Gervais And His Relation To The Unconscious
Being funny is hard. Determining what comedy is “edgy” and what is “mean-spirited” is even harder.
This is particularly true for Americans, and even more so for women, but even male Brits can find themselves at the center of a discussion of whether or not their comedy has “gone too far,” as Ricky Gervais is now doing.
As it happens, I’ve already been thinking about this problem for several weeks — “this” being, basically, the problem of how can I ever hope to be funny again without being accused of being mean? Because to me, though there might theoretically be a line between “edgy” and “mean-spirited,” the only line that counts is the line between funny and not funny.
Did they laugh? Then it’s comedy. If not, then it’s something else.
Here’s how jokes work, according to Freud, and super simplified because I don’t really remember it that well and I’m getting old: they touch on some kind of unconscious anxiety that we all share — fear of death, let’s say — and they allow for a release of it in the form of a laugh.
So if Ricky Gervais gets up at the Golden Globes and makes some jokes about Scientologists being closeted gays — something many people in Hollywood know to be true but cannot say themselves out of fear for their careers, the people in the room laugh because it’s not their ass on the line for saying it — it’s Gervais’. The people at home laugh because they know it’s true as well, and it exorcises their own anxieties about living in a world where that kind of behavior would be necessary or encouraged — that a whackadoo church would in effect run the entertainment industry and encourage people to hide their sexuality for the betterment of their careers. We laugh because it helps us exorcise our anxieties about any of it being actually true.
You see the crowd laughing. You see Alec Baldwin wiping a tear away from his face, he’s enjoying the jokes so much. Sure, not all of the audience is enjoying the routine: some have been targeted, and it takes a special kind of person who can be roasted and take it in stride. (It takes another comedian).
It’s just a joke, after all.
But what happens about halfway through the show is that Robert Downey, Jr. gets up and scolds Gervais for being “mean-spirited,” the all purpose fallback accusation of the weak-willed and intellectually lazy. He then follows this up with a stupid and sexist joke that is far more offensive to women as a whole than anything Gervais said all night, not to mention his own wife, who was presumably seated in the audience, but because it is all in good fun and boys will be boys the tone of the night is changed after that point.
Now people aren’t laughing as much. A superego has been introduced into the room. Maybe it’s best to just not get involved. Maybe it’s better to just not laugh, even if it is funny. Maybe it’s not funny at all. Maybe it’s just mean?
This morning the same thing is playing out in the media and the blogosphere. Gervais’ comedy was originally praised by nearly everyone on the viewers’ side of things — only the Hollywood people seemed upset about anything. And that makes sense, if they were the ones being lampooned. But as the news day continued on Monday, more and more people seem to have decided that Gervais is a big fat meanie.
Funny how that works — being funny, that is. You can be really funny one day, and really mean the next.
I still don’t have the answer to this problem of how to be funny without ever being called mean. There are people out there who are considered funny who are never called mean, but I don’t think they are funny (please cf. Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, etc.)
Anyway in the midst of my dark wilderness I decided to read the book How to Win Friends And Influence People [Ba Dump Bump — that was not actually a joke, but go ahead and laugh, because I do see the humor in it].
I’ve been meaning to read this book for years and have only now got around to doing so. One of the key components — the first, in fact, is “never criticize, condemn or complain.” As you can imagine, my response to this was FUCK ME. But I read the chapter and naturally, it’s quite wise — the rationale is that criticism just shoots you in the foot, no matter how well founded, because nobody will ever see your point, and they will only hate you for it.
Ahhh, Mr. Carnegie shoots and scores!
Most of the book has been this way for me. I totally agree with most of it, as much as this might seem surprising to those of you who are familiar with it. I see the wisdom of it and think it’s absolutely correct. In fact, it’s a brilliant little book to read, for those of you who don’t already hate people. I just don’t see how I can possibly make any use of it. I think I am too far gone. I just don’t know if I can stop criticizing, even if I know it’s a futile thing, and even if I know people will hate me for it.
I think I might be well aware of the fact that you catch more flies with honey, but to pursue that path would be dishonest for me. Because if I pursued that path, I would be doing it just to manipulate people, to get them to do what I wanted, to get them to act the way that I wanted without ever letting on that I thought anything about what they were doing was wrong.
And for me, kicking over a beehive might be disruptive, but it also has a little bit more integrity, because to pursue another method would be to be going after something far more sinister — far more cynical (if that is even possible), because it is hidden and encased in something that makes it look more pleasant than it actually is.
And I wonder if maybe Ricky Gervais is the same way.