Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Comedians Don't Get No Respect

Over on unspeak.net, the unspeak community has been debating a list of United Kingdom's Top 300 Intellectuals, most of whom get Holiday Greeting cards from the author of the list; the remainder are probably people he wants to send cards to, and now can ("Thought you might be interested in this? Regards, JN.")

There was one area of clear agreement: where the hell is Chris Morris? The vile exclusion of Chris Morris has solidified in my soul into a little nugget of pure listrage. There are obviously no comedians on the list - no Stewart Lee - but excluding Chris Morris takes it to another level. I suppose, casting an eye down the list, it appears that a sense of humour seems to be one of the exclusion criteria.

Maybe outside of the United Kingdom's parochial superiority and gravitas, which linger in the air like Prince Philips' flatus, we'd find a list of Public Intellectuals that would include a few comedians. Maybe Woody Allen? Steve Martin?

Wikipedophiles will know that wikipedia has two TOP 100 lists for Public Intellectuals, one for 2005 and one for 2008. Finding the duds in these lists is like shooting very fat, partly-stunned fish in a small bucket, using a bazooka from about two feet away. I'm talking about people like Pope Benedict, Thomas Friedman, and Malcolm Gladwell, who have a lot in common insofar as they have ascended to the heights of their chosen professions by gussing up trite untruths about history with intellectual handwaving into a narrative of their choice about the meaning of the world. There are other ways in which they are not so similar; for example, only one of them was a Nazi, and I'm pretty sure I've only ever seen one of them walking through Central Park. Not the one who was also a Nazi. And, come on, these two lists include Bjorn Lomberg (I refuse to use the slashed o in his name because I have my doubts about whether it's real or not) and Paul Wolfowitz?

I don't know whether these lists were hijacked by the type of online Right-Winger cultural warriors who get Ayn Rand on the bestseller lists and find online polls so they can vote that George W. Bush was one of the best presidents ever? Or if this is jelly-kneed liberal equivocation?

In any case, the exclusion of comedians is interesting. If we're bemoaning the lack of comedians, we'd have to acknowledge that the lists also exclude film directors (no Mike Leigh or Ken Loach in the UK version? No Lars Von Trier, P.T. Anderson or Wes Anderson in the global version?) Film is either too popular or too unpopular for its auteurs to get credit as public intellectuals (i.e., they're either too public, or too intellectual). For comedians, it's slightly different.

First, public intellectuals belong to two groups: those who take themselves very seriously and those who are taken very seriously. Obviously, the majority are members in both clubs. Comedians pretend to take themselves seriously, where the pretense is part of the mockery; and they are not taken seriously. The fool's license comes with a hefty price.

But wait, you say, surely some of these public intellectuals pride themselves on being wags, on telling wry tales of the life of the mind? Yes, but they're still damned for and by their seriousness, at least in part because comedy is always in service of their seriousness. Martin Amis may be considered a great comic novelist, but he is squooshed like a small, angry bug under the thumb of Craig Brown's parody: "I am a serious." Alain de Botton no doubt enthuses his philosophy with bright-eyed clever-joke-things, and he is squooshed like a small, domed beetle under the thumb of somebody else's parody.

Second, and much more intriguingly, comedy may be fundamentally anti-intellectual. Comedians may not belong amongst public intellectuals, not because public intellectuals wouldn't have them, but because comedy is intrinsically hostile to the public intellectual. This is not to say that Stephen Fry or Jon Stewart or even the Three Stooges are anti-intellectuals; nor is to say that comedians cannot be whipsmart, street savvy, elegant, even poetic (none of these, obviously, are necessarily synonymous with intellectual); nor is it to say that the public intellectual has a special little red light dotted on his or her forehead as comedy's sniper takes aim, preferring to pop the public intellectual in the head to other targets. No, it's none of that. It's that comedy has an, ahem, ambiguous relationship to intellectualism per se. The public intellectual may be wrong, misguided, violently cruel in the stupid conclusions reached when exerting his or her intellect, but he or she evinces a belief in the power of intelligence. Comedy, of course, can host the most magnificent displays of intelligence: one need look no further than Oscar Wilde, Stephen Fry, Kierkegaard, the Marx Brothers, or Stewart Lee, or even Russell Brand, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Aristophanes, and so on; but comedy is just as welcoming of magnificent displays of splattering, gloopy, noisy, bodily eructation. A joke depends upon the intellect, but it snaps its jaws shut in defiance of whatever intellectual work was done: that's why the punchline is a surprise, that's why the timing of a joke snares the mind and draws the listener in before delivering the knifeslash.

I could on. But I won't. Not for now. The point is that the public intellectual takes pride in intellectualism as a virtue; for comedy, intellectualism is a tool, worth about as much as a fart - which, in comic terms, is valuing it quite highly; but it's not a virtue.

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