Stephen Colbert, Louis C.K. and the rise of the Comedian-Philosophera



This week's issue (No. 23): 
photo by Sebastian Kim for GQ

In this issue:

1. The Public Joy and Hidden Faith of Stephen Colbert (this is the best read of the bunch, don't miss it) - GQ

2. The Theology of Louis C.K. (a totally unexpected piece comparing Louis CK to Augustine) - America Magazine

3. How Amy Schumer and John Oliver Became Public Intellectuals  (and why nothing is "just a joke") - The Atlantic

4. How The Doonesbury creator draws the lines on free speech (Gary Trudeau explains that satire should always punch up, never down) - The Atlantic

5. A reflection on the life and death of Chris Farley (and the perils of doing anything for a laugh) - The New Yorker

editor's note:
The weekend reader is about the people, ideas, and trends that make our culture today. So why do an issue on comedy? Admittedly it's partly personal preference. As some of you know, I'm a little bit of a comedy nerd.

When I was still in elementary school, I'd stay up late to watch Carson's Tonight Show and SNL (back in the glory days of Mike Myers, Dana Carvey & Co). My parents got me The Rolling Stone Book of Comedy and I loved reading the profiles of the comedians.

I remember when, as a kid, I learned that Bill Murray was actually shy and low-key when he wasn't performing. That made an impact on me. I realized that comedians were often more than they seemed on stage and often their comedy had deeper purposes that were camouflaged behind the laughter.

The fact is, in a post-Jon Stewart Daily Show world, comedy may be one of culture's most powerful vehicles for discourse. Irony is the coin of the realm and comedians are increasingly taking the role of public philosophers. They also consume an insane amount of our time via youtube clips passed around by email and Facebook. (I'm not one to buck that trend. If you click around this email you'll find several comedy gems embedded throughout).

Read wisely. Read widely.
The Public Joy and Hidden Faith of Stephen Colbert
by Joel Lovell for GQ || Article Link
(28 minute read)
This is my favorite article of the week. You get a behind-the-scenes look at Colbert's preparations to take over for David Letterman on CBS. As one part of that plan, you get the inside story on Colbert's unadvertised decision to host a local midnight cable public access show in rural Michigan called "Only in Monroe" where he did the town news and interviewed another local Michigander, Marshall Mathers (a.k.a. Emimen). He and the writers wanted to get one show under their belt and this was a good one. In fact, the show is hilarious. His Mathers interview leaves you thinking that Eminem was genuinely confused. 

As fun as that is, the best part is when Lovell gets Colbert to drop the mask and talk about the influence his faith has had on his life. Despite some truly awful circumstances he faced early on, Colbert is not only not-bitter, but fundamentally and strikingly grateful. Colbert used to have a note taped to his computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” 

The entire conversation, particularly the end, left a deep impression on Lovell. Here he talks about it:

"I've easily played the recording of that conversation a dozen times, only one of them in order to transcribe. And while we spent plenty of time talking about comedy and the conventions of late-night and the sheer practical challenge of doing a show twice as long as his old one—the thing I've been thinking about the most since my time with Colbert is loss. The losses he's experienced in his life, yes, but really the meaning we all make of our losses. Deaths of loved ones, the phases of our children's lives hurtling by, jobs and relationships we never imagined would end. All of it."

"Among other things, our lives are compendiums of loss and change and what we make of it. I've never met anyone who's faced that reality more meaningfully than Stephen Colbert. I suppose, more than anything, that's what this story is about."

The Theology of Louis C.K.
by Jonathan Malesic in America Magazine  || Article Link
(6 minute read)
I never anticipated an essay comparing Louis C.K. to Augustine. Yet here it is. The comparison may be a big stretch, but it's food for thought. He is honest with himself and his audience about human imperfection in a way the recalls Augustine's own confessions:

"St. Augustine was a comic genius. Is there a funnier one-liner in all of theology than his prayer in the Confessions, 'Lord, give me chastity, but not yet'? He was high-minded but rangy, embracing sexual and scatological humor in City of God, where he notes with no little envy that “some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing...

...Like Augustine in that prayer, the comedy of the 47-year-old Louis C.K. paints a picture of a man who can see the moral order of things but cannot will himself to act in accordance with it. Louis C.K. jokes, for example, that he should offer his seat in first class to the uniformed soldier flying to a combat zone, but he convinces himself that just by having that thought, he’s the moral hero in the cabin. Actually getting up out of his seat would be unnecessary.

Louis C.K.’s comedy argues that, at times, we are all this laughably weak-willed and self-deceptive. Our ideals can be sublime, but our fat, failing bodies betray us; and this condition begins at birth." 

My favorite Louis C.K. bit? Talking with Conan about how Everything is Amazing and Nobody's Happy.  (Thank you Justin Browne for introducing me to this years ago)

How Comedians like John Oliver and Amy Schumer Became Public Intellectuals
By Megan Garber in The Atlantic | Article Link
 (9 minute read)

Two things to know about comedy today: 1. The state of comedy is moving beyond fart jokes and taking up social issues 2. Comedy is getting mass attention through the viral nature of the internet. As a result, those doing comedy today have a platform for influencing the public conversation in powerful ways. 

"The point of comedy has always been, on some level, a kind of productive subversion. Observational comedy, situational comedy, slapstick comedy, comedy that both enlightens and offends—these are forms of creative destruction, at their height and in their depths, and they’ve long allowed us to talk about things that taboos, or at the very least taste, might otherwise preclude. Long before Jon Stewart came along, there was Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers and George Carlin. There were people who used laughter as a lubricant for cultural conversations—to help us to talk about the things that needed to be talked about."

Two interesting side notes:
  1. Amy Schumer's father is second-cousin to U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer.
  2. John Oliver once did a piece on the MBA Oath for The Daily Show where he ran a "scared straight" program for MBAs who weren't willing to take the oath.
The Limits of Satire and Free Speech
by Gary Trudeau in The Atlantic || Article Link 
(6 minute read)
Trudeau has been the mind behind the Doonesbury comic strip since 1968 when he launched it as a student member of the Yale Daily News staff. This is the text of a speech he gave at Long Island University in April as the recipient of the George Polk Award. It came not long after the horrible massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris. He took a position for which he was criticized, that free speech is sacred, but that satire should know it's limits. 

"What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

I’m aware that I make these observations from a special position, one of safety. In America, no one goes into cartooning for the adrenaline. As Jon Stewart said in the aftermath of the killings, comedy in a free society shouldn’t take courage.

Writing satire is a privilege I’ve never taken lightly.  And I’m still trying to get it right. Doonesbury remains a work in progress, an imperfect chronicle of human imperfection. It is work, though, that only exists because of the remarkable license that commentators enjoy in this country. That license has been stretched beyond recognition in the digital age. It’s not easy figuring out where the red line is for satire anymore. But it’s always worth asking this question: Is anyone, anyone at all, laughing? If not, maybe you crossed it."

A Reflection on the Life and Death of Chris Farley 
by Ian Crouch in The New Yorker || Article Link 
(9 minute read)

Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, rates Chris Farley among the most talented cast members that ever performed on the show. Farley's death, at age 33, from a drug overdose, cut short a brilliant and manic life. Obituaries were rife with comparisons between Farley and SNL icon John Belushi.

This piece briefly examines Farley's famous Chippendales dancer audition sketch where he supposedly is in a final round audition against the muscularPatrick Swayze. Many people say that sketch is what made him a star. But to others is was the moment things turned dark for him.

"Jim Downey, who wrote the sketch, insisted that Farley’s dancing ability elevated it, so that the audience was celebrating his audacious performance rather than merely mocking his appearance. People were laughing with Farley, not at him—that distinction being one of the essential tensions of Farley’s career.

Bob Odenkirk, though,
 who was a writer on the show, [Editors note: years before becoming Breaking Bad's "Saul Goodman"] said that Farley 'never should have done it.' Chris Rock, a cast member at the time, viewed it as a dangerous turning point for Farley. 'That was a weird moment in Chris’s life,' he said. 'As funny as that sketch was, and as many accolades as he got for it, it’s one of the things that killed him. It really is. Something happened right then.'

Today I get the impression that scores of people are following in Farley's footsteps, using YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram and doing anything for a laugh, for a "like," for attention. In the process they, like Farley, may be doing injury to their dignity in a way that gets applause and eyeballs, but diminishes them in the end. 

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