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.

 

8 Comments

  1. Charli.H March 4, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Charli’s comment was brought you by viagra – the only performance that can stand up for hours on end 😛

     
  2. Isaac March 6, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Brilliant Benny. I enjoy your thoughts and your flare in writing. Thoroughly enjoyable!

     
  3. Tanya March 6, 2010 at 11:06 am

    I love this bit

    “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”

    … I tend to agree…

     
  4. Matt Bond March 7, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    That G.K Chesterton quote is unreal.

    Upon reading it though, I was struck by the shift in philosophical thought from 1909 till now. It seemed there was a palpable sense of the populace’s belief in something, even if the thought was dominated by the assumptions of judeo-christian teachings. Nowadays, particularly in Australia, we generally do not subscribe to an overarching and assumed belief system. I think there’s a sadness in that.

     
  5. glasnost March 20, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Well Done! I Like it!

     
  6. Charli March 23, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I so agree with you. A great article Mr Jones.

    I think the arts is a reflection of society within it’s self… If it’s done well that is… You’ve got many people within the arts (playwrights and dramaturges) reflecting and basing their thematic conventions within society. For it can give you a historical perspective. You have people observing at societies faults, triumphs/victories and most importantly it’s people. It’s the attention to the finer detail. It makes it relatable and plausible to their audiences. For it’s a learning experience, the audience captivate learning about themselves, others and the world around them whilst being entertained.

     
  7. Abel April 17, 2010 at 4:51 am

    First of all, the existentialists would laugh at this article. I’m not, so I’m still commenting on it.

    ‘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.’
    Well, I know or know about too many ppl who ‘dedicate their lives to charity’ and said something like ‘Oh, it might not help, but if I don’t do it, it definitely won’t help. So maybe I should just try and let God decide the rest.’ — I don’t see where their meaning and value lie.
    ‘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.’
    Oh, maybe they were just greedy. I do agree with you on condition that greed and hatred (esp. the last one) belong to your ‘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.’
    Again, numerous ppl would do it simply because there ‘might’ be (instead of ‘is’) a purpose to their actions’. And we all know monomania.

    ‘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.’
    Where lies the line between ‘scepticism to a degree’ and ‘cynicism’? Is it decided by YOU? I think when the SUCs remind me of the fact that everything has its flaws, I’m having just the right degree of scepticism and I certainly don’t think I’m a 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.’
    First, you have to explain and articulate why it’s always better to stand for something and believe in something. And to me, to love something doesn’t entail standing for it or believing it. Secondly, your description after the word ‘than’ is equally full of venom.

    ‘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.’
    If so, they’re the really most precious ppl we have. The most dreadful thing to me is that a set of doctrines appears and no one around can/want to criticise them. So, I’d say that the SUCs sacrifice themselves (running the risk of being nihilist!) in order to alert us that every seemingly sacred thing has its problematic aspect and can be mocked. And by your logic, with such sacrifice, they must think their actions have some kind of meaning, so they’re hardly nihilistic. And on your implied criticism that they can’t provide an alternative: when you see someone murdering, you don’t have to find an alternative for the murderer or anyone, you scream (or for your own safety, you call the police) — there’s really no alternative, if you yourself are not a police. And, seriously, I feel annoyed that everyone comes to criticise someone else with their own agenda. If the SUCs are really like what you said — they don’t have an alternative — that means they don’t have their own agenda! Isn’t it great for the audience that we’re finally hearing something without an alternative agenda so that we can observe closely what the problems of the thing they criticise are? Oh, yes, they might actually have their own agendas, because no one is neutral, and you also mentioned they’re politically left. Oh? If they aren’t trying to tell us anything they believe and not having an agenda, how can we feel they’re lefties? Are they actually nihilistic?

    I think you’re too quick to judge the SUCs as nihilistic. Your use of the quote from Chesterton is illogical. The examples he presents don’t make good analogy with jokes of SUCs. In that quote, the actions are self-contradictory, while the SUCs aren’t. They simply pick out the mockable elements from both party; they don’t, judging by your examples and what I watched, take the stance of A while mocking B and then take the stance of B while mocking A. What avoids the contradiction which they are supposed to have? An internal consistency! What brings about the consistency? Well, I’d say, deep down there, they’re actually trying to convey something that they do believe in. For example, your dichotomistic analysis of Dylan Moran is a big problem. Mocking science and religion at the same time doesn’t mean one has no belief. Agnosticism is a belief and sitting on the fence is a valid political stance to take.

    Now my own thoughts. The SUCs are great because they disarm ‘the sacred’ by their attitude (or by their hypothetic nihilism). When I was reading this article, I felt deep annoyed, because there’s something out of my control, something not fair. Oh, yes, you didn’t explain why it’s always better to believe in something. Then you assume that meaning and purpose are good things and loaded them with fancy and positive adjectives. Oh, great, those are based on our ‘common sense’ in which having something to believe is always good and we always want life to be meaningful. But, hey, is that true? Is that unquestionable? To me, so many ppl are just enslaved by the meaning or purposes they pursue. The word ‘meaningful’ is so powerful that it almost stopped me from writing his comment; I too fear to be judged as ‘meaningless’. But who sets that standard of being meaningful? Simply to decorate the things that you hold ‘sacred’ by rhetoric only makes them SEEM sacred, and to the ppl who don’t agree, especially if their views are outside major contending views (such as agnostic outside ‘religious vs. atheism’), this rhetoric is a yoke — it mutes them. So the great thing about SUCs is: they tell us that the sacred is not that respectable after all — they might be defined by hegemonic force or rhetoric to MAKE you feel guilty and to prevent you from questioning their sacred. Basically, in the world of SUCs, we’re ppl who have distinctive ideas who don’t have to line up with anyone else and who don’t have to choose a camp, but at the same time, we can engage in the discussion without being one of the contending parties, because we can question what all contending parties hold in common, and this common thing they have is like the soil of their battlefield. Now, we don’t have to step on the field to fight them; we question the soil itself.

    Oh, don’t forget, when you think something is meaningless, it might be possible that you simply haven’t seen its meaning.

     
  8. benny April 18, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Dear Abel,

    Thank you for taking the time to give such a lengthy and considered response to my article. I think you may have misunderstood my intensions in writing this piece. You suggest that existentialists would laugh at my piece, I would hope not. I fully respect existentialism as a valid philosophical worldview. The thing I discount is nihilism and though I don’t accuse any particular comedian of being a nihilist, including Moran, the example of people ridiculing everything seemed as good a springboard as any to enter this debate.

    I am surprised that you leapt to the defense of Agnosticism by insisting that it is a belief. I couldn’t agree more. What ever did I say to the contrary? Agnosticism, in my view, is the most intelligent belief of all in so many areas of ontological inquiry. As you say, it is itself a belief or to use my words, it is something to stand for, to believe in and to love.

    I think you may have misread this as a defense of Christianity and an attack on non-belief. I apologise if it came across this way. That was not my intention. I applaud the person who is passionate about their Atheism (or Agnosticism, Buddhism or whatever else) and have a firm belief in its rightness. I equally affirm the person who is passionate about their political party, sports team or any of the myriad things which provide meaning in life. If someone chooses to be a fence-sitter (can I repeat I do NOT consider Agnosticism to be fence sitting) well that is their prerogative too. If, however, from the fence they get their petty highs from ridiculing everyone who has decided to make a firm stand in one camp or the other, that, I maintain, seems a miserable existence indeed.

    Kind Regards
    Benjamin Thomas Jones

     

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