(Un)Happy Endings: Existential Reflections on “It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti”

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David Heti is an (un)timely comedian. His comedy speaks to a time that is becoming more and more unhappy with itself. (And I mean this in a good way since I believe that such unhappiness will prompt us to come out of our dogmatic slumber…and think.) Unlike many comedians whose jokes are purely scatological and childish, Heti’s jokes are thoughtful and deeply probing. He respects the intelligence of his audience and his comedy plays with our most deeply held beliefs which span our attitudes about families, sexuality, religion, and the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, Heti’s jokes hit at the fact that while, in the most philosophical sense, we all want to be happy (an insight that Aristotle saw fundamental to being-human), the fact of the matter is that our desire for happiness originates in (and returns to) a state of existential unhappiness.   And today – perhaps because of the internet, globalization, and withering economies – we are becoming more aware of this state of (unhappy) being. Heti’s comedy acknowledges it while, at the same time, giving us some comic relief.

(To be sure, Heti’s challenge is akin to the challenge posed by Judaism to Greek philosophy and culture.   Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, argues that philosophy starts with wonder (which Aristotle associates with unhappiness; wonder is attended by the feeling of “ignorance”) but ends with knowledge (happiness). Aristotle believes that our desire for knowledge will overcome this ignorance once we know the causes of things. In other words, knowledge makes us happy; ignorance makes us unhappy.   In contrast, Judaism puts a greater emphasis on the limits of knowledge. And instead of focusing solely on happiness and knowledge as the answer, it often focuses on time, suffering, and injustice. Centuries after Aristotle, GWF Hegel went so far as to call the Jews an “unhappy people.”   For Hegel, This unhappiness had to do with the fact that Jews live with uncertainty and many unanswered questions. The English critic Matthew Arnold argued that civilization is based on the tension between Jews and Greeks. I would go further and say this tension is between happiness (rational self-certainty) and unhappiness (existential un-certainty). While the Greek part of our society wants to deny this tension, the Jewish part brings it to our attention. And this is (un)timely because it challenges the notion of progress and truth, which, in the West, are both premised on Greek ideals. In modern society we are supposed to be living better than we did in the past and we are supposed to be smarter – and all of this should make us happy – but are we?)

Heti’s jokes are Jewish in this sense. The punch lines of his jokes may start on a happy, Greek note, but they all have a kind of unhappy, Jewish ending. And this is a good thing because they trick us into experiencing the profound contradictions that underlie our experiences of sex, family, culture, and religion (the buttresses of Western, North American Society). The trick is to have us think differently. His humor hits at our desire for happiness and self-certainty. And, to be sure, Heti’s act has taught me that comedy can do a more affective job than post-Enlightenment philosophy to critique our beliefs and self-understandings.

I have seen Heti doing stand-up comedy and have also had a few private conversations with him about comedy, philosophy, culture, and religion. I have also interviewed Heti and have been intrigued with his brand of comedy. I had an intuition that he was doing something (un)timely in his comedy act. But it wasn’t until recently, when I saw his recent comedy film, It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti, that I was convinced that he had something incredibly urgent and important to offer our troubled times by way of comedy.

I’d like to share a few clips and touch on a few of his jokes to illustrate how (un)timely his jokes are.   I would go so far as to suggest that the movement from unhappiness to happiness we find in them suggests a kind of practice that is instructive on how, today, we can – and should – have a comical awareness of the tension between happiness and unhappiness. It informs, to speak, our comical (rather than our tragic) sense of existence. To be sure, the tragic awareness of existence is just as Greek as the emphasis on happiness. But his humor offers us a tension between the two that is, by all means, necessary. Without it, we will to serious (and tragic) or too deluded (and happy).  (I’d also like to note, before I begin, that Heti’s timing and gesture are the important elements that animate these jokes.  This can be seen in the clips I have included.)

Heti begins his performance with a philosophical joke that plays on the first words of a comic performance:

I know that it’s  convention to be, like, “oh, it’s good to be here.” But the fact of the matter is that I “am” here, you “are” here.  Why ask ourselves how we feel about it?  Let’s just move on.

The underpinning of this joke is clearly existential. Why should we describe our existence as “good” or “bad”? Existence just is….the way it is. Like the title of Heti’s film, we can imagine him responding to the question “How was your performance?” with the existentially neutral: “It was Ok.” Its not great and its not bad. It, like existence, is…not tragic…or wonderful….it’s “ok.”

Following this joke, Heti continues on his philosophical vein by telling his audience to hold back their laughter until the end of the performance. This request is followed by philosophical reasoning. Although each joke “exists unto itself its own particularity,” and can be laughed at, ultimately there is “another, deeper level” which comes at the end where one can laugh at the performance “as a whole.” The joke is not simply on the audience; it’s also on philosophy.   The idea of withholding laugher in the name of a greater laugh – at the end – sounds like a good joke to level at a philosopher like Hegel or Karl Marx who see the “end of history” as the most meaningful moment of all.

But the punch line isn’t here. It’s in the existential insight: “I’m sorry.  I know you come to a comedy show expecting to laugh, and enjoy yourselves…but life isn’t fair.”

Besides playing on existence-as-such, Heti plays on the contemporary philosophical notion – found in Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Martin Heidegger – that the most important thing about existence is relationality.   Heti introduces this idea by pointing out how “I’m here” and you are “over there” and we are “unable to relate” (on the same level). The punch line is that when he was out there, where the audience is, he would think about how he could “do a better job than this fuck!” This comic disclosure brings comedy into an otherwise bland, basic (and oftentimes for Heidegger, a tragic) insight into “relationality.”

On another note, which is equally existential, Heti’s jokes about his family follow along a tradition of many Jewish comedians. But they differ in the fact that they are more reflective on the divide between happiness and unhappiness. In one joke about his mother, Heti says that she and I have a “very strained relationship.”

She says all she’s ever wanted is for me to be happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved and respected. It’s a real stalemate.

Following this, he notes how he recently went home to see that his mother had remodeled his room “into a place where a kid would have been happy growing up.”   He adds a joke about his father that brings out the tension between happiness and unhappiness more explicitly. It also shows a schlemiel-ish aspect to Heti’s relationship with his mother (something we find in the writings and film of Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Bruce Jay Friedman, et al):

It wasn’t easy.  My father was a little…violent. I remember….I recall as a kid, telling my mom, “one day, when I grow big enough, he’s going to beat the shit…out of only you.

The schlemiel character is in effect here because Heti’s character isn’t going to “stand up” to his father when he grows up. He’s just going to leave and his mother will receive the violence of his father. (Note to reader: do not confuse this joke with reality; to be sure, Heti, like many great comedians, loves exaggeration.)

Although Heti tells jokes about his family, his main jokes, to be sure, turn around philosophical and theological topics. As the performance moves on, these jokes are most prominent.   And all of them hinge on the tension between happiness and unhappiness.

One joke which shows how averse Heti is to happiness deals with a scenario he discusses about how he did a comic performance at a music festival. On his way back, he tells of how he rode in a car with musicians for thirteen hours. During this trip they had “an esoteric/philosophical conversation about the nature of art.” Heti, here, points out why he tells jokes, and, in the process he discloses his own way of comic-being:

Basically, we are only here to be happy, really. And so, for me, what’s funniest is when we’re not happy. And it just so happens to be the case that, just, intuitionally, I tend to subvert, for myself, any happy moment which begins. You know, I see what’s terrible in it. And even for the stage, now doing stand-up, I look for what’s awful in every moment, so my life is a series of unhappy instances and that’s why jokes; that’s why I’m a comic.

But this isn’t the punch line. It comes with his response to the musicians answer to the question of what the nature of art is:

And then so…I asked the musician, I was, like, “Why music? Like, why music?” And, he was like, “well. He said, “when I’m actively listening to music or, like, writing or playing it…like, that’s when I’m closest to the universal;  that’s when I’m one with the universe.” And I was like, “ohhhhhhh…You can go fuck yourself! Like FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOUUUUU….!”

Heti’s answer-slash-punch-line (his FUCK YOU! x3) demonstrates, to my mind, a differentiation between a Greek mind, which emphasizes “unity” with the universe, and a Jewish view which emphasizes existential difference and fragmentation.   I would argue that this difference is by no means arbitrary. To be sure, Heti tells several jokes that speak to Jewish identity, history, and religion. These jokes disclose Heti’s comedy as fragmented on many fronts.

Heti’s jokes on circumcision start off with an interesting paradox. Namely, God is thought of as “unknowable and unthinkable” yet with all of this “we can see that He likes circumcised pensises.” Heti goes on to have the audience imagine God with many dicks in his mouth. And this does a great job of exaggerating anthropomorphisms that Jewish theology would obviously reject.

Heti also tells jokes that deal with the Holocaust. He prefaces this part of the show by noting how “there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.” And that he is “unsure of where” he stands on the “issue of genocide.”

Because, on the one hand, undeniable tragic.  But on the other hand, undeniably funny. I guess it’s just one of those things where you really had to be there.

This joke hits at the existential dimension of genocide (of “being there” for the reality…and the “joke”). But it also speaks to something very interesting; namely, the negative sublime of the Nazis who did the killing. Many, in fact, did laugh at genocide. And for this reason, it hits on a deeply troubling issue which needs to be addressed, an issue that deeply complicates our understanding of humanity and evil.

The most complicated joke on the Holocaust is about his grandfather’s relationship to the Holocaust. The very context of the joke brings the audience into a very focused state and into an awareness of how good it is that he has survived it; but the punch line brings us back to the unhappy state of Jews-slaughtered-in-history:

My grandfather was actually one of the few, lucky members of his generation to  grow up Jewish in Europe and avoid the horrors of the Holocaust. Thankfully, several months before the war broke out, he was beaten to death, in a pogrom.

Near the end of his performance, Heti moves from the particularity of Jewish experience to a more general experience of God.   And this joke hits directly at the existential condition and the question of faith:

But what I find most – what I can’t understand most is these people with these extreme physical disabilities…who are nonetheless capable of maintaining religious faith. ‘Cause you’re like – you’d think that…  given what, they are already forced to put up with in this world, God would have at least spared their minds.

This last joke bespeaks the existential state of having a mind that is conscious of suffering. (Indeed, most existentialists find that existential consciousness is afflicted and tortured; especially Sartre and Levinas.) The joke poses the greatest challenge to Aristotle (and Spinoza), on the one hand, who believed that knowledge would create true happiness and on the other to religion which posits faith as an answer.   Heti is perplexed by why God would give these disabled people consciousness. It doesn’t make sense. This is at once a Jewish question and a question that should provoke anyone trying to understand faith in general.

Taken together, Heti shows us – by way of comedy – that true thinking isn’t based on the elimination of perplexity and its attendant unhappiness (which is what Aristotle believed) so much as in dwelling in perplexity. The specificity of Heti’s jokes perform the (un)timely service of reminding us of the existential state of perplexity we inhabit. We need this reminder because we are, so often, distracted by happiness from the true questions of existence that plague us all. Here it is the comedian and not the philosopher or the theologian who can help us to address our greatest questions. And this all happens when Heti delivers the punch line. At that moment, we experience the movement from happiness to unhappiness. And in that moment, we come face to face with our (un)timely comical existence.   And today, more than ever, we need to be reminded. False happiness will only sink us deeper into oblivion. Heti reminds us that comedy can awaken us (as Immanuel Kant once said of David Hume) from our “dogmatic slumbers.”

Go check out David Heti’s website – which has video, tour information, and media – and his new video “It was ok”.

 

 

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