Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Listening to the laughscape


Sigmund Freud discusses in Civilization and Its Discontents how humans deflect pain (misery) through transient pleasures, through intoxications, and through laughter. Freud wouldn’t be at all surprised about the recently proliferated stand-up comedy material on the Internet today. Particularly with YouTube and podcasts, one can hear innumerable stand-up routines – classic and contemporary – reflecting on (laughing at) the miseries of experience.

We’ve long known about the roles that the jester plays at court in shaping perceptions of and by the king. But now, to an unprecedented extent, we have access to a plethora of jesters – who give us a laugh, but who also provide a textscape on our lives that is easily found and not easily dismissed.

The more we laugh, the more serious it all is. We have routine access to having ourselves and our condition and our societies be exposed for their inherent silliness in radio shows such as NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and the BBC’s The Now Show and The News Quiz.  Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and others – along with the print stalwarts-sisters of Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins – are helping us laugh our way down the road to ruin. This is not an era for Milton Berle or vaudeville; we’re in a new Swiftian era of laughter as psychological exploration and social criticism.

Marc Maron
Nowhere has this prominence and pervasiveness of the laugh – as a strategy for dealing with the misery of our internal and external landscapes – so evident as in the relatively new medium of podcasts (and radio-podcast hybrids). A whole new sub-genre of talk show / cultural and social criticism / psychological-confessional analytics has emerged through very popular podcasts such as WTF with Marc Maron, The Nerdist with Chris Hardwick, and You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes.

Chris Hardwick
The premise of these, and others, is very similar. The interviewer/host is someone who has a career working in comedy (stand-up comedy, television and film writing, cartooning, acting, etc.); that host interviews (each week or so) someone else who also has a career in comedy. (The format is very Inside the Actors Studio, but the interviewer is far more participative, a strong, often self-mocking character.) Topics discussed range intentionally widely: the common premise (promise) is outrageousness or, at least, idiosyncrasy. (Maron’s WFT, or What the Fuck!?!? exploits the double meaning of “I can’t believe he/she said that!"  with “Who cares? I’m too jaded / sophisticated to be shaken.”  Hardwick’s Nerdist presumes the topics discussed are in the realm of passionately committed comedy fans – along with Comic-Con fans and an array of other pop culture enthusiasts.  Holmes’ You Made It Weird seeks to draw out at least three weird discoveries – exposures – of each guest interviewed.)

Pete Holmes
There is a big dose in these interviews/conversations of inside-baseball kinds discussion about performing and writing comedy, including some long pretty boring stretches of gossip about other people working in that business now and over the past twenty years. The compelling bits of the conversations are the relentlessly shameless, uninhibited talking (probing) about the sex lives, childhood and family traumas, divorces and break-ups, injustices, hostilities, jealousies, hurt feelings, grudges, illnesses, medications, substance abuse, and . . . . well, you get the picture. Surprisingly, at least to me, however, is how thoughtful, smart, and very often literate these discussions routinely are – while also being, well, funny.

After listening to a couple of dozen of these conversations, you realize they are about anxiety, craving, love, work, loneliness, and fear of death. And you’re not even surprised, or put off, when Dimitri Martin discusses The Varieties of Religious Experience or when Russell Brand discusses childhood obesity. It’s just what you come to expect. In between genuinely funny anecdotes about erotic misadventure and professional failure and resentment. This genre of podcast is a new shape for us discontents to laugh our way both toward and away from experience.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Humans -- part of Nature

At this late date, it is exasperating (and quaint?) that we still need to be reminded that "man [sic] is part of nature." That is the topic of a TEDxWDC presentation by landscape architect Jeff Lee recently reported by ASLA's The Dirt. With the urbanization trend unabated ("China alone will build 300 new cities the size of Chicago [by 2050]," I suppose we need to readjust just how we understand humans-in-nature. Not only are humans "part of nature," but urbanization is part of nature. Big Systems are natural -- whether they be populations of microscopic organisms in our gut, data on the Internet, or urban living networks in the 21st century. Big cities and urban life can be good for humanity; we just have to do it right. Lee's presentation is a good reminder, but I miss more emphasis on what could be a very valid, compelling celebration of the benefits that Big Systems can provide. Advocates for sustainability of all kinds have to stop being jeremiads and scolds. Let's hear more sentiment from Lee, and others, like his observation: "nature shows us the way to build and the way to live. With our awareness that we are part of nature and not over it, and with our ability to communicate and connect as never before, we can leave our grandchildren's children something of awe and inspiration."