No Laughing Matter: Stand up Comedy or Social Commentary?

“You have all the characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner.”

                                     –Aristophanes

I can vividly remember the first time I witnessed the art form that we call stand up comedy. Apart from the domineering presence of the comedian, the boisterousness of the crowd, the insults of the hecklers, and the circular light chasing the funny man back and forth across the stage, I could remember thinking how utterly absurd a profession it was. “You mean to tell me that we are so depraved as a people that we would pay an individual to make us laugh? We are so depraved that we would shell out our hard earned money for something as natural as happiness?” Despite this initial bewilderment, I could not help but absorb the overwhelming aura of solidarity, the unusual spirit of togetherness and the mutual jubilation of the people. I cannot recall any other occasion where individuals from so many different walks of life would converge, without qualms, without complaint, and without prejudice. Unfolding before my young eyes was an emphatic rejection of the notion that suffering was the only phenomena that could unite the interests human beings under one umbrella. To the contrary, joy was just as significant an impetus. Nay! At that moment it appeared to be more significant than the misery and despair that had united our species so many times before.

But unlike the suffering that united people from our primordial beginnings, a suffering which created a need for solidarity for the sole purpose of the preservation of our biological existence, the joy that united the people on that night had no clear-cut objective. In fact, the feeble mind of my youth was unable to conjure up any objective at all! What was it about this mysterious art that attracted the Christian and the atheist, the black and the white, the young and the old, the rich and the poor? Was it simply a way to sublimate the anxieties that come with the lot of the modern man, a mere catharsis of sorts? Or was it something much more profound? Was the audience’s reverence for the “funny man” reverence which sprang from the notion that his humor gave insight into that absurdity which descends upon each and every one of us with relentless haste? Did the punch lines and drum shots reveal that inner contradiction between the audience’s deepest desires and their recognition of brutal necessity? Did the comedy of the comedian mirror the philosophy of the philosopher and in effect satisfy the philosophical mind? In other words, was the audience’s gravitation toward the comedian an expression of their love for humor or was it quite simply an expression of their love for unadulterated and unvarnished wisdom?

For quite some time I have been wrestling with this notion of comedy as a vehicle for social change. Strangely, I look up to all my favorite comedians not as the court jesters entertaining the king and company rather I view them as dissenters calling into question the splendor of the throne, modern-day Aristophaneses challenging the neo-Platonic edicts of the today’s structures of power. When I listen to stand up comedy I don’t hear the condescending chuckles of serious men who are slightly amused by the buffoonery of talented men. I hear the uproarious and bellowing laughter of thousands upon thousands of people as Richard Pryor dissects the “blackness” of the African American experience, as Lenny Bruce unearths the skeletons of our first amendment, as George Carlin questions the validity of these amendments, while Bill Cosby reconstructs the image that America thought they knew so well, and Redd Foxx commands all the confusion and squabbles of the day to go to a raunchy, x-rated, sex-drenched hell. These are the things which I hear when the funny man anoints the stage. In my opinion, the comedian is more than the instrument of our laughter. When instilled with the critical thought that enables one to question the ideology of his or her day the comedian is, as much as the politician, a legitimate instrument of change.

From the trials of Lenny Bruce to the gut busters of Chris Rock, comedians have stood out as one of the most marginalized groups of social commentators in the American empire. In 1961 when Lenny Bruce shouted an expletive on stage in San Francisco, California the authorities slapped the cuffs on him and hurriedly hauled him off to prison. This questionable enforcement of law and order in the 20th century calls to mind a very poignant parallel in history, a parallel which will illuminate my thesis that the comedian, when at his or her best, is an indispensable unit in the system that we call democracy. Thousands of years ago, around 424 BC, the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes was persecuted at the hands of the Athenian demagogue Cleon. Aristophanes was charged with “slandering the Athenian polis” in one of his most renowned plays titled “The Babylonians“. This play, this work of art, was the prime motive for the arrest of Aristophanes. Not a violent crime or treason but a mere idea motivated authority to come down on him. What was the persecution of Lenny Bruce at the hands of the San Francisco police department but a repeat of the persecution of Aristophanes at the hands of Cleon? As Karl Marx so eloquently stated in his 18th Brumaire, “History repeats itself. First as tragedy then as farce.”

But this long tradition of comedy as a tool for raising the consciousness of people is not just a minor feature of our distant history. It is a vibrant and thriving medium of our immediate past and present. What reverence is due to the vicious screams of Bill Hicks for imploring an increasingly comsumerist culture, sinking into the fathomless depths of materialism, to “play from your heart”? What homage is due to Chris Rock’s searing distinction between “niggas and black people” that subverted the vicious stereotypes that had burdened our nation for so long? What honor is due Dave Chappelle for his genius in crafting a black white supremacist named Clayton Bixby whose physical blindness is just as appalling and hilarious as his mental blindness? Like all white supremacists, Mr. Bixby was ignorant to the fact that his humanity was no more refined and no purer than the humanity of those he so vehemently vowed to hate. What monuments are due George Carlin, that Irish-Catholic class clown whose cringe-inducing utterance of the “seven dirty words” gradually evolved into a thought provoking critique of the sacred ten commandments? That brash, whited-haired, cynic who inspired millions to reevaluate what they call language, a regular Wittgenstein of the comedic arts. Thirty years passed and the metamorphosis had reach its end. That Irish clown in the rear of the classroom, flatulating with the crook of his arm, had become the teacher and the new students took notes while clinging onto every line and memorizing every joke. These are the champions of change in my eyes, as strange as that may sound, but please excuse my eccentricity. After all, when dealing with subjects of this matter it’s always most appropriate to crack a smile, toss back your head, and laugh.

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