Here’s one thing I’ve been trying to wrap my head around. A few years ago, let’s say three and a half years ago, just about everyone in the world came into a terrible power. Suddenly, by going about the normal activities of our lives, we could set off a chain reaction of suffering and death, one whose full impact we would never know. It’s true that we all in a sense had some version of this power before, and we all in a sense have some version of it still. But for a while the stakes were clearer and higher than they’d ever been. The abstract became real, the distance between cause and effect shrunk almost to nil. To go into a room and breathe was to risk a vast network of human lives, some of them known but most of them strangers. And it was necessary now to treat these strangers, these hypothetical ideas of people, as if they were just as real as anyone we knew and loved. Or rather, it was necessary to recognize that they always had been.
I only know what I observe and that’s all I can speak to. But I think people generally responded to this newfound power in three ways, perhaps moving from one to another over time. Some were humbled or even terrified by it, many were confused and had no clue what to do with it, and a third group denied it entirely. It wasn’t real or it wasn’t their problem and it was an act of aggression to say so. I don’t know if this group was the majority or just loud enough to seem like it, but I believe it was the group that prevailed. Everything bent in their favor. The precautions vanished, the messaging changed. The number-counters started counting the numbers differently, then they just stopped counting. The task of navigating this ongoing tragedy became a free-for-all. Care if you want to.
I’m not so foolish as to think history is monocausal, but I hope it’s reasonable enough to observe that the ethos that won the pandemic has also become one of the defining attitudes of our time. Antisocial behavior reigns supreme, a revulsion toward the dignity of others abounds. Everywhere I look, some new person I once respected seems to have completely lost it, and don’t get me started on the people I didn’t respect to begin with. Something was opened that can’t be closed. A degree of humanity vanished from the world.
I wonder if things would be different if we had ever reckoned, all of us, with the awful power we briefly held, and the responsibilities it called on us to accept.
One reason I write about comedy is that I’m fascinated with its power to entangle and disentangle human experience, finding contradictions in accepted wisdom and clarity in what we’re told is complex. Many forms of art help us understand difficult or abstract concepts, but standup comedy is the only one where you go and watch a human being think about how it is, exactly, that we all live together. When it’s good, it’s transformative, there’s nothing else like it, which is why I keep going back for more even though it’s rarely that good. I am fascinated also by a certain failure of thought many comedians seem to develop. It’s a common enough failure among intellectual classes, pundits and op-ed writers and people paid well to explain the world. But it’s more disappointing in comedians, because they’re supposed to see through the bullshit all those other bullshitters don’t.
The failure is one of over-intellectualization: they come to view everything as an abstraction, a premise to be riffed into submission. This isn’t necessarily a recipe for bad writing, but it’s easy to see how a failure to understand one’s subject matter can lead to some poor conclusions. The question of trans liberation becomes an absurd parable proposing that trans people are holding up the gay rights movement. The madness of QAnon becomes a nonsensical punchline calling Soon-Yi Previn the cure for pedophilia. The horror of sexual violence becomes a long tradition of rape jokes from which the art form has only recently begun to distance itself, coincidentally around the same time it was revealed to be full of rapists. Any and every tragedy or barbarity becomes a subject for the world’s stupidest and most successful podcasters to pore over in their studios, drunk or high or both, dutifully finding the funny.
If they manage to get a laugh, and I’ll admit they often do, it’s not because they’ve said anything meaningful or true. They couldn’t possibly, because they almost never know what they’re talking about. The industry is full of people like this, people who excel at telling what really do sound like good jokes. By and large, they operate under an “anything goes” philosophy that holds it as comedy’s duty to treat all subjects equally. Tim Dillon articulated the core of this philosophy in response to a nurse unhappy with his jokes about Covid in May 2021:
It's very very sad, but I’m making jokes. And there's a lot of people that have been dying. There’s people dying because their businesses are closed. There's people dying because they can’t make any money. There's people dying because they're suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. There's people dying because they're alienated from their communities. There’s people dying because this government that shut everything down is not giving them checks. And I know that's not your fault, I know that's not your fault. But I've made fun of all of that tonight. I’ve made fun of all of that tonight. It's not just about you. I’ve made fun of everything that’s fucked up that's happening. Truly. I’ve made fun of everything. I’ve made fun of everything, including myself. I’ve made fun of everybody.
What I’m describing is an issue of perspective. It seems that for some comedians, the act of turning reality into joke adds a layer of distance that renders them unable to see what they’re looking at; or, perhaps, the joke is a means of reifying a distance that’s already there. Either way, they adopt a comfortable neutral pose from which everything looks the same: the horrors of the Covid ward indistinguishable from the horrors of the shuttered business district, the sexual predator’s loss of income identical to murder. At such a far remove from reality, what they really end up looking at is their own image—their depravity and prejudice, their cowardice and ignorance—which they never manage to recognize either.
If you listen to their podcasts or follow them on social media long enough, you’ll come to see this distance in everything these comedians say. Covid, the war in Ukraine, the persecution of trans people, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, none of it’s real to them. The scale never registers. There’s a certain numbness, an eagerness to look away from the depth of things, that I think may only be accessible once you’ve spent years treating the world as a thought experiment. It’s all just something to talk about, and all too often they get bogged down in talking about how other people talk about it, and whatever they’re actually talking about is at best a secondary concern, and what could be a fruitful inquiry stalls out in the meta-dimension of interpersonal beefs and discourse policing.
This is how comedy, an art form that at its best makes us better, sharper thinkers, instead becomes the enemy of thought.
I write about comedy and I follow comedians, and naturally I have been upset by the inhumane and brazenly racist things certain ones have posted about the ongoing assault on Gaza. It is interesting to consider what might lead liberal and progressive artists to misread the room so terribly—including one who publicly severed ties with Adult Swim in part over its association with white supremacists—but I ultimately don’t think the substance is worth litigating further. They’re saying what they’re saying and now we know. We can deal with it later.
Instead of responding to what they’ve said, I would prefer to offer a counterpoint. I am Jewish and I believe Palestine should be free. I believe there should be an immediate ceasefire. I believe Israel should release every incarcerated Palestinian in exchange for hostages held by Hamas, as these hostages’ families have requested. I believe the occupation must end. I am anguished to know this genocide is funded by my taxes and carried out in my name and the name of my family in Israel. I am sickened to see what we’re all seeing—white phosphorus falling over Gaza, Israeli forces targeting paramedics, vigilantism by settlers—and I am astounded to scroll down from these images to find people whinnying over college students and the left. I am ashamed by every American Jew making themselves the center of this story, giving fuel to a global propaganda machine that twists the threat of anti-Semitism into a justification for slaughter and repression. I ask them to find some perspective. The worst thing that can happen is happening right now, and it’s not happening to us, and if it’s not stopped, it’s going to happen again and again all over the world.
Two weeks ago on Saturday Night Live, Pete Davidson proposed that “sometimes comedy is really the only way forward from tragedy.” Maybe it’s been the way forward from some tragedies, but I think we can say definitively it’s not the way forward from this one: if it were, the IDF would be putting on a comedy show instead of bombing Gaza. I will continue writing about the industry, because I frankly don’t have the skills or knowledge to write about politics or international affairs or what have you, and I will try where I can to tailor the coverage to what’s happening. But I should say I am having difficulty believing any of this matters right now. I feel a too-familiar dread as I watch our leaders steer us toward immoral, irreversible outcomes while the entire world cries out for them to stop. It seems clear that everything should grind to a halt until they listen, and probably stay that way until they’re all removed from office. I believe in the power of comedy to energize and organize, but I am not naive to the fact that its dominant function in our culture is to provide distraction and escape, to defy thought and erode compassion. These things are quite obviously the opposite of what’s needed, and I think it may be wrong to give them any attention so long as that’s the case.
Perhaps the art form will rise to the moment. Bassem Youssef certainly lit the way in his conversation with Piers Morgan last week, while Rob Delaney’s written beautiful, wrenching commentary about the conflict. I’ll be glad to see others follow their lead. In the meantime, I’ll just say I was proud to sign this solidarity statement by Writers Against the War on Gaza, and I encourage others to join me. See you out there.