long been associated with Seinfeld is Superman. Perhaps Uncle Ben (of Spiderman fame) is the one comic book character that could be his next touchstone – “…with great power there must also come — great responsibility!” George Carlin was the kind of guy who gave the world a much needed “intellectual colonoscopy” (with virtual balloon animals on the side, of course) on a regular basis. More than ever, we need that for people to wake up and realize that the American Dream is over, the climate is truly changing, and the financial system is on its last legs. We are in for a rough ride, and someone has to write the lyrics for a modern-day Monty Python “Look on the bright side of life,” even when the world is collapsing (rapidly, slowly, or fractally) around us.
To comedians everywhere – use your awesome powers for good. We need for these truths to be told, and comedy may be the only way for many people to be eased into knowing them.
Just don’t forget Oscar Wilde’s important safety tip – “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
From the question portion of today’s blog:
Who are your favorite comedians that bring up the reality of the world?
Am I entirely wrong? Does Seinfeld do cutting political or social commentary?