In his book Maestro, the Australian author, Peter Goldsworthy makes the statement, ‘if you want people to believe your lies, set them to music.’ To this I will add an epigram of my own; if you want people to believe nothing, show them a stand-up comedian. It is reasonably well known that politics permeates through most stand-up comedy and that it is often of a left-wing bent. It seems today increasingly the case that a distinct philosophical position is being tacitly promoted. It was the lecturer of Christian Apologetics at Oxford University, Stuart McAllister, who described John Stewart’s Daily Show as ‘comedic nihilism’. This is a phrase with no small poignancy when considering stand-up comedians.
Stand-up comedy is, of course, not meant to be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, the arts are a mirror to society’s soul. It was the American poet Archibald Macleish who commented in the 1960s, ‘there is, in truth, a terror in the world and the arts have heard it as they always do.’ What he was saying is that the arts watch, listen and then expose the changing face of our culture. They reveal the glory and the terror of humanity. It is the arts in their myriad forms which, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, present to us our own face. On 1 March 2010, Minister for the Arts (his forgotten portfolio) Peter Garrett opined on Q&A that, ‘art reflects the totality of human expression.’ Stand-up comedy does present a light-hearted face and we are free, of course, to leave it at that. Nevertheless, as with all the arts, beneath the surface aesthetic lies a story and a philosophy. Beyond the pleasure we enjoy from the beauty of the painting, the melody of the song or the humour of the comedian, the arts tell the story of who we are and what we have become. Perhaps even more so than painting, sculpture, theatre or music, stand-up comedy is an overt conductor of politics and philosophy.
Recently I was watching Dylan Moran’s What It Is tour and between the frequent laughs, the term ‘comedic nihilism’ kept returning to me. Moran, as with most stand-up comedians I’ve ever seen, openly ridicules religion in general and Christianity in particular as ignorant, backward and laughable in a post-modern context. His ridicule and scorn are certainly not exceptional by comedic standards, rather they are normative, bordering on mundane. He says this:
‘I don’t mind most religious people. I talk to them. You know I listen to them banging on. I prayed very hard and then the fairy came. Did he? Good. Have a biscuit. I only get annoyed when they try and make me see the fairy. You have to let the fairy into your heart. Look I wouldn’t let him into my garden. I’d shoot him on sight, if he existed, which he doesn’t.’
This kind of intellectual posturing via comedy is not new of course. Compared to more vociferous anti-theistic stand-ups such as George Carlin, Denis Leary or Ricky Gervais it is actually quite tame. What struck me about Moran was how seamlessly he moved on and began ridiculing evolutionary science and the Big Bang theory. He says:
‘Science is a joke. Look at the scientific explanation for the origin of life as we know it. It has a major flaw. I mean, it’s no wonder we have creationists. You know those people, God love them, who tell their children originally we all went to school with dinosaurs. Or whatever it is they tell them. But no wonder they exist because listen to the explanation for the origin of life itself. It doesn’t sound very scientific. There was a big bang. And then we all came from monkeys. What? That’s it? Yeah, shop’s closed.’
Moran is part of a wider cohort of stand-up comedians who race among themselves to be the first to mockingly dismiss everything that anybody might hold sacred. They will mock first the stubborn conservatism of the political right then the idealism and impotence of the left. Those who support the various wars are called ignorant and gullible while those who protest them are dismissed as idealistic. The belief in God is called backwards while the belief in life without God is called childish. There is no golden calf the stand-up comedian will balk from smiting. Jokes about the Nazi holocaust, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, children with cancer are all commonplace. In their dogged clamber to reach the cutting edge of comedy nothing is left untouched. The pious and the perverted, the hippy and the CEO, the theist and the anti-theist are all ridiculed together. They are all alike in their helplessness under the stand-up comedian’s metaphysical blade.
I’m reminded of the words of the great English philosopher G.K Chesterton who commented on people who rebel against everything. He says this in his book Orthodoxy published in 1909:
‘But the new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.’
Nihilism is a disease which robs our ability to truly engage with our human existence. There is no religion, ideology, political party or profession which cannot be critically evaluated and ultimately scorned as fallible and imperfect. Yet the human condition craves the idea of purpose. It is only when we place faith in something that we touch those things which give life meaning. The millions of people who dedicate their lives to charity are only able to do so because they believe there is meaning and value in their actions. The great political and military leaders of history were able to change the world because they ignored the ridicule of critics and believed in a higher calling. The level of sacrifice a person is willing to make in life will be directly proportional to the level of faith they have that there is a purpose to their actions.
Comedic nihilism is something akin to a down-trodden, long-term opposition party. It is quick to insult the people of action but slow to suggest an alternative. And whilst there may be a small injection of esteem when you mock someone’s purpose in life, it is more than offset by the emptiness of a life with no meaning. We do, of course, need to be sceptical to a degree, but if it translates into cynicism we are on the path to a rather miserable existence. It is better always to stand for something, to believe in something and to love something, than to lurk in the gutters trying to pull others down to your level, mocking everything sacred with equal venom. Stand-up comedy is good for a laugh, but don’t take it too seriously.