“Stand-up Tragedy”: When Coping Mechanisms Become Calls to Action

I’m not a particularly gifted comedian, but comedy plays a big role in the life I’ve made with my Mate. We like to say Jon Stewart pretty much raised our children. I know he got us through the Dubya Bush years, especially after the invasion of Iraq. When the Daily Show theme music came on, we’d yell, “Hey boys, Funny People!” and the boys would come running.

Since the election of 2016, I’ve leaned hard on Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah to remind myself that I’m not the only one who feels like my country’s turning back 100 years. But since the death of George Floyd, like the comedians themselves, I’m finding more solace in bitterness.

Isn’t that a contradiction? No–not when the bitterness is shared, and focused.

This morning’s New York Times article about Richard Pryor, by Jason Zinoman, put it best. After moving on to discuss Pryor’s legacy among Black comics, including SNL’s Michael Che and The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr., Zinoman focuses on Dave Chappelle, and coins the perfect phrase:

Over the past few decades, Chappelle has repeatedly made comedy from the pain of police brutality, but what stood out about his recent set was how his typically grave tone didn’t pivot to a joke, how often he let his unfiltered outrage sit there…Chappelle went long stretches without jokes, producing a kind of stand-up tragedy. When he asked what the police officer whose knee was on the neck of George Floyd could be thinking, he spoke with a righteous anger that comedy could not address. There are limits to what a joke can do.

Stand-up tragedy. YES. That is what feeds my soul these days: someone standing up, literally, and calling out what happened and what it means. Here is Trevor Noah, his first workday after the death of Rayshard Brooks:

Trevor isn’t telling me what to do. But when this professional funny person, this man whose impish dimple has brought me so much joy over the past five years, looks me in the eye and speaks his bitter truth, I feel called up. Which is how I want to feel right now.

It’s even more (bizarrely) comforting to hear comedians call other people out–people not like me, whom I wouldn’t have the right to criticize. Here’s Hasan Minhaj, from his show Patriot Act, calling out his fellow immigrants from Asia and the Middle East:

There are some speakers, like Killer Mike and Kimberly Jones, whose words are pure bitterness and zero comedy–no less brilliant and even more gripping–and I’ll probably focus on them another time.

Right now I want to give a huge shout-out to those “Funny People” whose wit and wisdom is fueling me these days–and hopefully you too. Please share others!

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Why I Have To Say “Relatable”

Bias Alert: 

  1. Like most English teachers, I shudder at the newly-developing word, “relatable.”
  2. My family and I LOVE the Daily Show; Jon Stewart practically raised our children.

So you might not think we’d love his replacement, Trevor Noah. But you’d think wrong. We loved Trevor from the beginning (forgiving him his occasionally juvenile humor the same way we forgave Jon his old-Jewish-guy schtick).

And now that I’ve read Trevor’s memoir, Born a Crime, I admire him on a whole new levelAnd I admire his mother more.

I only wish I had finished Trevor’s book before Christmas, so I could have given it to everyone I love. I don’t want to tell you too much about it; the book is comprised of anecdotes, to divulge any of which would spoil your joy in reading.

But I will tell you this. Although Trevor claims a different nationality, gender and race (OK, half different–but in South Africa that MEANS different) from mine, I found his story more…RELATABLE than anything I’ve read in the past year. He doesn’t just write of racial injustice–though there’s plenty of that, growing up in the last days of apartheid. He writes of topics I, privileged white American female, RELATE to:

  • adolescent yearnings to belong
  • a complex relationship with religion
  • self-consciousness over appearance
  • heartbreak (over the opposite sex, pets, family members)
  • joy in his own gifts (languages, foot speed–and you’ll see why that’s important!)
  • deep, unshakable love for his AMAZING mother

The book is also really stinkin’ funny, but that’s something I simply appreciate rather than relate to, because, alas, I am not so gifted.

And it’s shockingly sad. Something else I, thanks be, cannot relate to. But Trevor makes his family’s sadness ACCESSIBLE, and that’s close enough. Also–“accessible” is a real word.

Have you read it? Please add your review here. If not, do yourself or someone you love a favor and read Born a Crime as soon as you can.


The Flip Side Of White Privilege: White Outrage. So Where Is It?

White folks–are you woke?

During the Vietnam War, the term was “consciousness raising.” People who weren’t directly connected to the brutality in Southeast Asia via a family member or a job found little reason to care…until somehow their consciousness was raised. Maybe it was that famous photograph of the My Lai Massacre, all those dead villagers in a ditch. Maybe it was simply the stark rise in Walter Cronkite’s nightly death count. Or those white college kids getting shot at Kent State. But once that tipping point was reached, the war became an acknowledged mistake, a heartache, a cause for redemption ever since.

Black people have a briefer term for having one’s consciousness raised: “woke.”

I’ve been pondering this term since the verdict came down from the Philando Castile case in St. Anthony, Minnesota recently. You remember Castile, right? The Black man who was shot by police?

Damn, I wish that were funny. 

Anyway. Castile was shot exactly a year ago, in his car, with his partner, Diamond Reynolds,and her four year-old daughter, watching. Ms. Reynolds captured the immediate aftermath on her phone. Those of us who watched it felt sick.

But the officer who fired those seven shots was put on trial for manslaughter. When the jury saw what we’d seen, justice would surely be served. Right?

Wrong. Three weeks ago, the jury acquitted Officer Jeronimo Yanez. He was let go by the force, but the point of the trial wasn’t punishment. The point was redemption. Instead, the not-guilty verdict left me feeling more hopeless than I can remember feeling about the future of my country.

Trevor Noah (who isn’t an American but who IS a Black man who’s already been stopped by police multiple times in his few years in this country) speaks my heart:

Laura Bradley of Vanity Fair captures Noah’s stark emotional response better than I can:


And then, Noah got to the most heartbreaking detail of all: for years, the hypothetical solution to murky police shootings was body cams—because in theory, video footage would resolve any lingering questions people might have. “And black people have already taken that initiative, right?” Noah pointed out. “Thanks to cell phones, every black person has a body cam now. Black people have been saying for years, ‘Just give us an indictment. Just an indictment. Just get us in front of a jury. Just in front of a jury of our peers. Of our fellow citizens. We’ll show them the video, the evidence, and they will see it, and justice will be served.’ And black people finally get there, and it’s like, ‘Wait, what? Nothing?’ You hear the stories, but you watch that, and forget race. Are we all watching the same video? The video where a law-abiding man followed the officer’s instructions to the letter of the law and was killed regardless? People watched that video and then voted to acquit? And the saddest thing is, that wasn’t the only video that they watched.”

Noah then played part of the video that Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds,posted live on Facebook soon after watching Castile get shot next to her in the car. Now, just like before, the most striking and gut-wrenching detail is the composure with which Reynolds addresses the situation, and the officer who caused it.

“‘You shot four bullets into him, sir,’“ Noah said, quoting Reynolds. “It’s fucking mind-blowing that Diamond Reynolds has just seen her boyfriend shot in front of her. She still has the presence of mind to be deferential to the policeman. In that moment, the cop has panicked, but clearly black people never forget their training.”

So, what does it say that a jury was able to watch both of those videos in a courtroom and decide that the officer, Jeronimo Yanez—who, since the verdict, has been dismissed by the St. Anthony, Minnesota police department—was justified in fearing for his own life? Noah gave his own unambiguous verdict: “Let’s be honest. Why? Why would you say he was afraid? Was it because Philando Castile was being polite? Was it because he was following the officer’s instructions? Was it because he was in the car with his family? Or was it because Philando Castile was black?

“It’s one thing to have the system against you—the district attorneys, the police unions, the court. That’s one thing. But when a jury of your peers, your community, sees this evidence and decides that even this is self-defense, that is truly depressing. Because what they’re basically saying is, ‘In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.’“

I started this post with a term: consciousness-raising. Here’s another: white privilege.

White privilege is the equivalent of not having to know what’s going on in Vietnam. If you’re white like me, you can afford not to know about Philando Castile (or Freddie Gray, or Alton Sterling, or…). Sure, I heard about the verdict when it came out, and I was startled, but I was also very busy. Didn’t get around to thinking about it right away. ‘Cause I could afford not to.

Now I’m thinking about it. Now I’m woke. Now I feel sickened. “In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.” 

Is that where we are? Is that where we’re going to stay? Black outrage clearly means nothing in this country. So what about white outrage? Shall we try some of that? What would that look like?

What would America look like if white people like me got woke?

Not THAT Breakfast Club: Why Hip-Hop May Be More Straight-Laced Than You Thought

“Establish the culture and practice of voting as part of a desired civic lifestyle through integration of non- partisan election work, issue work, and culture work in a continuous cycle.
Empower and train leaders and volunteers from our communities to be strategic leaders, messengers, and spokespeople for issues critical to equality, justice, and opportunity.”

Sound like good goals to you? I can’t think of anyone in any political party who would not subscribe to them.

So what if I tell you these goals are espoused by someone called Charlemagne Tha God?

This guy (courtesy twitter.com)

This guy (courtesy twitter.com)

I just saw him interviewed on The Daily Show and came away feeling inspired by his inspiration to get folks to vote. I was so intrigued, I looked him up.

His real name (according to good ol’ Wikipedia) is Lenard McKelvey, and he runs a Hip-Hop radio show called The Breakfast Club. It’s the home base of Hip Hop Caucus, whose website can be found under respectmyvote.com

Those goals above? They come from Hip Hop Caucus. More specifically, this is what those folks do:

Community Organizing: We organize 14 – 40 year-olds, who identify with Hip Hop Culture, and share values of justice, equality, and opportunity.

Grassroots Leadership Development: We provide leadership training and real-world civic leadership opportunities for cultural influencers at the grassroots level.
Communicate to Large Audiences: Through partnerships with artists, celebrities, and media we drive narratives about important issues through cultural channels reaching millions of people.

Cultivate and Promote Thought Leadership: We source solutions for local to global challenges from our communities and advocate for them to decision makers and influencers.

You know what? Except for the word “influencers” (sorry, old English teacher here), there’s nothing about the above that I don’t celebrate for my country.

Why am I sharing this now? Because you know, as I do, that Hip-Hop culture is marginalized in our country. Many–perhaps most?–older white folks (like me) assume Hip-Hop is probably apolitical at best, anarchic at worst. But these guys? They’re downright Kiwanis.

My mind feels broadened, learning about Hip-Hop Caucus. And with all the stupidity of this election year, my heart feels warmed. Go, America.


It’s All About the Love: Why Dan Price is My Kind of CEO

Have you heard about Dan Price yet? He’s the CEO of Seattle’s Gravity Payments, a company that streamlines credit card payments for other companies. He’s a multi-millionaire. And he just slashed his own salary to $70,000 in order to make $70,000 the “minimum wage” of ALL 120 of his employees.

I love this guy! Not only does he look like the baby that Jesus and Brad Pitt would have if they could have a baby (which I’m pretty sure Jesus could make happen if He wanted to), Dan Price has has figured out a way to make capitalism palatable to people like Bernie Sanders and, well, me: pay every member of your company enough to let them live comfortably.

Let me break that down.

Enough to live COMFORTABLY. Dan Price studied enough economists’s work to determine $70,000 as the minimum annual salary required to live a working life, without being consumed by issues of rent-payments or oh-no-the-car-just-broke-down crises.

Pay EVERY member of your company. Office Manager? Yes. Janitor? Yes. Parking lot attendant? Yes. Security Gua–look, what is it about “every member” that you don’t get?

INC. Magazine put him on its November cover: “Is This The Best Boss in America?”  with this tag line:

Dan Price decided to pay all 120 employees at least $70,000. Grown men cried. Profits soared. Then things got really crazy.

I first saw Dan Price interviewed by The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, but Comedy Central’s not ready to part with that clip for free. So here’s Mr. Price making his announcement to his staff on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, back in April

And here he is, explaining further at the Aspen Ideas Festival:

Could this CEO-with-a-heart idea catch on? Has it already? I know what Donald Trump would say, but what do you think? Does anyone know of any other companies already going this route? I want to hear more. 


Thanks, Jon Stewart, For Helping Me Raise My Children

“Bullshit is everywhere.” Those were the opening words of Jon Stewart’s final homily on his final show, and they pretty much sum up why my Mate and I feel such gratitude for the man.

Jon got us through the early years of the Iraq War. The collapse of the economy. The rise of Fox. You know–bullshit.

“There is very little in life that you will encounter that has not already been infused, in some way, with bullshit.”

In good anchorman fashion, Jon proceeded to break bullshit down into categories, beginning with the most innocuous:

  1. Organic, free-range bullshit: “Oh, what a beautiful baby!” Important for preserving the social contract. 

More pernicious:

2. Premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract: “Whenever something’s been titled ‘Freedom/Family/Fairness/Health/America,’ take a good long sniff. Chances are it’s been manufactured in a facility that may contain traces of bullshit.”

Jon goes on to subdivide institutional bullshit into three other categories…but I’ll let you listen to him tell it:

When our boys were middle-school aged, the Mate and I used to turn The Daily Show up loud when it came on (oh, how I’m gonna miss that annoyingly repetitive theme music!) and call, “Hey, boys–time for Social Studies!”

Jon loved America so much he aggressively went after the most America-lovin’ of hypocrites. He looked where institutional bullshitters of all stripes didn’t want him to look, and he spoke up. He made us laugh, but in his best moments, like after the shooting in Charleston, he made us resolve to stand up to bullshit. Can you think of a better social studies teacher?

What will you miss, or not miss, about Jon Stewart? Go ahead and share. Listening to your thoughts will ease my withdrawal pains.

John Oliver for Jon Stewart!

The King of Political Satire is retiring (from The Daily Show). Long live the King–whoever that will be. I think the choice is obvious: John Oliver. Too bad I don’t get to vote. But I do get to exercise my mad influential skills.

When Jon Stewart took those weeks off in the summer of 2013 to make his movie “Rosewater,” we all thought, “Uh-oh.” But when John Oliver stepped in, with his perky dimples, his adorable English accent and most of all, his enthusiasm? I think most of went, “Hmmm.”

I don’t get HBO, so I’d never watched John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight, though I was pleased to hear he had it. When I got the opportunity to see a few episodes, though, I was more than pleased–I was blown away. With his once-a-week format (Sunday nights), John Oliver gets full creative freedom to focus on ONE TOPIC for the bulk of his half-hour (Guthrie, Marisa (16 April 2014). “John Oliver on the Luxurious ‘Freedom’ of HBO, His Complicated Relationship With NYC”. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved by Wikipedia 19 April 2014).

And what does he do with that creative freedom? Watch this:

Published on Sep 21, 2014

The Miss America Pageant…how is this still a thing?
They claim to give more scholarships to women than any other organization, and, unfortunately, they’re right.
To illustrate these problems, John Oliver stages his own pageant with the help of Kathy Griffin.

This isn’t just funny–it’s excellent investigative reporting! AND it’s funny. I’ll bet Jon Stewart would kill to’ve been able to run his show like that.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart got my family and me through the darkest years of the Iraq War. When our boys were in Middle School,The Mate and I used to turn that annoying intro music up loud and call, “Time for Social Studies!” They’d come running. The Mate also understood that Jon Stewart was the only man I was allowed to leave him for–at least if Jon gave up smoking.

But Jon’s been looking tired lately. Where we once religiously kept up with his show, watching each one recorded from the night before, lately we’ve skipped some nights. Fewer of the segments have that hard, earnest humor that kept us riveted all those years. Whenever he speaks of human rights or lambasts the news media, that passion flares to life, but that doesn’t seem to happen with such regularity anymore. And those celebrity interviews? Unless it’s someone on the other side of the political divide with whom Jon can productively spar, we skip ’em.

Now, if I were John Oliver, I’m not sure I’d want to make the switch. Sure, you’d be trading the handful of viewers who get “Last Week Tonight” via HBO or whatever it is for the giant audience commanded by Comedy Central. But you’d also have to trade your format of deeply-researched, passionately-delivered, once-a-week specials for the Daily Grind of the Daily Show. No wonder they’ve kept that lame interview segment all these years–it’s the equivalent of a nap for a guy like Jon Stewart.

Now, Jon–meet me at Camera Three, would you? Hey, sweetie. No, I haven’t seen your movie yet, but I’m going to. Meanwhile–mazel tov. Take a break, man–you’ve earned it. THANK YOU for being a voice of sanity all those years, and for helping us to raise our children.

And, if you have any influence–which I’m pretty sure you have–can you get John Oliver behind that desk of yours again, and keep him there? And while you’re at it–get ’em to lose the celebrity interviews, ok?

What do you guys think? Who’s with me on this? (If you’re not a Daily Show fan, just watch that Last Week Tonight video, and you’ll become a John Oliver fan, I promise.)