I say misconduct by Ellen DeGeneres and her top executives reflects the state of comedy today. You’ve read numerous reports in the media. If you want a visual of this pathology, watch Ellen as she routinely gets a laugh: hiding a stagehand within a coffee table so he can jump out and startle a guest. The victim shrieks. The audience howls; sadism on the part of she who designed the intervention, those that execute it and those who enjoy the embarrassment of others.
Thinking of this sort of antisocial humor, I associate to the work of Rabbi Akiva Tatz who writes:
The immature personality will choose to step out of line in order to experience its own uniqueness; the fact that the overall structure is being betrayed and damaged is not relevant to such an undeveloped mind. Immaturity cannot see the beauty in yielding the self in order to actualize the self; in truth, however, that is the only way to genuine selfhood (Tatz , 1995, p. 81).
Sadly, much comedy today is premised on stepping out of line, breaking norms or offending sensibilities about decorum and taste. Doing standup, Steve Martin would reach for a sip of water, pause to drink, then spit the water all over the stage.
During quarantine I reflected on comedy from a Jewish vantage point. I revisited the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, rediscovering that classic Jewish humor. I now understand those shows as Jewish morality plays, something I felt compelled to write about in “Knock, Knock”: The Kabbalah of Comedy (The how, why & what of funny).
Looking at comedy from a Kabbalistic perspective, we can see what humor is meant to be. Divinity, the infinite light that powers the world and motors us all forward in our quest for meaning and progress, hides within creation, as documented in the Biblical creation narrative. Nature provides a mirage for the Al-mighty but He leaves breadcrumbs on the path so we will find Him: his unity is seeded into this world, a world otherwise characterized by variance and multiplicity. Will we find Him? Will we even bother to look?
Let’s now analyze the structure of jokes. A joke takes you in one direction – the direction associated with the natural world, things go the way we expect them to go, right? The punchline delivers a reversal which effectively pops you beyond the limits of the current order, motoring you to a higher perspective, a completely different concept and you get a mental tickle while you go through all that. You are blasted out of your usual frame of understanding, catapulted to a higher consciousness, one associated with positivity. The experience of laughter, the state of unity when you enjoy a laugh amongst friends or in a crowd, the euphoric feelings, the reprieve from worries, the sense that there was a bigger picture you were missing all along, all that, a brief state of communion with your Creator (Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson).
The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song ends with the ultimate and only message of healthy humor: “You’re going to make it, after all!” Positivity will prevail. The clouds part. The shining sun was there all along. You laugh. That laughter releases chemicals in the body, lightening you, uplifting you, popping you into the world of unity, at least for a short visit.
We may think that laughter and comedy are just pleasant condiments of life. Not so. Turns out laughter is a spiritual commodity best used to uplift. No wonder Jordan Peterson tells us that “you want your life to be a comedy.” Remember, though, anything with a spiritual root, when used improperly, becomes Kryptonite, the path to our downfall. Exhibit A: Ellen DeGeneres.
Why are these revelations about Ellen coming out now? Because in this particular phase of time, pre-messianic, some would say, it’s time to call out the problems: biases playing out in universities, corrupt politicians, conglomerates intent to influence the upcoming election,. Let’s add to the list: the comedy industry has been in a state of disrepair for decades. We need the most inspired, clever and interesting applications of humor so we can bring a healthy variant of humor back to life. Steve Epstein nailed it: “comedy is the art of hope.” We need more hope.
Ellen, you failed us.
What must be done to reclaim comedy and position it rightly in our lives? How can we take the coping mechanism which Jews have used for thousands of years – a beloved companion to get us through the hardest of times – and help our struggling world access this holy staple? This is the beginning of a longer conversation, one I will continue to advance. For now, some thoughts, as we set our intentions:
a) Don’t look to Ellen for an answer.
b) Let’s get America laughing again. In a good way.
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