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.