The Climate Science of Comedy

Slate just launched a new podcast titled Working, in which editor at large, David Plotz, interviews people about the work they do. It’s a descendant of Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, only instead of focussing on how they feel about the work they do, it focuses on the granular specifics of what happens between waking up and going home. The first episode is off to a great start with Stephen Colbert. I got tired just listening to the description of his routine. Comedy often gets pegged as a frivolous, easy activity done in lieu of more serious work, but it’s hard, and requires rigorous discipline and study. (NB: There are a couple of points in the interview where Colbert uses some words you don’t hear at church potlucks, so maybe don’t play it in the background while your kids are coloring.)

Similarly, though the clip is a little older, this Rachael Maddow interview of John Stewart is excellent. It’s 40-odd minutes long, so there’s a great chance you won’t actually watch it, but if it sounds like two ideological peers talking shop, it’s not. Stewart explains more clearly what I’ve seen and loved in his work for years now. The easy conclusion is he’s a liberal taking cheap shots at conservatives, but if you watch this interview you’ll see he’s really shooting at the entire news media culture.

His analogy is he is a climate scientist looking at the full breadth of data, while Maddow, O’Reilly, etc. are talking about today’s weather. He makes some great points about the general cynicism of both sides (for example, the notion that there are only two sides), and a distinction between partisanship and wild ideology. If you think your ideological network of choice has it right, I encourage to you hear Stewart’s diagnosis of the climate.

Yes, he’s a comedian, a fact he owns, but the discipline of comedy and satire is to ruthlessly scan the world for patterns and discrepancies and follow them to their most absurdly logical conclusions. Sometimes it’s just for a laugh, sometimes it’s to use a laugh to disarm us before convicting us.