Brace yourselves for Marissa Skudlarek, comic genius.
September is Comedy Month on the Theater Pub blog, so it seems like a good time for me to parse my rather vexed relationship with the idea of comedy.
Simply put, I think I have a good sense of humor, but I don’t get excited about COMEDY! the way so many other people of my generation do. I remember reading a survey (which I am now unable to find on Google) that said that young people increasingly see comedy as central to their identity. Comedy festivals proliferate, and every Millennial seems to be working on a humorous web series. Stand-up comedians, who once upon a time were themselves subjects of mockery, are the new rock stars.
These days, being interested in or good at comedy means that you’re one of the cool kids. And I am inherently skeptical of cool kids.
It wasn’t always this way: for eons, tragedy was the most prestigious genre, and comedy was considered frivolous. But now that the tables have turned, comedians are reveling in their newfound power. And sometimes, I feel, they overreach – they make claims for comedy that it doesn’t deserve.
Comedians like to consider themselves truth-tellers, and at their best, comedy and satire can effectively cut through society’s bullshit to reveal radical, disturbing truths. But this doesn’t mean that all comedy performs such a noble public service. Some comedy reinforces stereotypes instead of smashing them. (In the case of “ironic racism” or “ironic sexism,” comedy tries to have it both ways, which is worst of all.) Sometimes people refuse to laugh at your offensive, taboo jokes because they’re uptight prudes who can’t handle the truth bombs that you’re exploding in their faces, man. But sometimes people refuse to laugh at your offensive jokes because you just aren’t funny. Not every fart joke is a truth bomb.
Because of this strong association between comedy and truth, people often fail to acknowledge that comedy can be just as artificial as drama. It sounds respectable to say, “I loved that play! It made me laugh,” but it sounds suspicious to say, “I loved that play! It made me cry.” Maybe the play didn’t make you cry for the right reasons. Maybe it was cheaply manipulative and sentimental; maybe it played on your emotions. But laughter is always considered above reproach – even though the art of provoking laughter is itself an art of manipulation.
I do appreciate how, in the 21st-century comedy renaissance, women get to join in on the fun. People once honestly believed that women aren’t funny, and maybe it’s true that traditional, stereotyped femininity doesn’t offer much opportunity for humor. Comedy is transgressive, loud, messy, and active; it assaults dignity and convention. And women finally feel free enough to take part in this.
But if I’m a feminist who feels ambivalent about comedy, what does that make me? Does it mean I’m secretly afraid of strong, funny, loud, messy women; does it mean that, deep down, I am a reactionary troglodyte? The Twitter avatar of popular comedy writer Megan Amram (who went to high school with me, incidentally) shows her making a grotesque face: caked-on eyeshadow, dead eyes, double chin. And we are supposed to interpret this as a bold feminist statement. Unlike other women, blushing flowers who bat their eyelashes and pray for male approval, Megan’s not afraid to look ugly for the sake of a joke. I admire her gumption while also knowing that I lack it: when I choose a Facebook or Twitter profile pic, I select an image that shows me at my best (or at least, not at my worst). Megan’s Twitter avatar is supposed to make me laugh, but instead it makes me feel ashamed. I feel that I am a bad person for wanting strangers to think I’m pretty, and that my desire to cater to the male gaze is, for all I know, single-handedly upholding rape culture in the United States.
So you see what I mean when I say I have a vexed relationship to comedy. (To feminism, too.) Furthermore, I think my problem might be that I draw a mental distinction between comedy and humor. I love humor – and I can’t stand humorless people. I often say that I could never write a play that’s devoid of laughter, because I don’t think the world works like that! Our foibles, the absurd things we do to get what we want… these are the basis of drama, and they’re also inherently funny. And even in life’s saddest or darkest moments, people will find things to laugh about (perhaps in a bitter gallows-humor way, but that’s still humor).
But at the same time, I am not sure that I could ever write a 100% comedic play. For me, writing humor means creating a world where funny things can happen. (It could, in fact, be identical to our own world.) Whereas writing comedy implies the creation of a world where only funny things happen – where anything that doesn’t provoke laughter is simply ignored. And I consider that a dangerously false outlook – just as wrong-headed as total humorlessness is.
I think that life teeters wildly between great joy and great sorrow – so isn’t it odd that there are thousands of aspiring comedians, but no aspiring tragedians? We would find it absurd (or horrifying) if someone said that they spend all day thinking of ways to provoke people to tears and catharsis, but we think it’s perfectly natural to spend all day thinking of ways to make people convulse with laughter. And that’s really kind of funny, when you think about it, isn’t it? It could even be the beginnings of a comedy sketch.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. Her Twitter avatar (@MarissaSkud) is a photo of the back of her head.