Joyful Surrealist Comedy will Save the World

Is that a grandiose notion? Yes, it deliberately is. But there’s something to it. The first part which I need you to be on board for is that the world needs saving. That we are up against a wild new incarnation of evil which needs defeating. The next point is that comedy can save the world– and then that joyful surreal comedy is the right kind of comedy weapon for the job.

My theory is that the period we are all living in is one of spectacle, where we encounter the truest evil flex its power on a regular basis in the form of media. Trump jokes to the crowd, “I’m president! Ha! Can you believe it? I’m president!” like Jerry Seinfeld playing the devil, while he approves of an order to strip millions of Americans of basic healthcare coverage. This is an old breed of evil in a new suit. This is fascism, which our generation hasn’t had to deal with yet. This is not Obama wearing a straight face while drone striking civilians, this is not the familiar Neo-liberal facade of goodness while allowing destruction to reign and late Capitalism to fold into itself– this is Joker TV. The most immediate reaction which we’ve grown up to perform is a comic approach to grief. Sardonic, black humor. A telling-it-like-it-is brand of pessimism which just barely conceals itself in a punchline. Exaggerating circumstances (but just barely) to convey our exasperation and notions of doom. When faced with video footage of the real world, where Donald J. Trump is really president of the United States, my colleagues are primed to deliver exhausted laughter and then mime choking, vomiting, or going completely comatose. While jaywalking, as the subject turns to politics, friends might stop and call for cars to hit them.

This discussion of the current political situation is not the usual dark-joke which we grew up to be dramatic about. From the ages eight to fifteen, anti-jokes and black humor were all the rage for me and my friends. Even the preppiest, least-alternative American kiddos grew up with Ren and Stimpy and knew how to crack a dark joke. “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?” I’d be propositioned in the lunch room. “Feline AIDS”. We didn’t necessarily laugh at this jokes in the way we’d belly laugh at 2AM because somebody at the sleepover farted– we’d engage in a sort of knowing chuckle, an acknowledgement that this was the kind of humor which appealed to our generation. The appeal of the anti-joke format wore off in some ways as we grew older, but their signature nihilism stuck around in millennial comedy discourse. I’d like to argue that as we entered college, collectively, we felt the strains of capitalist alienation. Our humor was born out of commodity culture’s promise of pleasure never being fulfilled– if everything our parents worked for, if the debt we walked out of high school into truly meant nothing, then who’s to say we couldn’t appropriate that bleakness for our own comedic means? “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?” I’d be propositioned in the freshman commons. “Realizing, as you take a bite of your apple, that there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism”.

This bleak humor is the humor we’ve inherited due to circumstance– but I don’t believe it’s the comedy of our hearts or minds, and I certainly don’t believe it’s the true weapon forged to defeat the Trump administration. It’s a way to convey information, to flex some worldly baggage, to let everyone know we’re effected by our world. Acknowledging the sorrow, which we find too grand to stage a proper discourse about, lest we become too emotionally distressed. Our friends don’t want to have a real talk with us about the perils of global warming, deliberate mismanagement of the environmental protection agency, the gutting of the education system, the genocide in Aleppo, the potential for genocide on our shores, the dehumanization of minorities, the power grab by such unabashed evil at such a pivotal point in American and human history. Our instinct is to throw out some buzz-words to let our friends know we’re feeling it, too, then let it go before our hearts are weighed down too heavily.

Here’s my suggested remedy. A big step away from the dreary comedy of isolation and alienation which we all experience, but don’t derive any real pleasure from acknowledging– joyful surrealism. I preface “surrealism” with “joyful” because there is certainly a plentitude of pessimistic surrealism. Not to demerit this kind of humor, because I enjoy it and have experienced many a genuine laugh from the bleakest kind of non-sequitur gags, but in the face of the current political climate, I find that being in despair is allowing “them” to win. It’s unfair to me that the president and his cronies are the only ones allowed a good laugh. Early on in the semester we read a piece which addressed how to defeat an enemy who’s only joking– my proposition is that we don’t allow him to be the only one who gets the giggle.

News headlines in 2017 are so non-sensical that it can be difficult to decipher what is satire and what is reality. The best weapon to fight the absurdity of reality is full-blown comic absurdism– something which heightens and alienates subject matters ad-absurdum until they’re delightfully unrecognizable.

Learning about the civilian uprisings against communism where people dressed up as gnomes is a major inspiration for me. Straight-faced protest is a real undertaking, and it has an important seat at the table, but organized joyful surrealism cannot be underestimated. History has proven its value.

Staged street protests, art, music, film, fashion– joyful surrealism (meaning comedy which revels in absurdity with giddiness and enthusiasm) can muck up the engines of any ideological war machine, no matter how powerful it seems. When we turn away from the joy and light that comedy brings, we agree that our oppressors have stripped our love of life from us. When we fight back with wild joy, the uprising is unstoppable.

Police officers trying to curb the Gnome Uprisings looked ridiculous as they carried away people in silly hats– the same potent magic will apply to a modern-day American application.

Fake News as Bullsh*t Detection Training

I remember when The Onion was still available as a printed newspaper in the Twin Cities. I distinctively remember picking one up as a child and being perplexed, then giddy. One of the front page headlines was something to the effect of, “If Only Hamster Knew What Happened to Last Hamster”, with a color photo of a hamster eating a carrot. The other print newspapers which surrounded The Onion had headlines about the Bush administration, or about sports, or violence, or community goings-on. This one had a blurb about a hamster. The Onion didn’t immediately register to me as a parody of the other publications– just as a welcome dose of absurdity and playfulness which was wholly appealing. Completely oblivious to the satirical nature of the Onion, I began eagerly watching the news with my parents in the morning, hoping I could recreate the delighted surprise I experienced when reading about a doomed hamster.

As Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” trained people to recognize the horror that may be cloaked in thorough and rationalized arguments, my encounter with this hamster got me comfortable with laughing at things I thought were silly. If The Onion was going to run something whimsical, then by kid logic, every news station and printed newspaper must be doing the same, just though more complicated adult in-jokes. When I really put on my listening hat and picked through the serious for the absurd, I was laughing all the time. This subconsciously trained me to be better at seeing through bullsh*t. Likening a news story on politics to a story about a hamster made everything, suddenly, much clearer. The Onion accidentally became my political initiation.

These pockets of absurdity wake us up to the theater around us– not only making it more bearable, or acting like a salve, but revealing a deeper truth. Learning to laugh at bullsh*t makes you more keen on finding it.