The Art of the Absurd
Alright now, right brain, you're being insane
No, left brain, I'm just being alive
You should try it, you might like it
These lines come from a sketch by Bo Burnham, a young stand-up comedian who has received a lot of attention for his wildly creative and diverse performing style. In this clever ditty, he makes use of the oft-quoted notion that the two sides of the brain have vastly different functions: the left side as the rational, and the right side managing more creative activity. While not quite scientifically precise, this way of looking at human cognition is certainly relatable. We persistently feel the push and pull between the part of ourselves that endlessly calculate and analyze, and the part that feels emotion deeply, taking pleasure in the simpler things in life. In this sketch, Burnham pits the left and right brains against each other, demonstrating that when isolated, they are locked together in constant conflict. He finally suggests that there is one way that both brains can join their best features together in a mutually beneficial manner: through comedy.
This balancing act comedy performs is reflected by the way stand-up comics deliver their material. While the best comedians have a laid-back, spontaneous feel to their acts, they freely admit the complex strategizing that goes into a single joke. In an illuminating HBO special, Talking Funny, contemporary stand-up greats Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, and Chris Rock discuss the niceties of their craft. At one point, Rock emphasizes the importance of establishing the premise of a joke, which, if not set up correctly, detracts from the heft of the punchline. Professional comedians like these greats anticipate just where they will get a laugh, and use those moments to let the absurdity of the moment sink in. While they may sound like they are simply relating an anecdote, every word is carefully selected to achieve a specific effect. In the mind of the comedian, the entirety of a performance unfolds like a chess match between him or herself and the audience. Stand-up comedians have the appeal of an entertaining drinking buddy, but they possess a deep understanding of human psychology
Although they often happen to induce side-splitting laughter, stand-up comics can talk about topics, no matter how sensitive, in an unmistakably casual way. A stand-up becomes a staged version of a late-night conversation with a good friend, reminiscing about each other’s weird experiences. Louis C.K. pulls this off effortlessly - he comes across as the average working-class father you would bump into at a bar who starts spilling out his troubles to you in way that is more meaningful than annoying. In contrast to other forms of entertainment, such as concerts or movies, stand-up comedy, when done right, gets closer to real life than any art form does. Yet, at the same time, it exposes life’s absurdities, allowing the audience to share in a collective human experience.
There is no coincidence that a significant number of TV watchers prefer shows with a comedic layer, such as The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight, as sources of news over “legitimate” news networks like CNN. Getting news that is delivered in a humorous way allows viewers to kill two birds with one stone: you can get your fill of entertainment without the usual guilt associated with time-wasting. Besides for this benefit, there is something unique about humor that makes it the perfect medium for news. People generally don’t watch the news to get an update about all that is pleasant and cheery in the world; viewers have a sense that they should know if there are things going on in society that they should be concerned about. Comedy allows us to face upsetting issues head-on, as it can subtly transform a feeling of disgust or disapproval into a sense of absurdity.
Anyone with a modicum of cultural appreciation would agree that forms of entertainment such as art, music, and movies can delight on an aesthetic level, and at the same time make people think deeply about lofty ideas. We might hesitate to say the same about stand-up comedy given that in everyday life, jokes are so often used just for the sake of being crass or to pass time. Yet, stand-up comedy is an art form that can transcend the trappings of entertainment, when it is used as a medium of meditating on the absurd aspects of life, or when there is an underlying social critique beneath the surface of humor. Those who listen to stand-up solely to hear witty humor can appreciate it on a superficial level, but the attentive listener can come away with much more.