Comedy as capitulation

Thanks to Hannah Gadsby, we are now familiar with some of the risks of comedy – the ways in which the obligation to get a laugh necessitates the smoothing out or simplification of stories, often at personal cost. She showed how comedy can be a kind of accommodation – a way of managing lived experience to make it comfortable enough for an audience to enjoy, and what emerged instead from her two stand-up shows was a refusal to conform to the demand for self-deprecation or irony about issues that were important to her, leading to a different kind of comedy characterised by stretches of unashamed earnestness.

A recent documentary ‘A Jew Walks into A Bar’ which follows an orthodox Jew, David Finklestein, in his pursuit of a stand-up career, suggests some parallels in terms of the pressure comedy puts upon marginal positions to adapt and conform to the dominant culture. The story tracks his growing success and the conflict between that success and his religious beliefs. We see him in uncomfortable moments: as a woman goes to shake his hand after a gig, and he shrinks back apologetically: ‘I can’t shake hands with women.’ Alongside the proximity of women, the film captures the larger risks of the irreligious cultural context: the clubs and the alcohol, the comedy slots on Fridays and Saturday which conflict with the Shabbat; the ‘loose talk’. When articulating why his community would frown upon his participation in stand-up he explains how important careful speech is, with doctrinal injunctions against mocking people or being vulgar, and adds, “We’re all about perfecting ourselves – you don’t admit your flaws,” while in stand-up “you bare your soul.” In one scene Finkelstein worries that his jokes about being Jewish either tacitly allow audiences to laugh at his religion, or that he is somehow cheating in benefiting from their preconceptions – ‘an Orthodox Jew and still funny’ – when what he actually wants is to be ‘a universal comedian.’ His jokes do use mainstream preconceptions, but he subverts them with a skilful delicacy: arriving on stage in the prescribed clothes of his religion – white shirt, black trousers and jacket and big rimmed black hat – he looks out at the crowded club with a slightly furrowed brow, ‘Ever feel like you’re in the wrong place?’ he asks, and then amidst the laughter, ‘I feel like you guys don’t appreciate how cool I am – take my hat for example’ [demonstrating] ‘the brim is supposed to be bent down but I wear it up…I fight the system.’ Who or what is being laughed at here? It’s not actually clear. ‘Cool’, rebellion – such privileged concepts in mainstream culture – are just as much part of the joke. 

But while he is in no way ridiculing his religion, there is no doubt that it is his ‘gimmick’, and in using religion as material, he is potentially submitting it to the secular mainstream for mockery. In an open mic session, one observer explains her enjoyment of his act, saying “it’s like a woman telling jokes in a burka.” And perhaps at the heart of that relish is a sense of triumph – the dominant culture enjoying the chance to gloat at the loss of religious insularity and the implicit superiority of that separateness. 

As Gadsby found with her earlier material, Finkelstein’s jokes risk simplifying the complexity of those aspects of personal experience which are outwith mainstream comprehension – in his case, profound religious belief. Or more precisely, it is not that his jokes risk being simplistic, but that the form itself is in some ways inherently unsophisticated: tension is defused, and laughter often substitutes thought. And while Gadsby’s much touted break with comedy did not come to pass, for Finklestein, there was a rupture, and the credits of the film state that he has ‘taken a break from performing while trying to work out a way of reconciling it with his religion.’ It is a poignant ending, given his evident talent, and evidence perhaps that comedy is a more clumsy and hegemonic art form than we would wish. 

© Emma Sullivan 2020

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