Comedy Treats Misery

Kevin Pollak is a stand-up comic and has been a character actor for decades. He’s most familiar perhaps from films like “The Usual Suspects” and “The Whole Nine Yards,” and TV series like “The Drew Carey Show” and the current “Mom.” He is particularly good at the intersection of annoyance and menace.

He corralled a herd of comics for this year’s documentary “Misery Loves Comedy” and has them address a frequently asked question; does comedy come out of neurosis, depression, off-kilter personalities, craziness and angst?

The film is still worth seeing, if only because comics are people who have trained themselves to be funny on demand, so if you point a camera at them and quiz them on life they’ll probably figure out a way to get laughs with the answers. In fact, it’s their job description. And certainly the world of comedy has had its share of manics, depressives, self-medicating addicts, and troubled introverts. But the film fails to make the case that the one causes the other.

Yes, many admit they had problems with their parents or were lonely or felt like they didn’t fit it. But a similar interrogation of preachers, ballet dancers, truck drivers and CEOs might turn up as many neurotics and addicts and nut jobs if they answered the interrogator honestly. But they probably wouldn’t, which suggests one important trait that sets comics apart.

The more you think about it, the more it seems Pollak may have it backwards. You may not have to be miserable to be a comic, but you probably have to be the kind of person who looks at life and sees its miseries and shortcomings and disappointments and finds them funny. They are the less deceieved. The jokes may be their way of coping with the awful truth.

Most of us are brought up by well-meaning parents who try to persuade us of the validity of the usual slogans. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. Life is real, life is earnest and the grave is not its goal. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Ours is the greatest nation on earth. Merit is rewarded. Father, Teacher, Doctor, Reverend or Senator Whosit knows best.

Many people swallow this stuff whole, or keep their doubts to themselves. Comics may simply be the kind of people who, when exposed to the conventional wisdom, the platitudes of advertising, pulpit, or patriots, experience a huge ringing of cognitive dissonance in their ears. They are the man who says the emperor has no clothes on when everyone else refuses, for fearing of seeming odd.

Actually making a job out of noticing that civilization comes with discontents may be a pretty healthy adaptation. The alternatives are self-deluding denial, keeping your doubts to yourself or deciding you must be the only one who thinks life is screwed up. Of course, you can go around issuing angry jeremiads, calling people hypocrites and whited sepulchers. But that usually ends in tears.

Comics get to stand up and mock the pompous and pretentious, and all of life’s follies and get laughs. And they wouldn’t have an audience rolling in the aisles if plenty of other people didn’t secretly share their perceptions. In fact, the jester may be a necessary social safety valve, a way the culture can blow off steam without blowing up.

People without a sense of humor or irony are the really sick puppies. The cultures they create, like Nazi Germany, some present Arab countries and Putin’s Russia call comedy dissent or heresy. Any place that jails the jokers is no laughing matter. So, cheer up. The world may be screwed up, but in our corner of it the clowns get to say so, we get to laugh along with them, and the joke’s on the clueless, humorless stiffs who think they’re running things.

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