Can we laugh at ourselves?
Finding humor in dark times
Hi again, Ari here, thanks for being a subscriber! Here’s my Friday post for subscribers only.
We are living through hard times. I could list examples but if you’re reading my newsletter, I bet you know exactly what I mean.
So what do we do with hard times? As people, as a society, and in our culture?
One coping mechanism is finding the light or humor within adversity — not as ‘denial or distraction,’ but really as part of the experience. That’s what comedians do, which may be why so many seem to have tough childhoods or life experiences. Before seeking laughs became their pursuit or job, it seems many found laughter was one way to get through strange or difficult times... to be able to laugh through it, or laugh at yourself.
Take Kevin Hart. He’s now one of the most popular comics in the world. (He has more social media followers than the population of many countries).
Hart was brought up by a single mother and his family faced substance abuse issues. His comedy is often stark and pushes boundaries, but even the bracing stuff tends to have a goofy tenderness—something adjacent to empathy.
“You have to be understanding that everybody is going through something,” he says, and if you keep that in mind, then you might “figure out ways to find light in what seems to be the darkest times.”
Hart told me that in an interview where we talked about his work traversing class, race and the pandemic. While he is a super-famous superstar, he really exudes a humanity about mistakes and growth. “It’s OK to not get it right, it’s OK to fall down, it’s OK to make some mistakes,” he says.
Since I get to talk with comedians and performers, it can be interesting to see the ‘gap’ between their performing persona and their humanity. (A TV interview still has other layers of presentation, but it still can bring out a different part of the person than their ‘stage’ act.) So with Hart, talking to him showed this more gentle, tender side. That’s a bit different than a comedian that I’ve talked to on and off air — and a favorite for some Beat viewers — Richard Lewis.
Lewis, who dubbed himself the “Original Beatnik,” has almost exactly the same vibe in conversation as he does on stage. Sarcastic. Insecure. Neurotic. It’s a very familiar motif to anyone who’s spent any time at a New York Deli or coastal synagogue! Lewis battled substance abuse himself, and then opened up about it in his work and an autobiography, so he’s definitely faced his own challenges, and mined them for comedy.
I don’t have any larger point to offer here — this is not a news report, after all — but just an appreciation for some of the people who keep us laughing, at a time when the march of disease, death and stress can make anyone feel a fog of sadness. It’s OK to be sad or discouraged (Kevin Hart says so!), and it’s also OK to laugh through it, and find the goofy moments wherever we can.
P.S. Here are links to my discussions with Kevin and Richard, and I also wanted to share some words from another artist who tapped his challenges to entertain millions, the actor Michael K. Williams, who died this past week. Here is what he told us about his life and juvenile justice in a 2018 interview:
And here are some other pieces on Michael K. Williams, from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Undefeated.
It has been important for my own mental health to get back on the stage this year in front of an audience. I did virtual shows last year, and while in one respect it was liberating to not be cognizant of the audience’s judgment, it felt very lonely. A comic without an audience is just someone with unsolicited opinions. Some of my fellow comics want to pretend the dark times haven’t changed us, but I think it’s important to lean into the realities of our times. Only when we share the pain can we share in the healing.
Hi Ari, I think Richard Pryor personified finding joy out of poverty and systematic racism thru humor. He reveled in telling stories about sex follies, family relationships, drug abuse (lite his hair on fire with a bong} and laughed thru it . Making others laugh. Serious things happen. But we can all get thru it if we find humor in our lives. Laughter is the best medicine.