The Shadow Side of Comedy

This week, I went to hear a publicist speak about his experiences in Hollywood and offer advice to aspiring comics. The man has represented legendary comedians like George Carlin, Joan Rivers, and Rodney Dangerfield. I am taking a comedy class and thought the timing couldn’t be better, since my stand-up is about how I am a professor and professors aren’t funny. We just aren’t. Some of us think we are, but if not for a captive audience of students, I don’t think we’d have an audience at all.

The talk was held at a comedy club and attended by about sixty people, most of whom were younger than me. I find myself saying that so often that I have decided to drop it as a qualifier. From now on, you can assume I am the oldest person in any post unless stated otherwise. This is not a self-conscious aside but pertinent to the story.

Here’s the story. It is about evil.

The publicist described the difference between a good comedian and a great one in terms of the three “o’s”: obsession, optimism, and obligation. He told the group of fawning students that all the great comedians have been obsessed with their craft to the exclusion of everything else. They didn’t just want success; they wanted fame. This characterized great people in general, he added, including Bill and Hillary Clinton.

He paused and looked around the room: tall, whitened teeth, leathery skin. I laughed, thinking it was a joke. A young woman looked up from her notes at me.

Optimism, he continued, is reflected not in a positive attitude toward life but in the will to succeed no matter the cost. You see a lot of this Nietzschean patter on Twitter. There, it is harmless. Here, it was taken as gospel truth.

Obligation is the duty to self, not others. The publicist told a story about Bob Dylan’s self-perceived rendezvous with destiny. Dylan continues to work into his late 70s, because of an oath he made with, in Dylan’s words, “the Commander–the Chief Commander.” The publicist grinned. I nearly shot out of my chair. The similarity to Goethe’s Mephistopheles and Faust’s pact with the devil could not have been clearer, at least to me.

This is, perhaps, where age played a part. The younger crowd marveled at every syllable that fell from this man’s lips, and many lined up to have their picture taken with him afterward. I saw it as an indictment of our educational system, which purports to teach people how to think critically but doesn’t. To be fair, the guy was good, peddling fame and capitalizing on people’s need to be loved or to dominate, both of which lie behind the quest for fame.

And therein lies the evil. For the publicist and many of his listeners, the aim of comedy is to achieve stardom. It is about the self, which is why they focus on the quick laugh. But what of the yearning to uncover truth, to reveal one’s being to others, to make people laugh in a sustained way about the absurdity of life, to lighten the burden of those worried about work, money, or illness?

Aquinas believed that humor is a virtue, as did Aristotle. Is it so naive to follow their lead, to achieve something lasting beyond the self?

This lust for stardom is related to what Chris Hedges calls the “cult of celebrity,” which debases our own lives and idolizes others’. Yet, those idols are nothing but merchandise controlled by the merchants of fame. Michael Jackson, as Hedges has pointed out, is a poignant example of this.

I think this talk either will have a profound impact on how I do comedy, or send me packing to the classroom.

We’ll see.

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Look for my stand-up debut here.

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