“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.


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.

Out of Ashes, Hope: US Muslims Support Black Churches

The day after the Charleston Church Massacre, my personal media hero, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, was unable to tell a joke. He spent the opening of his show expressing his grief, and also his soul-sickness at the inability of the U.S. to “heal this racial wound,” or even to acknowledge its existence. (That’s why he’s my hero.)

It’s Jon Stewart’s job to rub Americans’ noses in painful truths. Since I couldn’t possibly improve on that job, I’ve taken on a different, but related assignment: to highlight small signs of improvement wherever I can find them.

This week’s sign of hope comes courtesy of Al-Jazeera, which published an article last week detailing how a coalition of U.S. Muslim groups has been spending Ramadan fund-raising to rebuild Black churches victimized by arson:

The coalition — which consists of U.S. organizations Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and the Arab American Association of New York as well as digital startup Ummah Wide — has so far raised over $23,000 in five days. After the campaign ends on July 18, the money will be given to pastors of the burned churches that need it most, the groups said.

Like black communities in the United States, the coalition wrote, American Muslims are also vulnerable to intimidation, though not to the same extent as African-Americans.

“The American Muslim community cannot claim to have experienced anything close to the systematic and institutionalized racism and racist violence that has been visited upon African-Americans,” organizer Imam Zaid Shakir wrote on the campaign’s website.

However, Muslims can understand the “climate of racially inspired hate and bigotry that is being reignited in this country,” he wrote, saying the American Muslim community should stand in solidarity with African-Americans.

Racism, bigotry and violence are not going away any time soon. Blessings be upon those who stand up to them by reaching out like this. I don’t know any of these people, but I take comfort, for myself and for my country, in their existence.

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.)