Annette Poizner
This Way Up: Psychological Means to Spiritual Ends

Jordan Peterson: “You want your life to be a comedy”

Lots of challenges these days. Jordan Peterson’s advice: make your life a comedy

When quarantined, I decided to explore this idea using the comedies of yesteryear. Remember The Mary Tyler Moore Show & Rhoda? Revisiting them, I found classic Jewish humor. I mulled it over. How might I make my life a comedy?

Peterson explains his advice in the following way: “you want to be presented with a problem [as occurs in a comedy], you want the problem to take you apart and you want the problem to put you together in a better way.” He means that in comedies the protagonist is faced with a challenge that exceeds his or her capacity to succeed. Ultimately, by retooling, our hero reforms and now is able to manage the task. The ending is happy.

That needs to be you.

Comedy writer Steve Epstein puts it another way: “Comedy is about an ordinary guy struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the required skills and tools with which to win, yet never giving up hope.”

Yes! Let that be me!

What hints did I cull from the best Jewish comedy writers? Here goes:

Be a Trickster

Peterson says, “The trickster is always on the cusp of foolishness and wisdom.” Example: Rhoda is demoralized when her sister, Brenda, is naïve to the obvious signs that the man he is dating is already married. Rhoda’s husband tells Rhoda to mind her own business and let Brenda learn from experience.

Rhoda is exasperated: “But why does Brenda have to learn like that?” She then mulls, “Why can’t the Girl Scouts print a manual for adults? They teach you to spot poison oak and then let you walk right through a patch of married men!”

Can you recognize a trickster? Remember Carrie Fisher? (“The problem with instant gratification is that it takes too long!”).  How about Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner? In their play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Tomlin plays a trickster, Trudy, the bag lady. After giving a team of Martians a tour of the universe. Trudy reports on her conversation with them:

I turned to ’em point-blank and asked ’em, “Okay, you’ve learned a lot about us but tell me this, and be honest: what do you think of people as a whole?”

“They said they thought it would be an excellent idea.

We need to stay on the lookout for these wise souls. We need to attend their clever use of words and novel perspective, to start playing with ideas in the same way. We have a lot to learn from them.

Another approach: pick up Terry Ryan’s The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Learn how one wily trickster singlehandedly kept her family of 12 afloat as a stay-at-home mom. Or, conversely, you can watch Rhoda reruns!

Rhoda, hunting for a place to live in New York City, says, “I remember a time we used to read obituaries to find an apartment. Now, someone coughs, you follow them around.

Don’t be Afraid to Be a Schlemiel

We all are anyways, so why not? Poor Rhoda. Everything goes wrong. She wants her new guy to meet her BFF. Of course, he falls for Mary!

But Rhoda, the penultimate alchemist, turns straw into gold. She mutates disappointing life events into brilliantly funny one-liners. One day, Mary is in a funk, Rhoda is doing well. Says Rhoda:

You’re having a lousy streak. I happen to be having a terrific streak. Soon the world will be back to normal. Tomorrow you will meet a crown head of Europe and marry. I will have a fat attack, eat 3,000 peanut butter cups, and die.

Don’t fight it! When you are a Schlemiel you may be at your comedic best! Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Speaking of which:

Be the Butt of Your Own Jokes

After one year of marriage, Rhoda said, “Remember when we got married? I mean that nasty rumor going around that we would never last this long. Got to admit . . . I was wrong!”

Peterson points out that when you make jokes at your own expense, you are indicating that you can accept your imperfections while simultaneously elevating yourself. Says Peterson, “you are saying ‘I’m clearly the thing that can make the mistake’ and ‘I’m clearly the thing that can recognize the mistake, put it in its’ proper context, and transcend it, simultaneously.”

Transcendence is the name of the game. If you can rise above day-to-day irritations and discomforts, if you can get over pride and the need to be seen as perfectly together at all times, you are on your way to living a comedy. Rhoda reports on her date:

I made the mistake of asking him which was his bad side. You know, we looked for it for ten minutes. We couldn’t find it. We found mine right away, though. It’s the front.

Of course, there’s more. I took a deep dive into the comedic enterprise, analyzing Mary & Rhoda, the best of 70’s TV, in tandem with ancient Jewish insights that gave me new appreciation for the value of comedy in our lives . . . and filled the pages of Knock, Knock: The Kabbalah of Comedy (The how, what & why of funny).

Now is the 50th anniversary of the launch of this award-winning show, a good moment to revisit Mary and her magic. You want your life to be a comedy? Move over, Ellen, we’ve got your number now. One truly exemplary woman has left a legacy that stands the test of time. In my next installment we will delve deeper into the treasure Mary has left, to mine the message and meaning she has left for us to find. This, so we can laugh. Also, so we can learn.

Mary: At our age, having your tonsils out can be dangerous.

Rhoda: At our age, having your hair done can be dangerous.

 

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About the Author
Annette Poizner is a Columbia-trained clinical social worker who graduated with a Doctorate of Education in Counseling Psychology. As an Israeli-trained graphologist, she specializes in projective personality assessment, as well as strategic psychotherapy. Her work has been featured extensively in the media and in academic venues. She founded Lobster University Press, an imprint which explores the work of Jordan Peterson. Her books, the most recent being, "From Chaos to Order: A Guide to Jordan Peterson's Worldview," summarize Peterson's ideas and explore the intersection between his insights and Jewish wisdom. She also produces animations which relay some of Peterson's insights in short soundbites.
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