Saturday, October 16, 2004Only The Comedians Can Save Us
I'm not going to talk about Jon Stewart's amazing appearance on Crossfire... it's been talked to death. Here's a transcript if you want to know what happened.
The only reason I even bring it up is because it's an exellent example of a phenomenon that I've longed believed in, and have been thining about a bit lately anyway. Anyone who knows me at all well knows that while I'm not given to hero-worship, I make an exception for a certain kind of comedian. And I use the term "comedian" very loosely... your garden-variety stand-up is a rather sad figure, and certainly not deserving of anyone's special esteem. The people I'm talking about transcend mere comedianship, and become a much greater thing: prophets.
I know I tend to talk about Bill Hicks the most, and it's true, he's probably my current favorite. But he's only one of several who, in my opinion, have earned a place as a modern prophet; also in the list are Lenny Bruce (obviously) Andy Kaufman, Harpo Marx, Richard Pryor, and potentially a few others if they keep their game up. (Denis Leary, I suppose, would be a good example of a false prophet, Bill-Hicks-wannabe hack that he is; Sam Kinison was a proto-prophet run amok.)
These guys don't tend to live too long... Lenny died of an OD; Andy died of lung cancer; Bill died of pancreatic cancer; Richard was felled by MS, although he's still alive. (Harpo lived to a ripe old age, but then he was always more of a portal for light and happiness than a sponge for anguish, so that makes sense.) Given what these people do for a living -- by which I don't mean getting up on stage and telling jokes, but rather using themselves as a living psycho-spiritual filter for all of society's collective rage and pain -- it's not surprising, perhaps, that their bodies never seem able to take the strain for more than thirty or forty years. They accept a life in which they take on the burden of continually facilitating our desperately-needed catharsis on our behalf, and it seems they inevitably give up their lives in the process.
We don't get to have prophets anymore. We don't have a social place for truthtellers; artists try, and do a fine job, but some things must be said directly, the things which society is unwilling to hear otherwise, those that we won't tolerate being said; the pain is too much. Those things must be veiled in humor -- sort of a big cosmic snootchy-bootchy -- to even make it into the collective consciousness.
You never hear of Jesus having a sense of humor, but if you read those words that are best attributed to him, it's clear that there was one there. Which isn't to suggest that Hicks and Bruce are on par with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John... merely that they may be the closest thing to them our society is allowed to have. I often find myself wondering where the current Hicks is -- if in fact it's even time for another one like him. Much of what he said in the years just before he died is still very relevant; perhaps even more so than it was when he actually said it. For example:
"George Bush presided over an administration whose policies towards South America included genocide. Ha! Ha! So yeah, you see, the reason I didn't vote for him is because he is a mass-murderer.
Substitute "the Middle East" for "South America" and you've pretty much got the current situation nailed, albeit stated in a fairly shrill way. ("Shrill," of course, being the current desireable-epithet-du-jour among all self-respecting lefties. As in, "Did you read that last Steve Gilliard post?" "Yeah, man, that was totally shrill.")
Now, none of this is to say that your lesser comedic priests -- Stewart, Carlin, Maher, Cho, et al -- are on quite this level... I'd actually suggest that in order to be a proper prophet, the person in question has to be dead. (Hardly any Americans had even heard of Bill Hicks at the time of his death, although he was hot shit in the UK... which says a lot about our respective cultures, actually.) You can't get quite the mythic resonance necessary off a living person. Death demonstrates the necessary commitment to the medium. But certainly people like Stewart are preaching the gospel while the rest of us wait patiently for the Next Coming.