David explains how comedy and humor can uncover a mystical oneness that allows us to construct meaning and community from mundane occurrences.
During the height of this pandemic, I was in an interview, it was when everybody was locked down, total quarantine, and they were having Zoom get togethers. I was on a panel with another rabbi – also a cousin, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg – and somebody asked, “What do you do to stay positive and optimistic during this time?” There were a few answers given, and my initial reaction, which was not all that rabbinic. I think people wanted something a little bit more theological, something a little bit more thoughtful. My response was listening to comedy, and I meant it. I think in times in my life, it’s no secret that I am an extraordinarily anxious person. I’m an extraordinarily… There’s a chaos that I’ve always felt in my identity. And it’s not this calming, sequential personality. There’s always been an energy that I’ve had to deal with ever since I was a little kid, and a lot of times that’s manifest as anxiety, and I’ve always found a great deal of comfort and solace in the words of comedians.
And there’s something very specific that I’ve always of taken out of comedy, and I think the person who frames it so well, who I have quoted in the readings, is not actually from a comedian: it’s from David Foster Wallace, the late great writer. And his lecture that he gave in describing the comedy of Kafka, where he says, and I’ll repeat it again: “It’s not that students don’t get Kafka’s humor, but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get, the way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafkaesque joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.” And I’ve always found that quote so, so moving, “…that our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.” It’s something that I think about a lot, and for some reason, I’ve always felt that comedy highlights that tension in the way that it gives a lens to look at the tragic, the difficult, the mundane, the quotidian, the ordinary, in a way that elevates it and gives it a narrative that elicits a different reaction than the untrained, non-comedic mind would look at. And it gives this overlay of everyday life and experiences, and even the more cataclysmic drama in the world, and it allows it to transform into something that doesn’t have to be so painful, or allows the tragedy to exist on its own terms, but extract a moral lesson and extract a perspective that is almost another layer of narrative on top of the events that it’s commenting on.
I’ve always enjoyed the power of comedy, and I actually think of a different essay by David Foster Wallace that he first delivered as a commencement speech, where he describes the everyday drudgery of life, and being tired at the end of the day, and going to a grocery store. And he writes, in that essay, something that I think is really remarkable. So Wallace writes, “Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think. And if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think, and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, and my hungriness, and my fatigue, and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way?”
And he describes what everybody has felt, that very self-centered myopic, almost narcissistic, I’ll use a fancier, solipsistic, a sense that you’re the only person in the world, and when you’re tired and frustrated, everybody else is just in your way. And he asked his audience, in this essay, maybe the point of what education is, maybe the point of all of this, is knowing where to focus, or how to choose to focus, in situations like these. This is what he writes, and I think that it’s quite powerful: “But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout aisle. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who’s dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating red-tape problem, through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible, it just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you’re operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know that there are other options. It will likely be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
Now he’s talking about a liberal arts education, he’s not talking about comedy, but I do think comedy has that power – not to be hyperbolic about what this skill contains – but I do believe in the world of comedy in situations that seem to be devoid of meaning, purpose, and an overt “why is this happening?” Comedy is a lens that can uncover the mystical oneness of all things deep down. That’s why comedy resonates so much. You can listen to people from other cultures and their frustrations, and all of a sudden they take something so dreary, so mundane, so frustrating, or even tragic, and they can allow a whole room full of people to smile together. And that’s what comedy is able to do: to transform situations into meaningful commentary, to transform listeners into these small communities, constructing meaning together, out of the mundane, the every day, the small details of everyday life.