It’s an old adage but it’s true: when you can’t cry, you have to laugh.
The last few weeks have brought a myriad of mixed feelings and reactions at being back in Canada. Joy, because of proximity to things fuzzy and familiar, relief at being near an ill family member, and sadness at being away from a place I feel at home in. There have also been liberal dollops of self-pity, confusion, and a keenly gnawing restlessness. Questions surrounding worth, direction, relationships with artistry, family, and community, and a larger, more silent quest for meaning amidst the madness. Dear Mid-Life Crisis, you’re early by a decade.
The best part of these days have been the nights -and no, not because I’ve developed a taste for seedy bars or taken on a profession involving garment-shedding (yet). The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have become the colorful, leaping Castor and Pollux of my moping, grey-hued psyche. Watching the Emmy Awards lastnight, I was struck by the role the programs, and in a larger sense, comedy itself, has played in my life the last few years. If it’s true that laughing at the devil makes him flee, it’s equally true that humor puts pain (be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or all three) into the Magic Bullet of human experience; laughter gets mixed up with all those other very un-fun ingredients, resulting in a gooey concoction called Hilariously Tolerable, also known as Smiling Feels Good, also known as I-Can’t-Go-On; I’ll-Go-On, a phrase Sam Beckett knew a thing or two about.
Once upon a time I loved physical, old-timey comedy with a sharp edge of commentary. As a teenager, I had stacks of VHS tapes of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and later, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. I was an avid watcher of Conan O’Brien in his first incarnation on NBC, and I used to howl away many a late night as he brought out Heavy Metal Inappropriate Guy, the Masturbating Bear, and Andy’s Little Sister Stacy (a young Amy Poehler, who made such an impression that to this day I can’t look at her without remember how she looked with braces, spitting out “I love you!” to an awkward, creeped-out Conan). I also adored the Saturday Night Live era of Wayne’s World, Sprockets, and Tales of Ribaldry. Weekend Update With Dennis Miller was my first real introduction to the world of timely-commentary-meets-comedy.
Having turned into a verifiable newshound over the last few years, my taste for newsy comedy has grown, but I’ve never quite abandoned my long-standing love of the absurd, either. I didn’t pay much mind to The Daily Show or The Colbert Report until I was forced to face the the steaming pile of ugly adulthood presents. Suddenly, jokes about stuff on the news made a whole lot more sense. After 9/11 especially, this kind of humor became a necessity for me -and, I suspect for many like me. Nothing made sense except comedy.
Watching the Emmys lastnight, I realized just how aware the TDS & TCR teams are of their collective role: to make us pie-eyed schleps smile. That is no small task. At the end of everyone’s crappy/annoying/busy (or wondrous/lovely/easy-peasy) day, we want to turn on the telly and see someone make funny about all the bad stuff in the world and in their every day lives. There’s a relief in that -a kind of tonic to the bad forces at work, the stuff you and I feel we can’t control -that someone is there to say, yes, it sucks, but here, we’re going to give you a side of Marshmallow Fluff with your soft graham crackers. Stuff like wars, political corruption, media incompetence on a macro level, and cancer, chemotherapy, and confusion on a micro one (if there’s such a thing as those first two even existing in micro terms) gets shrunk down to bite-sized pieces. We want it. We like it. We want more.
So I believe Jon Stewart when he says (insists) that his role is, first and foremost, to make people laugh. It’s hard. The world’s a pretty crappy place. We all know that. But it’s heartening to know that he and Stephen Colbert make it just a bit brighter for some of us four night a week. Things frequently don’t make sense in life, but if there’s one thing I consistently take away from these programs, it’s that there’s a joy at work in the world, one that feeds on not putting anything in place, but in finding the right angles to point at the chaos and shriek, THIS IS NUTS, funny faces in place, absurd narrative in play. To The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I say: thank you x a billion, and, I owe you each a large tray of cookies. Marshmallow Fluff on top, if you really want it.