May 19, 2015
Even on the eve of his retirement, David Letterman's comedy lacks a crucial ingredient: joy.
My first encounter with late-night comedy was Johnny Carson, when I was very young, snuggled between my grandparents while they watched The Tonight Show on their bedroom TV as I “fell asleep.” By the time Letterman hit his stride in the mid to late 80s, I was in middle school, sneaking out after everyone else in the family was in bed to watch his show almost every night. Johnny was fine for the grown-ups; Dave’s cynical, acerbic manner was a perfect match for my snarky tween self.
I grew away from Letterman, mostly out of circumstance but also, I wonder, if it was because I partly grew out of the cynicism you talk about, Rich. Overall I think I find more joy in his comedy than you do – especially in the absurdist bits and sketches, which he presided over in grinning delight – yet there is no denying that a certain disappointment with the world hangs over his show.
Still, I don’t know if I’m ready to say joy is an essential part of comedy, Christian or otherwise. It’s certainly a part of our Christian story – in “Telling the Truth” Frederick Buechner talks about the hilarious preposterousness, the high comedy, of God coming to save us – but the Biblical figures you reference (priests, prophets) were sometimes purely doom and gloom. I think comedians like Lewis Black (a rage machine) and Louis C.K. (who we’ll be writing about again on TC later this week, in regard to him being our confessor in chief) speak comic truth without much joy at all. For me, their “joylessness” is a key part of their power as contemporary prophets working under common grace.
I really like your description of comedians and their priestly function. It reminds me of the responsibility for truthful social commentary that a comedian or social critic has.
I almost changed my opinion entirely after watching an old clip re-aired on last Thursday's Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Letterman was helping Jon learn how to cope with failure so he talked about how he bombed at the Oscars. He said his initial reaction was guilt and remorse. "I screwed up the Academy Awards!" Then it went to, "I screwed up the Academy Awards and I don't care." Until finally it became, "I screwed up the Academy Awards and I couldn't be prouder!"
Josh, Agreed that the biblical prophets can be not just dour but downright snarky. Like Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal, Isaiah mocking the makers of idol, etc. Somehow, though, I think the distinction between joy and happiness needs to be made. Like... All of life can be crap and you can be unhappy in a dozen ways but still have joy. It operates differently. Kind of like hope vs optimism. Optimism is looking at the data and thinking, "I think things could work out." Hope is different. It is trust, faith, and leaning into God regardless of the data. All that to say, the prophets were exceedingly negative and angry at kings and corruption but it was because they affirmed God, life, and goodness. Cynicism, at it's worst, is the erosion of hope, joy, and the affirmation of life. Maybe...
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