Check Out “Recovering Space,” Where Sober Performing Artists Speak Their Resentments

Comedian Whitney Wasson produces the sober showcase Serenity Now!
Photo by Loren Egeland


Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview five sober performers who are local inspirations of mine. These are folx that I met when I was taking trips up to Chicago to see shows back when I was living in the burbs.

The first one focused on ways that theaters and venues can be more accommodating to addicts in recovery

Talking to the same people, I followed up with pieces of wisdom they wished they knew earlier in their recovery

As for a third… that’s up in the air. If inspiration strikes and a good angle comes forward, I’ll have to continue. I think part of it is allowing the inspiration to come forward, and agreeing to follow the synchronicities when they present themselves.

To pull back the curtain a little bit on this process, I found it arduous to write these articles. “It’s my first article in a long time,” Worry reminded me, “it has to be perfect or else people will think you are a bad writer and wonder what you have been doing with your life!”

Drastic, of course. A goal for this year has been to find a way to write while minimizing the emotional toll each piece takes on my nerves. There’s an uneasy relationship between “hard work” and doing something “at all costs.”

The working definition of “hard work” for the purposes of this blog comes from a holistic approach, starting with goals and planning, devising a roadmap but also keeping open to surprises. Hard work can be easy at times, or at least call on different abilities like discernment over strength. In this, hard work is about working smart and with breath.

If hard work is efficiency to be at speed, succeeding “at all costs” is jettisoning anything that may slow you down.  To do something at all costs is an agreement to sacrifice everything for what you want, but don’t confuse this for Buddhism. What is being sacrificed here is personal power, rendering yourself powerless to what you desire. “At All Costs” is a jump away from “The ends justify the means.”

So at this end, please enjoy the fruits of these interviews. You can support Nire, Emillie, Hannah, Whitney, and Eileen through these dang sites.


Power in Parody: MAD Magazine’s “The Ghastlygun Tinies”

Parody frequently gets a bad rap as a lazy out. The rash of cash-in parody flicks throughout the 2000s tied to Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer single-handedly oversaturated the movie market, while the amazing world-shifting satire created by The Colbert Report is regarded more as satire despite the show’s and character’s roots are firmly planted in the language of parody.

Good parody takes a common language of tropes and personalities and plays with them like puns on a page. Parody is a remix and reinvention that examines the inner-workings of a piece, then chooses what to keep and what to scrap to create a new piece. It’s both collage and formalist approach. And the fact that these forms are then repurposed for what is considered a low art can be a liberation.

All this being said, long-time purveyor of parody MAD Magazine released a startling dark piece of parody last month with The Ghastlygun Tinies. A parody of Edward Gorey’s alphabet jaunt The Ghastlycrumb Tinies, writer Matt Cohen and Artist Marc Palm contextualize a classic work of playful dread to comment on the modern trauma of school shootings.

Mirroring the same couplets and crosshatches that are the cornerstones of Gorey’s work, Ghastlygun makes the fantastical real to great social comment that doesn’t seek to belittle the original work. Instead, the original’s playful “kids in peril” are brought into a harsher reality of real peril.

This powerful work of parody is even more powerful when you consider the audience of MAD magazine is comprised of young adults who are grappling with the reality depicted in these panels.  Some readers will not know the original source material. That’s okay. Parody can stand without prior or perfect knowledge of the source material. It’s a dark catharsis, one that feels like a gut punch to me, but a likely deeper resonance to its  the real-life Ghastlygun Tinies themselves that walk into these panels five days a week.


Dispelling 5 Myths About “Politically Correct” Comedy

This isn’t meant to condemn anyone’s voice. Instead, I want to offer some thoughtfood and a vision for different sources of laughter. Take what you like and leave the rest.

In my attempt to find other blogs talking about comedy and humor, I find myself bumping against legions of true comedy fan blogs. Across the world, older white men are at the end of their rope, writing long jeremiads about the mortal danger that political correctness brings to the world of comedy.

Gosh, we killed comedy, y’all (yet wouldn’t “killing” be considered wildly Un-PC tho?)

Can the same person who watches Bill Maher’s New Rules to feel reaffirmed about their politics also watch Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes and not feel like they are owed to laugh at every single moment? Can they accept that comedy does not always fit their paradigm of what constitutes as shock is the first step in healing.

How about like… no rape jokes told by non-victims or perpetrators? If it didn’t happen to you, and it didn’t happen to the person performing the joke, who are you laughing at? What are you laughing at?

Fans of self-avowed non-PC comedy: can you accept that much of comedy’s potential audience have written off mainstream comedy because they only associate it with a bullshit weightless comedy rooted in toxicity? Can you hear the quaint echo chamber of a world where the women always be shopping and the act-out impersonations of queer people and people of color act-outs are perpetually sassy? Or maybe, just maybe, a homeless drug addict you reference can be a little more than both set-up and the punchline?

Let’s take a look at some common arguments against political correctness in comedy and how to savor the tears of those who speak them:

“Comedy is so PC now,…

1.) … comedians are refusing to perform at college compasses!”

Imagine a college student is waiting for their drink at coffee shop. A stranger approaches them. The stranger tells a couple jokes about cars and golf. The waiting student is… not a fan. These jokes aren’t what they personally relate to, the way the person is saying these jokes isn’t engaging, and overall the person waiting for coffee feels horribly uncomfortable.

The jokester senses that their material isn’t working and leaves. The waiting student takes a sigh of relief. But then, another stranger approaches and says “that was my favorite comedian, why did you have to be so rude to them?”

Then the waiting student says: “I’m sorry, but the $2 coffee I just ordered has put me into another 30 years of debt. In the 20 years since you’ve been to college, what passes for comedy has become more personal and intimate through direct address YouTube channels, vines, and snaps, so the style of emotionally cold observational comedy made famous throughout 90s stand-up holds less sway. Also, in a world where I paid to go to a place where we are learning about consent to curb astronomical amount of sexual assault, it’d be cool to have a comedian who’s more sensitive and knowledgeable about culture change instead of just assuming that college campuses haven’t changed in 20 years. Plus, There’s no surer path to becoming irrelevant as a performer than calling an entire swath of youth irrelevant, you know? Anywho, sorry to ramble. I just don’t want my college to pay your favorite comedian to say some disconnected shit to us that you thought was funny without being there.”

(The person in the coffee shop was totally Jerry Seinfeld. I just think he spent too much time resting on his laurels with a generation who readily associates him with the Bee Movie.)

2.) … a movie like Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today.”

I grew up loving Mel Brooks, but this argument is hot garbage.

First, A movie like Blazing Saddles could be made today! And if it were to be made today, how cool would it be for it to be written and directed by people of color!?

You think the internet venom boiled up over the Ghostbusters reboot? Just wait for a Blazing Saddles remake starring the entire cast of Girls Night. (By the way, universe, get on that? And don’t just make it a blanket gender-swap like Oceans 8, recontextualize that shit. Thanks beau <3)

Second, Blazing Saddles was already made so… you good?

Third, Outlaw Johnny Black. The Western parody is not dead.

3.) … there won’t be anymore shock comedians to push the envelope!

Shock comedy… Ah, of course. What’s a better way of sharing that you’ve “got the morbs” than telling a that yearns to receive the response “hahaha, woah, hey now too soon lol.”

But really, that’s one side of shock comedy. Shock comedians are split down a PC and non-PC line.

Chicago Tribune Theater Critic Chris Jones once complained in a revue review about Second City becoming “a safe space” by having a sign stating a zero tolerance policy against “homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, racist or prejudiced comments” from the audience. In the same review, Jones complains that he felt uncomfortable about the amount of jokes targeting his white privilege and the privilege of a largely white audience.

That’s also shock comedy.

Just down the same street of Second City Chicago is the monthly comedy & variety show Helltrap Nightmare, consistently riding a wave of shocking body horror and absurd non-stop transgressive laughter.
The laughter that gave rise to Daniel Tosh and Anthony Jeselnik is one form of shock comedy, but limiting the definition of shock to only apply to material considered “offensive” offers no kindnesses to the world of comedy. If shock comedy is meant to make an audience squirm a little, or make them laugh at unexpected awfulness, or make them feel terrible about what they laugh at, let’s all hail Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette as bold new push into shock comedy.

4.) … but not every joke needs to be taken so politically.”

I hear where this is coming from. The asker of this question often wonders “What happened to just embracing absurdity of things like Monty Python?” or “Since when has comedy needed a political point-of-view?” They tell comedians and artists they like “I like you, but keep the politics out of your work, okay?”

Every. Joke. Is. Political.

Inherently. Irrevocably. Since the beginning and until long after the end.
Yes, every. joke.

The politics of a joke changes based on the comedian’s gender, race, sex, orientation, class, status, and every other dang qualifier. Absurdist jokes are a political comment against reality. Even puns are political comments against the fallibility of language and communication. Jokes have the power include or exclude people from social circles or entire cultures. No one is exempt. Your one-liners do not exist in a vacuum. Mitch Hedberg’s material worked because of his personal beliefs informing his absurdity and the audience’s agreement on what is absurd. We are tethered to our bodies and each other and our words and our world and this hellscape, so be kind?

And even more important:

Every. Laugh. Is. Political.

Laughter is a social tool. We laugh at jokes we don’t find funny so we can relate to people. Men are more likely to laugh around someone they’re trying to impress. Women are more likely to laugh around men when sizing up whether or not the dude might be a threat. Laughter is social currency.

No joke or comedic act is ever owed laughter.

5.) … we are entering a dark age of comedy.”
Excellence. Is. All. Around. Us. We are overrun with excellence. We are downright lousy with excellence.

The cultural zeitgeist loves to throw around the term “The New Golden Age of __________.” “The New Golden Age” doesn’t work here. “The Old Golden Age” has its roots in a time of the gold standard, in a time where excellence was treated as a precious commodity. Saying that “we are entering into a New Golden Age” is like saying “we are returning to the past era of excellence,” yet the excellence created today is by voices that were silenced during the Golden Ages of yore.

This era isn’t Gilded or Golden. There is nothing precious about it.

If anything, we’re ushering in a socialist era of comedy: entertainment that serves both the public and the performers/creators. Entertainment as a form of communion. Yes, you can still have screwball comedies! You can have the dumbest, and dangest stupidest comedies in the world! You can care for your audience, too! You can pretty much do anything you would already do, just don’t rely on “you didn’t get the joke” as an excuse to be an asshole.

Jokes can literally be about anything. Laughs can come from silence. Take the time and consider the risk of making it? Your joke can still be horribly absurd and gross and nasty and also empower you and others with your honesty, your vulnerability, your hurt, your strength, your truth.

So if someone complains to you that “Comedy is so PC now,” you know there’s only one way to respond:

“How PC is it!?”

We’re still in it for jokes, after all.

Dear Masculinity

This piece was previously published and recorded for Scout & Birdie as part of their At First Sight issue. Anna and Jen are wonderful people running a wonderful magazine that covers lit, music, and so much more. Subscribe to their podcast and click through their latest edition.

Dear Masculinity,

Thanks for taking the time to open your mail. Very untoxic of you! I’ve been thinking about you.

Two weeks ago, I’m leaving the Speedway in Alsip and approaching one of the side-by-side double doors, and I see a man approaching the other double door. He’s still a few steps away and I prepare to hold the door open for the man by standing a little off to the right. At the same moment, he sees me a few steps away and prepares to hold his door open for me by standing a little off to the left. For a breath we stand still, too close to our own doors in a deadlock of mechanical courtesy. In this stopped second, I don’t look up at him, and he doesn’t look up at me. Time resumes. Our doors swing in unison, and slowly close without a squeak.

So like, was that you, Masculinity?

You: Carhartt jacket, pants with a lot of pockets, grey wraparound sunglasses.

Me: floral print shirt, burnt orange infinity scarf, too dandy.

Us: acting in kindness, failing at our own kindness, bearing witness to ourselves, changing nothing, then silently walking away as if this wasn’t goofy, as if we hadn’t stumbled upon an ancient social dance of mankind.

I hope this was you, Masculinity, because that would mean you have at least one endearing part of you, in the gruff way I’ve come to endure you. If I had to list my grievances of you, I’m not sure where I’d start. Globally? Nationally? Microcosms? Present day or year one?

The first game I played with the kids from the neighborhood was Stick Fight. A quick walkthrough:

  1. Search your backyard for sticks suitable for hitting each other.
  2. Join the group of boys under the greenery of my backyard neighbor’s peartree in Summer.
  3. Hit the shit out of each other.
  4. Place the icepack your mother gives you so it covers your whole left eye socket.
  5. After a few days pass, hang out with the same people again.

Was that you, then, masculinity? Boys being boys, copying men, who are, in turn, puppets of other men, neighborhood dads telling their sons to beat each other up? Heirloom emotional withholding passed down for generations out of tradition: you must have been there.

With masculinity, Stick Fight is “learning!” and can be added to the list headed “Things I learned,” a wily thread of lessons in deferred pain and emotions for short-term gains.  Over time, the name of the list changes. “Things I learned” became “My strengths” then became “What makes me me.”

Accumulating pain and maturing, the “what makes me me,” turned to “things that suck,” then “reasons I don’t like me,” into “things to blockout” into “reasons to blackout,” and a long period of no edits before changing to “I guess as I’m saying it out loud right now it sounds like trauma but like, no,” to  “sure, trauma, to “trauma,” to “Captial T Trauma,” back to “trauma” to the current “oh, yep, that’s… that’s what I call trauma.”

I’m nervous joking around you. You are in all the jokes I used to laugh at, and the jokes I would yell loud over others. You’re the high school me who tried desperately to fit in the boys club. I tried to conform to your comedy as “The Way” and it’s left me with years living in parody.  Each set, each show, each “as a dude,” each set up clarifying, “I’m actually quite woke” with the same punchlines risking none of my own skin. From the stage, I’d see you hanging in the back near the bar, fist in your hand. I don’t know if it was a voice in my head or you from the back, but I always heard it.

“You don’t belong. You don’t belong here.”


Even writing this letter, a fear lingers. In a silence, I’ll hear a guy’s voice yell, “Get ‘em!” and be swarmed by fists. Any questioning of you exists with an imagined mob of toxic ideology incarnate waiting around a corner with baseball bats and other sports items.

When I started flirting with my femininity, I knew you’d be angry.  Challenging your arbitrary rules is a liberation. Necklaces, bracelets, pearls, floral patterns, emotions “worth” sharing, practicing arts without trying to “win” at art.

Remembering you sitting in the back of my head back in college, tsking “skinny jeans? that’s the gateway drug to girl pants.”

             “You’re going out dancing? And not to flirt, but just to ‘Dance it Out?”

 “Mike, I know you just discovered an article about androgyny in modeling, but you will never ever be androgynous.”

It took me some years to build up the courage, but I ran through that gateway to girl pants. Did you see me? You definitely noticed the scarves, getting longer, blossoming with color. Cardigans to sweaters to longer sweaters to longer cardigans to full-on sweater dresses. Coworkers noticed. Family noticed. Did you?

The world showed me no shortage of amazing people who accepted me for who I am, while I still couldn’t accept me. To me, it was all still about you, how much you saw me as “not okay,” how much you wouldn’t stand the “it” that was “me.” In each of those moments, burying myself was quicker than standing.

I could have written this sooner, but I still held on to embodying a face of yours: The connection-starved funny man. The nerdy stoic. The best-dressed mystery dandy. The aggressive know-it-all. You taught me well to just keep adapting. By no means am I absolved from hurting others. I’ve been horrible boyfriends, distant friends, ghosts, a shusher. I hate that the worst parts of you rattle inside me like a spray can building pressure. I am non-binary, but I hear you tink catink catink along. I have a privilege that came from “passing,” and I absolutely benefitted from this in jobs interviews and everyday interactions. But “passing” in itself is not full privilege. Passing in itself is a prison and a loss. I grew up a boy, fit in my best with who was around me and what I figured I had to do, under the fear that I wouldn’t be accepted otherwise. There are things that were made easier for me, but there was a day to day degradation that I breathed in and accepted as a pain I must become cozy with. To “keep moving.” Now I’m in the non-man’s land: an imposter to you, masculinity, an imposter to femininity, an impostor in queerness.

For all these reasons and more I would love to sign this letter “eat shit and burn,” —you are preposterous— but I think you detest compassion more. You’re more than just long unruly beards groomed for character or cosmetic automobile genitalia. You’re more than the male pattern baldness my gut links to emotional repression. You’re more than the group of guys talking at length with their arms folded tight. You’re the conversation we’re not having. You’re terrifying.

I write this letter to demand this: give them back. Give everyone back. Give back the time before we learned to withhold emotions. Give my brother back. Give my father back. Wash my brother, father, mother, and sister of every unnurturing male role enacted on them. Give me what everyone would become if we had purified You. I want to see who we are without this poison stopping us.

Masculinity, I do not know what the point of you is or if you even have an “upside” that can in anyway outweigh your toxicity. You are weird and strange and dumb and terrifying and beautiful. I don’t know what makes you “beautiful,” but I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. I will find your buttons, discover what makes you uncomfortable, and will not stop mashing those buttons until you’ll let go of me and the people I love.

Until the next time we almost see each other,

Signal Boost: Rebekah Frumkin on Unmaking the “Mad Genius”

Here’s a gorgeous article written by Rebekah Frumkin that covers nuances we overlook when we think about artists, mental health, and bipolar disorder. People with mood disorders deal with stigmas, but one of the oddest side-effects of this stigma is the pressure to be a creative mind and channel that disorder into art.

My main takeaways:

  • Mental health in art doesn’t excuse you from being a dick.
  • Established or financially well-set artists have a luxury of being able to afford in-patient programs.
  • Male artists are more likely to be excused for their madness as creative inspiration, and this enables artists to not seek treatment.

There’s so much more to gain from this longish read. How can you help yourself achieve your creative goals while also staying stable?

Have any insights or quotes that pop out at you?

“Sure we’re funny enough BUT… what if we did the show drunk!”

Years ago, I was living in Chicago and desperately craved to do stand-up despite a full-body fear of mob-with-pitchforks rejection. A writing partner who was performing regularly at the time gave me one sage piece ancient stand-up secret I pass unto to:

Try to find your magic number of drinks. As the legend goes, each performer could unlock their True Comedic Abilities by recognizing that:

  1. They should have some beerz before performing… but not just any number of some beerz
  2. Like a secret garden, each of us has a number of beerz n’ drankz that would unlock our True Comedic Abilities
  3. By finding your magic number, and consuming your sacred amount of beerz, drankz, or Yagz, you too could summon a potential greater than yourself... a power to transcend your own known limits and touch the sky for a low-stakes 5 minute open mic set.

Cut to the present, I’m living in the suburbs, sober, looking to move back to Chicago, and pushing off performing out that familiar full-body fear, but I still see this magic number ritual pop up.

It’s found in performance profession. Anecdotes galore of musicians and actors strung-out and altered on stage to be more raw, more authentic, more “On.”

Now to give historical precedence, there are sacred rituals of indigenous people that use substances to achieve altered states to commune with a greater spirit. Ayahuasca rituals are ancient, and have recently helped thousands of upper-class cultural tourists write about the true meaning of live, laugh, love.

Side-note: My favorite story of “using psychedelic drugs giving creative insight” comes from Bojack Horseman Creator and BlogBae Raphael Bob-Waksberg taking mushrooms in between seasons 1 and 2 to unblock his writing:

“The answer that I came to that night: language is a virus and narrative is a trap. Which did not help me at all.” 

Back to drunk comedy, we follow the footsteps of drunk uncle of W.C. Fields, who remains a caricature of the goofy drunk. He famously said “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” which… is a refreshingly anti-lobotomy perspective in a culture that fetishes lobotomies? Another famous quote from Fields, “I don’t drink water. You know what fish do in it.” The punchline is frequently listed as the more blunt “Fish fuck in it,” but primary sources say otherwise.  In my first understanding of the joke’s origin, Field’s punchline was the rejoinder to someone asking him (along the lines of) “Why don’t you try drinking water?”

Which like, maybe he could’ve been drinking more water?

Today, we have binge shows. You know the ones, the show with the crux conceit attempts to answer the question “what if drinking, but too much?” Humor comes from unpredictability, an audience wondering “how long will this performer keep performing?! What wacky japes will they get into on stage tonight!?” I’ve heard like these described as “blackout shows.”

To each their own.

And “my own…” I worry. My goal is not to say “this is wrong,” but to gaze on from a distance in quiet hope that the performers aren’t trapped in ritual. I want what is best for them, and from my distance, I don’t know what it is.

For every anecdote about a storied stage actors getting sauced in-between entrances are several unspoken stories of castmates dealing with an unpredictable drunk castmate.

To all those sober stand-ups out there, we got this, full-body fears be danged.

Mind Proddings – Albert Camus on the Comedian as a Voice of Resistance and a Liberator of Society

Welcome to Mind Proddings, a “find-and-replace” philosophical treatise of comedy protected by parody law. Each article is accidentally poetry created from a near-direct lift of a vastly more profound post by Maria Popova, edited to nurture the spirit of comedian in our modern predicament. Read it leisurely or scan for the pull quotes and bolded text to read what Albert Camus would say if he into Vine.

Create Dangerously: Albert Camus on the Comedian as a Voice of Resistance and a Liberator of Society

“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your comedy’ are not being honest,” Chinua Achebe observed in his superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin. “If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” Half a century earlier, W.H. Auden both simplified and amplified this insight when he asserted that “the mere making of a work of comedy is itself a political act.”

The comedian’s essential responsibility to leap society forward by upsetting the system is what Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) explores in a timeless, immensely insightful piece titled “Create Dangerously,” composed in Auden’s time but acutely relevant to our own. Originally delivered as a lecture at a Swedish university in December of 1957 — weeks after Camus became the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for work that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times” — it was later included in his indispensable essay collection Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (public library).


Two decades before Audre Lorde called on artists to uphold their responsibility toward “the transformation of silence into language and action,” Camus writes:

An Oriental wise man always used to ask the divinity in his prayers to be so kind as to spare him from living in an interesting era. As we are not wise, the divinity has not spared us and we are living in an interesting era. In any case, our era forces us to take an interest in it. The comedians of today know this. If they speak up, they are criticized and attacked. If they become modest and keep silent, they are vociferously blamed for their silence. In the midst of such din the comedian cannot hope to remain aloof in order to pursue the reflections and images that are dear to him. Until the present moment, remaining aloof has always been possible in history. When someone did not approve, he could always keep silent or talk of something else. Today everything is changed and even silence has dangerous implications. The moment that abstaining from choice is itself looked upon as a choice and punished or praised as such, the comedian is willy-nilly impressed into service. “Impressed” seems to me a more accurate term in this connection than “committed.” Instead of signing up, indeed, for voluntary service, the comedian does their compulsory service.


It is easy to see all that comedy can lose from such a constant obligation. Ease, to begin with, and that divine liberty so apparent in the work of Mozart. It is easier to understand why our works of comedy have a drawn, set look and why they collapse so suddenly. It is obvious why we have more journalists than humor writers, more Seth Rogens than Andy Kaufmans, and why “women be shopping” or dick jokes have taken the place of Jackie “Moms” Mabley’s dangerous performance or Harold Lloyd’s physically demanding oveur

[MH note: This smacks of “Back in my day” or “I was born in a different era” complaints. I’ll give Camus the benefit of the doubt.]

And yet, five years before Baldwin asserted that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the comedian must know, and they must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Camus insists that there is more to gain than there is to lose in the comedian’s commitment to social justice:

To create today is to create dangerously. Any performance of humor is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing. Hence the question is not to find out if this is or is not prejudicial to comedy. The question, for all those who cannot live without comedy and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies (how many churches, what solitude!), the strange liberty of creation is possible.

A century after Emerson scoffed that “masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence [and one must not] concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them,” Camus considers the forces that warp humrous work and lead to a “surrender of the comedian.” In a sentiment of sundering pertinence to our own age of so-called “social media” — that ultimate tyranny of the masses — he writes:

What characterizes our time, indeed, is the way the masses and their wretched condition have burst upon contemporary sensibilities. We now know that they exist, whereas we once had a tendency to forget them. And if we are more aware, it is not because our aristocracy, comedic or otherwise, has become better — no, have no fear — it is because the masses have become stronger and keep people from forgetting them.

Coupled with various other social forces, this tyranny of popular opinion works “to discourage free creation by undermining its basic principle, the comedian’s faith in himself.” (Writing in the same era, E.E. Cummings captured the importance of protecting that basic principle beautifully in his advice to comedians: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”) Out of this syphoning of comedic freedom and courage, Camus argues, arises the dangerous falsehood that comedy is merely a luxury. Nearly two decades after Rebecca West insisted in the midst of WWII that “comedy is not a plaything, but a necessity… not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Camus considers what led modern society to so misapprehend the essence and purpose of comedy:

If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, comedy will be a meaningless recreation. If [comedy] blindly rejects that society, if the comedian makes up their mind to take refuge in their dream, comedy will express nothing but a negation. In this way we shall have the production of entertainers or of formal [purists], and in both cases this leads to comedy that’s cut off from living reality. For about a century we have been living in a society that is not even the society of money (gold can arouse carnal passions) but that of the abstract symbols of money. The society of merchants can be defined as a society in which things disappear in favor of signs. When a ruling class measures its fortunes, not by the acre of land or the ingot of gold, but by the number of figures corresponding ideally to a certain number of exchange operations, it thereby condemns itself to setting a certain kind of humbug at the center of its experience and its universe. A society founded on signs is, in its essence, an artificial society in which man’s carnal truth is handled as something artificial. There is no reason for being surprised that such a society chose as its religion a moral code of formal principles and that it inscribes the words “liberty” and “equality” on its prisons as well as on its temples of finance. However, words cannot be prostituted with impunity. The most misrepresented value today is certainly the value of liberty.

Echoing philosopher and political activist Simone Weil — whom Camus considered “the only great spirit of our times” — and her insight into the crucial difference between our rights and our responsibilities, Camus laments the consequence of this commodification of comedy and liberty:

For a hundred years a society of merchants made an exclusive and unilateral use of liberty, looking upon it as a right rather than as a duty, and did not fear to use an ideal liberty, as often as it could, to justify a very real oppression. As a result, is there anything surprising in the fact that such a society asked comedy to be, not an instrument of liberation, but an inconsequential exercise and a mere entertainment?

He examines the social charade that engulfs humorous works, inflating ego while deflating comedy:

Comedy for comedy’s sake, the entertainment of a solitary comedian, s indeed the artificial humor of a factitious and self-absorbed society. The logical result of such a theory is the humor of little cliques or the purely formal comedy fed on affectations and abstractions and ending in the destruction of all reality. In this way a few routines charm a few individuals while many coarse inventions corrupt many others. Finally comedy takes shape outside of society and cuts itself off from its living roots. Gradually the comedian, even if they are celebrated, is alone or at least is known to their nation only through the intermediary of the popular press or the radio, which will provide a convenient and simplified idea of them. The more comedy specializes, in fact, the more necessary popularization becomes. In this way millions of people will have the feeling of knowing this or that great comedian of our time because they have learned from the newspapers that they raise canaries or that they never stay married more than six months. The greatest renown today consists in being admired or hated without having been read. Any comedian who goes in for being famous in our society must know that is it not [them] who will become famous, but someone else under [their] name, someone who will eventually escape [them] and perhaps someday will kill the true comedian [within them].

And yet Camus condemns the simplistic divide between comedic authenticity and what we today may call “selling out”to wholly reject society, including its currencies of celebrity, is to perpetrate another sort of hubris that divorces comedy from its raw material. In a sentiment Baldwin would echo several years later in reminding us that what made Shakespeare the greatest comedians in the English language was that he“found his comedy where comedy is found: in the lives of the people,” Camus writes:

As a result of rejecting everything, even the tradition of their comedy, the contemporary comedian gets the illusion that they are creating their own rule and eventually takes themself for God. At the same time they think they can create their reality themself. But, cut off from their society, they will create nothing but formal or abstract jokes, thrilling as experiences but devoid of the fecundity we associate with true comedy, which is called upon to unite.

Instead, Camus argues, the comedian must contact the reality of his or her or their time, wresting from it something timeless and universal:

[The comedian] has only to translate the sufferings and happiness of all into the language of all and they will be universally understood. As a reward for being absolutely faithful to reality, they will achieve complete communication among folks.

This ideal of universal communication is indeed the ideal of any great comedian. Contrary to the current presumption, if there is any man who has no right to solitude, it is the comedian. Comedy cannot be a monologue (Think the open “we’re in all in this room together”  form of Stand-up or theatrical Clown performance.) When the most solitary and least famous comedian appeals to posterity, they are merely reaffirming his fundamental vocation. Considering a dialogue with deaf or inattentive contemporaries to be impossible, they appeal to a more far-reaching dialogue with the generations to come.

But in order to speak about all and to all, one has to speak of what all know and of the reality common to us all. The sea, rains, farts, necessity, desire, parents, emotions, social media, La Croix jokes, the struggle against death — these are the things that unite us all. We resemble one another in what we see together, in what we suffer together. Dreams change from individual to individual, but the reality of the world is common to us all. Striving toward realism is therefore legitimate, for it is basically related to the comedic adventure.

Echoing his polymathic compatriot Henri Poincaré’s assertion that “to invent… is to choose” and affirming Ursula K. Le Guin’s conviction that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Camus argues for the comedian’s responsibility to imagine superior alternatives to the status quo, the system, the present reality:

Reality cannot be reproduced without exercising a selection… The only thing needed, then, is to find a principle of choice that will give shape to the world. And such a principle is found, not in the reality we know, but in the reality that will be — in short, the future. In order to reproduce properly what is, one must depict also what will be… actionable

The comedian chooses their object as much as he is chosen by it. Comedy, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world. Consequently, its only aim is to give another form to a reality that it is nevertheless forced to preserve as the source of its emotion. In this regard, we are all realistic and no one is. Comedy is neither complete rejection nor complete acceptance of what is. It is simultaneously rejection and acceptance, and this is why it must be a perpetually renewed wrenching apart. The comedian constantly lives in such a state of ambiguity, incapable of negating the real and yet eternally bound to question it in its eternally unfinished aspects.

The loftiest work [of comedy] will always be… the work that maintains an equilibrium between reality and man’s rejection of that reality, each forcing the other upward in a ceaseless overflowing, characteristic of life itself at its most joyous and heart-rending extremes. Then, every once in a while, a new world appears, different from the everyday world and yet the same, particular but universal, full of innocent insecurity — called forth for a few hours by the power and longing of genius. That’s just it and yet that’s not it; the world is nothing and the world is everything — this is the contradictory and tireless laugh of every true comedian [or clown], the laugh that keeps them on their feet with eyes ever open and that, every once in a while, awakens for all in this world asleep the fleeting and insistent image of a reality we recognize without ever having known it.

This tension — between the present and the future, between what is and what can be, between suffering and the transcendence of suffering — is the seedbed of comedy and clown. Camus writes:

The comedian can neither turn away from their time nor lose themself in it… The prophet, whether religious or political, can judge absolutely and, as is known, is not chary of doing so. But the comedian cannot. If they judged absolutely, they would arbitrarily divide reality into good and evil and thus indulge in melodrama. The aim of comedy, on the contrary, is not to legislate or to reign supreme, but rather to understand first of all. Sometimes it does reign supreme, as a result of understanding. But no routine of genius has ever been based on hatred and contempt. This is why the comedian, at the end of their slow advance, absolves instead of condemning. Instead of being a judge, they are a justifier. They are the perpetual advocate of the living creature, because it is alive.


Perhaps the greatness of laughter lies in the perpetual tension between beauty and pain, the love of mankind and the madness of creation, unbearable solitude and the exhausting crowd, rejection and consent… On the ridge where the great comedian moves forward, every step is an adventure, an extreme risk. In that risk, however, and only there, lies the freedom of comedy and being a fool.

Six years before John F. Kennedy asserted in one of the greatest speeches ever given that the comedian and clown is society’s foremost voices of resistance against injustice, Camus adds:

Comedy, by virtue of that free essence I have tried to define, unites whereas tyranny separates. It is not surprising, therefore, that comedy should be the enemy marked out by every form of oppression. It is not surprising that comedians, artists and intellectuals should have been the first victims of modern tyrannies… Tyrants know there is in the work of comedy an emancipatory force, which is mysterious only to those who do not revere it. Every great joke makes the human face more admirable and richer, and this is its whole secret. And thousands of concentration camps and barred cells are not enough to hide this staggering testimony of dignity. This is why it is not true that culture can be, even temporarily, suspended in order to make way for a new culture… There is no culture without legacy… Whatever the works of the future may be, they will bear the same secret, made up of courage and freedom, nourished by the daring of thousands of comedians of all times and all nations.

All the essays collected in Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion, Goofs, Spoofts, and Death vibrate with uncommon insight into comedy and life that seems to grow timelier with the passage of time. Complement this particular portion with Simone de Beauvoir on the comedians duty to liberate the present from the past, Ursula K. Le Guin on the power of yuks and storytelling to transform and redeem, and Toni Morrison on the comedian’s task in times of political turmoil, then revisit Camus on what it means to be a rebel, the three antidotes to the absurdity of life, and the most important question of existence that is not “am I right, guys?”.