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Vol. 16, No. 6, 2017
 
     
 
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constant craving
COMEDY


by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

___________________________________

Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.
Jacov Smirnoff

The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.
Moliere

Laughing feels good. The opposite of laughing is crying. No one wants to cry. Everyone wants to laugh. We are a species wired to laugh, to want to feel good. Keeping ourselves alive feels good, sex feels good, succeeding in life feels good.

Feeling good from laughter releases endorphins, boosts the immune system. The slave who could laugh in the face of despair, who learned to live and keep himself wholly in the present indicative survived -- and procreated. It was his gift. Woe to the man who cannot partake of the “the laughter of the gods.”

Natural selection likes the funny guy, and all those he makes laugh. In moderation, wanting to feel good is a healthy impulse. But we all know, if only anecdotally, that wanting to feel good has gotten too many into big trouble. We spend billions of dollars – sometimes at the expense of the necessities of life (food, rent, our children) -- in pursuit of feeling good. When feeling good becomes its own terminus, it turns negative, destructive. With the blessings of nature, feeling good is meant to be the means to the end of optimal health.

Feeling good is an outcome that seamlessly integrates material and psychological well-being: you can’t have one without the other, a basic truth that certain cultures have grasped better than others. All the having in the world cannot relieve the wholly unnatural and unhappy state of being alone in the world. Loneliness, stress, low self-esteem are inimical to well-being. The deeper the unhappiness deficit, the need to feel good intensifies, and disproportionately preoccupies our time and capital. Las Vegas, whose mega-casinos offer a mother-lode of thrills and pleasures -- from gambling, to circus acts, main event boxing, live music and stand-up comedy -- is where the haves go to confess that something isn’t quite alright, and they are convinced “the unexamined life” is the answer.

Should the success or state of the nation be measured by its GDP or the time and capital it spends on feeling good? As a percentage of GDP, we are spending more and more on alcohol and drugs compared to 100 years ago, and that doesn’t include the vast sums that have been spent on the laughable (losing) war on drugs. We’re also spending a lot more on comedy, gathering around the comic instead of the primeval fire. As a nation, we have been very inventive in creating diversions that cater to our growing need to feel good. Our collective, no-class-left-behind obsession with feeling good is the nation’s declaration that not all is as well as its material wealth would have us believe.

Among the surest and quickest ways to feel good is through laughter. Flick on the TV and there are any number of specialty channels dedicated to keep us laughing 24/7. Old comedy shows from the 1960s and 1970s are in vogue. And for a more intense and communal experience there are clubs everywhere that specialize in stand-up comedy, featuring over the course of an evening a parade of comedians. The circus that used to travel from one town to the next has been replaced by the comedy circuit, as more and more of us are willing to pay a pretty penny for a laugh.

What does the increasing demand for and proliferation of comedy tell us about our basic needs and collective values? Since laughing feels good and ranks high among the past times we defer to in our fugitive quest for well-being, are there reasonable grounds to compare the laughing addict (someone who spends a disproportionate part of his day tuned into comedy) to the druggie who has to free-base cocaine or sniff gas all day long to get from one moment to the next?

Laughter is a potent drug because it engages both the mind and the body. Once you’ve understood the joke, the body is handsomely rewarded. From the Encyclopedia Britannica describing laugher:

Fifteen facial muscles contract and stimulation of the zygomatic major muscle (the main lifting mechanism of your upper lip) occurs. Meanwhile, the respiratory system is upset by the epiglottis half-closing the larynx, so that air intake occurs irregularly, making you gasp. In extreme circumstances, the tear ducts are activated, so that while the mouth is opening and closing and the struggle for oxygen intake continues, the face becomes moist and often red (or purple). The noises that usually accompany this bizarre behaviour range from sedate giggles to boisterous guffaws.

As to the origins of laughter, ethologists report that some of the higher apes are capable of laughter (doubtlessly because they couldn’t foresee what they would become) and the first Homo sapiens were endowed with the capacity to laugh. Until recently in our history, we were responsible for our own laughter; it was created spontaneously as it was required. Scripting and scheduling laughter is a very recent phenomenon, the first effect of the cause of a growing and unprecedented deficit in psychological and social well-being – in particular the atomization (monadization) of the individual. If in the past we needed less laughter in our lives, what has changed between then and now?

It is as self-evident as the clown who was only a clown for a while that the conditions of life are such that we are either unable to supply our basic laughter needs, or that we are less capable of producing laugher because we don’t have enough time and/or the mind has been dulled by over-reliance technology doing the things we used to do. Either way, we now look to and depend on laughter specialists to supply our needs.

Despite the spectacular wealth generated by human ingenuity, ‘having’ doesn’t necessarily translate into psychological or spiritual having, which means the haves still haven’t grasped what constitutes real as opposed to apparent happiness. We’ve been sold, hook-line-and-sinker on the consumer construct of happiness, and to such an extent that even comedy is now regarded as another item on a purchase list (God forbid bucket list). However, our unhappiness persists, despite the best laid plans of the buy-now pay-later model and being born into the exponentials of plenty.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor coined the term “the malaise of modernity,” a condition which I propose is significantly related to our alienation, our voluntary expulsion from the tribe or community? We are no longer a people, but a nation of exiliacs for whom Facebook has become the living room of choice. For the first time ever, more than 50% of Canadian adults live alone. Can there by any arrangement more unnatural? Is there a relationship between living alone, our pre-occupation with pets (pet-ophilia) and our national obsession with comedy?

“When two people are laughing it is certain misfortune has befallen a third,” says the saw. But what if there isn’t a second and third person? Without the other, the joke’s on who? It’s on you. Small wonder television comedy dominates prime time television. And if that’s not enough, most mid-sized cities feature a comedy club or two, and many of our largest cities program lengthy comedy festivals into their rites of summer. If you’re looking for a restorative, shared communal experience, there’s no better place than the comedy club to drop anchor.

From the court jester to the present day comedian, the conditions of life have been such that there has always been a need for laughter, but it would take a millennium (from St. Francis of Assisi to the 1960s), for the unrevolted masses to challenge the empty promises of materialism. The counter culture or hippy movement proposed an alternative set of values. Riding a drug-fuelled wave of euphoria and idealism, the hippies took their chances on the trifecta of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Many of them, following the sitar drones of George Harrison to their ghatly source, looked to the East to fulfill their spiritual needs. But alas, Zen and the Upanishads didn’t pay the rent and the movement was eventually compromised by human nature -- temporarily down but never out. We soberly note that Envy, Pride and Avarice have survived the thousands of ‘isms’ that have been devised to disable them.

As the hippy movement -- a last stand against the juggernaut of corporatism – petered out, the demand for comedy dramatically increased and continues unabated. But it is for more than ‘just for laughs’ that many of us are signing up for live comedy. Our freedoms, especially First Amendment freedoms are under siege, in part because the Tsars of political correctness (PC) enjoy popular support at the ballet box. Never before have we been so hamstrung by political correctness. You can’t open your mouth without offending someone; and if you argue against victims’ rights you’re either a racist, homophobe or sexist. The comedy club is the only public place where PC hasn’t made any inroads. In the club, nothing is sacred, no joke too offensive or dirty; it is where the people in their marvelous diversity come to air out their hang-ups and civilizational discontents with a grin-and-bear-it as wide as the world, and the only thing hurting are them bellies full of laughter, and the only angry man is the guy who can’t get a ticket.

Laughter is healing, it is therapeutic; it allows us to reconnect with our authentic, essential selves. In its funny way, it fills a void in our spiritual life that left unfulfilled leaves us vulnerable to an endless procession of quick fixes and their dubious claims. And finally, laughter allows us to indulge human nature so we can more easily recognize it and better understand and manage it.

As a 'semiotic' indicator, you’d have to be 'idiotic' not to realize that our growing need to laugh is no laughing matter.

 

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also by Robert J. Lewis:
Choosing Gender
Becoming Our Opposites
Broken Feather's Last Stand

Abstract Art or Artifice II
Old People
Beware the Cherry-Picker
Once Were Animal
Islam is Smarter Than the West
Islam Divided by Two
Pedophiling Innocence
Grappling with Revenge
Hit Me With That Music
The Sinking of the Friendship
Om: The Great Escape
Actor on a Hot Tin Roof
Being & Self-Consciousness
Giacometti: A Line in the Wilderness
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
1-800-Philosophy
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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