The Limitations of Mockery and the Adventure of Authenticity

Tim Heidecker in ‘The Comedy.’ 

“Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.” These chilling words are part of a valuable exposé written in the New York Times by Christy Wampole. Her piece ‘How to Live Without Irony‘ bears witness to a generational descent into routine insincerity.

Mockery on the other hand can be direct at times- a dagger shoved into one person by another- but at its core, it is not so different from insincerity. Both are often a piece of armor used for self-preservation, a way to flee human connection by focusing on the other as a caricature while exempting one’s self from the same level of scrutiny. I look around and am encouraged, because it seems even secular culture is growing weary of mockery taken to the extreme.

Many of us already knew Louis C.K. was brilliant and probably the best comedian in America. What has been the biggest surprise about his Emmy-winning show ‘Louie’ is not the raw examination of a wanderer’s life, but that he writes, directs, and stars as a man wearing his heart on his sleeve. From one season to the next, the character of Louie reveals an unlikely earnestness. On more than one occasion, he has poured out his feelings to a woman who frequently makes her disinterest clear. He refuses to indulge the hopelessness of an old friend ready to commit suicide. On a trip to Miami, he makes an unlikely friendship with a male lifeguard, and the two spend a memorable- though strictly platonic- evening together throughout the city. It is good enough for Louie to risk embarrassment and confusion about his intentions; he finds the lifeguard the next day because he wants to hang out one more time. In one particularly transcendent episode, Louie is threatened while on a date, and follows the bully home to confront the teen’s parents about the damage their son is doing. Louie is a man struggling to understand his own children, his ex-wife, his aging body, sexuality, culture, women, life, and death. Perhaps reluctantly, he is a sincere man, hoping that there might be more out there (but nervous that there isn’t), appealing to the wonder of life, advocating for the greater good, with a fierce sense of right and wrong, and tired of bitterness and ridicule as an answer to everything.

‘The Comedy’ is a challenging and insightful new film from Rick Alverson, starring Tim Heidecker as Swanson, a 35-year old trust fund recipient killing time in the big city. He and his friends do whatever they think up, but none of them seem to be having any fun. Conversation is a way to showcase derision of their environment. A visit to church or a cab ride home become playgrounds regardless of the collateral damage. The childish men believe they have the upper hand on anyone outside their mindset. As individuals, it appears they are the casualties of too much privilege and too much free time. They have been stimulated and entertained to the point that they can no longer manufacture a rise. As a dying effort to kick start their malaise, they loiter around and trash the world which has given them so much. In the film’s darkest moment, Swanson watches as his date convulses through a drug-induced seizure, but instead of offering to help, he studies her closely, hoping to find something in the experience that will cause excitement. But nothing registers. I’m pretty sure the character’s name Swanson is even a sham- something he gave himself along with his absurd baby blue sunglasses as a way of demonstrating how little he cares. The film begs the question: when everything is subject to ridicule, what then is left to feel? If nothing is sacred, what can possibly matter, and what becomes of meaning itself?

‘The Comedy’ was an eerie hour and a half because it felt like I was watching an exaggerated highlight reel of the earlier half of my 20s (minus the wealth, of course); a time where my contribution was mostly inside jokes and ridicule veiled in different ways. Maybe it’s just aging or maybe I burned myself out on that stuff. Maybe it was something else entirely that went to work on me. I am by no means perfect today, and I still enjoy the jabs my closest friends and I exchange, but that is because I trust the person they are and know where the jokes are coming from. The same cannot be said about the larger sphere of cultural mockery, which often aims at people we know far less than we think we do, from a distance which creates a sense of comfort so that we can fire away with ease.

These days, with two kids, and a busy life just like everyone else, I can’t help but notice that time is flying by. You may agree that this creates a sense of urgency for a life of value, discovery, meaning, and hopefully, positive contributions. I increasingly despise the thought of just consuming, commenting, and then dying one day. 

A little absurdity is good medicine for the soul, and mockery can have its place; the more masterful attempts inform or critique in a useful way, shining a light on ignorance, abuse, hypocrisy, and shallow living. The last thing I want to do is to try to regulate humor for me or for you. But there must be a boundary on ridicule and it seems our country has raced beyond it. National tragedies and personal failings aren’t given the chance to take a breath before fingers are pointed, jokes are made, and points are scored. No person or event is safe.

Mockery, like sincerity, is habit-forming. The curse of this kind of ridicule is that it implies freedom of expression but ensures an enslavement to competition, insecurity, and paranoia; we often fear that others will eventually say what we first said about them. Mockery desensitizes, masking the finer things and tiny pleasures, dulling the vibrancy and colors of life itself. We find ourselves refreshed and surprised in this life by encouragement, vulnerability, and honest confrontation. Mocking comes easily. But a compliment or an authentic conversation? That takes real courage. 


4 thoughts on “The Limitations of Mockery and the Adventure of Authenticity

  1. That opening quote reminds me of a something I have noticed. It seems, in recent years, the use of “I” has faded from interaction. I find that it is missing from conversations, emails, status updates and tweets. No one wants to commit to their own statement. For example–your supervisor comes strolling by and says “Need to see you in my office.” It appears it is a new style of speech but it is a tactic to remove ownership of ones words. Maybe it’s just me…

    As a culture we are very defensive in nature and try to insulate ourselves from perceived dangers. Humor/Mockery and the like are deemed more acceptable forms of hedging.

  2. I think your description of the show/character ‘Louie’ is the most apt and correct I have read anywhere! That show is so hard to nail down without making it sound like it’s a non-comedy comedy and I think you really got under the skin of what Louie has created. Well done!

    As for the larger point, I agree. I remember after 9/11 how someone had either written or said on TV that ‘the age of irony was dead’. I thought that was a silly, unsupportable statement and I think I’ve been proven right over the past decade or so. Yes, at that time, in that moment, it seemed impossible to be detached and cool about how we felt as Americans (it seems that Americans have cornered the market on irony, doesn’t it?) that we just couldn’t imagine ever returning to the flip style of humor we’ve had come to know so well over the years. But, to my mind, I knew that it would return, because, in a sense, that’s what the media had been feeding us for far too long to let that go. And, what better medicine in response to the tragedy of 9/11 than to retreat to arm’s length from that reality?

    Really, in a sense, this ironic detachment in our humor started in popular culture in this country with Bob Hope and his ‘Road’ pictures and his general schtick he perfected in radio. (Of course there was irony in literature for years — Oscar Wilde, anyone? — but the popular culture of America that sprang from newspapers, comics, radio, film and then TV was just too all consuming for books to compete with as a major force in popular culture.) Hope was constantly breaking ‘fourth wall’ and commenting to the audience about the artifice of it all and generally trashing his own (very well-honed) performance. You can draw a direct line from Hope to Eddie Murphy in ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ where he’s the smartest and most self-aware person in the movie.

    And, to me, the operative word is ‘cool’. Ironic comedy is, by nature, cold. It demands a certain amount of distance and disconnect. And, to your point, it’s maybe gotten out of hand in our culture. It seems to be the default style for many people in their 20s and (for some) 30s. But, I think as life has its way with us, we do look for something that connects us through humor in our entertainment. Seinfeld once did a joke about how in your 20s you want as many friends as you can find. In your 30s you tend to start screening out people who were still acting like they were in their 20s and that by your 40s ‘you are no longer accepting applications’ for new friends. By your 40s you are looking for the REAL real in your friends and relationships. There is some truth to that. As we age crave and search for real, human connections.

    One more bit of art I would suggest to anyone looking to have an injection of sincerity in their entertainment is to go back to PT Anderson’s ‘Magnolia’. This movie, while long and occasionally jarring, is a brilliant and artistic rejection of ‘irony’. It smacks you in the face with displays of blatant human need and desire for human connection. People are humbled, not for our need to see someone brought low, but for us to empathize and feel that could be us in that moment. Maybe it is ‘us’ after all.

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