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.