As Funny as the Times Will Allow: Obama on Late Night TV

Comedy, according to Groucho Marx, is an old lady in a shopping cart rolling down a steep hill into oncoming traffic. “But real comedy,” he quipped, “is if it’s a real old lady.”

That simple yet profound observation speaks to the deep confusion over the place of comedy in contemporary culture. And it is related to another deep confusion: the appropriate place of tragedy in this same culture.

Once you think about it, even briefly, you can see how almost everything we think we know about tragedy and comedy is upside down. First and foremost, the distinction has nothing to do with how a play ends. All Shakespeare’s tragedies do not end in a bloodbath, nor do all his comedies end in a wedding. Most of what scholars call “the problem plays” end in ways that are hard to assess. Most ancient Greek tragedies were resolved in the end; the Greeks too had their “problem plays.” But the point is that tragedies, when they are resolved, are resolved only at great cost.

Tragedy and comedy are joined at the ritual hip. We laugh about the same things we cry about—human fragility, human vulnerability, agonies and ecstasies, and those all-too-common reversals of fortune. Bodily appetite, food and drink, sex and death—these are the source of comedy and tragedy alike. Dionysus is the god of the theater, both kinds of theater. The differences have to do with how the plays are performed, how they are played by this person, in this play, in this moment. Sometimes, an audience will even find its own humor and its own horror, quite different from the ones the actors intended. Thus, a play is not even in the control of the playwright or of the cast. It is a collective, performative encounter. Dionysus is often a trickster.

Now comes the theater’s dirty little secret. Comedy is mean. Really mean. That’s a real old lady. Comedy is hopeless, too. It tells us, This is how we are, and this is how we always will be. Comedy needs tragedy, ironically enough, if it is not to fall into despair.

In the words of Walter Kerr, a brilliant Broadway theater critic from the previous generation, “tragedy is the form that promises us a happy ending. It is also the form that is realistic about the matter.” There it is. Tragedy is the genre of hope. It is also unblinkingly realistic about things. It earns its hope, articulates the only sustainable way to have hope.

Sacrifice for the Collective

Now segue to the recent flap about President Obama’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The hullabaloo started well before the appearance. The White House Press Secretary was asked point blank if this was an appropriate thing for the President to do, and how funny he planned to be. “As funny as the times will allow,” was the lackluster reply. (Michael Schulder of CNN offered a wonderful analysis of this on his blog, and admittedly I made a brief appearance there; it may be found here).

Well, the President tried to be funny. And the joke fell flat. I’ve been puzzling over why. On the one hand, it seems a time tailor-made for comedy. The bigger the pain, the bigger the punchlines and the bigger the comic punch. Where tragedy is visible, comedy is available.

What kills comedy is not so much the visible fact of tragedy as it is an audience trying desperately to escape tragedy rather than to face it. The most obvious forms of escapism are moralizing ones. And that is why the President’s joke fell flat. In a self-deprecating description of his lack of bowling prowess, President Obama made a flip remark about his performance being something for the Special Olympics, a comment barely audible over the laughter at his score (he bowled a 120).

This is an interesting clue as to what was going on at a subtler cultural and performative level. The audience was laughing at the US President, at his own invitation. He was making fun of himself. (Ancient Greek comedy is full of this sort of thing). By contrast, there was no suggestion of mockery of persons with disabilities in his comment (though this is a regular staple of comedy in all ages, we should probably recall).

The moralists have it upside down, as upside down as we seem to have tragedy and comedy themselves. Comedy is certainly compatible with tragedy, but it exists in uneasy relation to morality. Comic artists must be free to offend, free to be mean. This doesn’t mean that there should be no restriction on what the comedian can say, by the way; not at all. Comedians, like all artists, need constraints in order to show off their creative virtuosity. It is the audiences that need to restrain themselves; they need to permit themselves a laugh. Or not.

The question, then, is not whether it was an appropriate time to be funny. The question is whether late-night comedy shows are an appropriate venue for a sitting US President (candidates are another matter, of course). The role President Obama has played since that fateful appearance has been that of scapegoat, another interesting idea we take straight from the Greek theater. He is a sacrifice for the collective, especially the community elders so often personified in a Greek chorus. (I even suspect that some of this reaction is an immediate post-Bush phenomenon. After eight long years of a president who clearly did not care what the public thought of him, here is a president who does care, very deeply. And so we are shouting at him, shouting eight years of pent-up rage at the machine.)

What is odd about the shouting is that everyone, even the critics, know that the President did not intend to offend, did not intend to break any rules. But he did offend, thus the ritual guilt is real.

Just like Oedipus. The king did not intend his crimes either; he committed them all unwittingly. Yet still he was polluted, and still he was expelled from the city. Later on, because tragedy is endlessly fascinated with reversals of reversals of reversals, he was divinized.

None of this is fair; it is tragedy.

And it is comedy too. That is why we refer to the ability “to take a joke.” Comedy is hard to take. Every bit as hard as tragedy. And potentially as cathartic. I’ll have more to say about that elusive, and ultimately religious, idea in some future columns.