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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Comedian Philosopher Kings

I’ve never seen the denizens of the internet react to anything like they did to Robin Williams’ suicide. Misguided debates on depression aside, never before has the collective network of social media sighed so heavily at the passing of a celebrity. True, Williams’ death was sudden, shocking, and relatively unpleasant as far as deaths go, but the uniformly personal nature of everyone’s reaction lead me to think there was something more at play.

It was as if everyone I knew had just had their favorite uncle die. This man who had been coming into their homes since they were children and not only making them laugh; making their parents laugh. That’s a beautifully rare thing we lost, and a large part of what made it so personally tragic. How many things or people can you list right now that you and your parents both agreed were funny when you were 8?

I read a quote once, saying something to the effect of, “We remember the great and powerful men, but the ones that make us laugh, we truly cherish.” I may have butchered that slightly, but it’s interesting to realize how much funny people have not only influenced us as individuals, but have permeated our culture and our thinking on a fundamental level in the last few decades.

Jon Stewart is the Walter Cronkite of my generation.

If Louie C.K. keeps doing comedy until his daughters go to college, I will have a comprehensive guide to someday being a decent father.

I cried harder the day George Carlin died than the day my own grandfather died.

I think the reason these people reach so many of us on such a personal level is that the laughter allows them to more incisively and effectively address the kind of personal issues and societal problems we don’t like to talk about directly. Steven Colbert may be one of the most effective and publicly adored political commentators of the last decade, and he’s made every one of those points through satire.

When people laugh, they let their guard down, and concepts that would have moments before seemed alien or even downright threatening appear more approachable. The same goes for education. Ask any kid who grew up in the 90s what they remember about science from grade school, and I’ll bet you half of them mention a segment from Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Yet there’s an undeniable air of disdain in the old quip, “What’re you, a comedian?” When we think of early court jesters and fools, the images are generally of simpletons and savants ridiculing and demeaning themselves for their lords. Even modern stand-up comics, whose art-form has over the last 30 years moved into the mainstream, are generally fraught with self-loathing and angst, sometimes long after they achieve commercial success. This self-deprecation, I’d say, is the last crucial element to why we so readily let them into our hearts. The earnest humility of someone putting themselves on the spot for the sole purpose of making us feel good is an ultimately endearing thing.

And as the years go by and innovators raise the art-form to higher and higher levels – telling jokes about the way jokes are told – more and more people find themselves looking to funny voices for serious answers. Perhaps there will come a day when we decide that the people we want leading us should be more like those who make us laugh. It’s unlikely they’d want the job – much like Plato’s Philospher King – but maybe letting the comedians be our philosophers is a good start.

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