I left the Shubert Theater on Saturday evening with a thought and a charge: A regime with a rich tradition of stand-up comedy is likely a righteous one, well-equipped to survive challenges to domestic tranquility and with the moral temerity to crush foreign enemies. America has the power and thus the responsibility to foster a culture of stand-up comedy around the world.
At a quarter past eight, the Shubert was full and Bill Maher, a slight man, dressed in stylish blue shirt and jeans, walked onto a stage that contained nothing but a stool, a microphone and a stand for his notes. He spent the next 80 minutes mocking famous politicos of major political parties, ethnic groups, Americans, foreigners and religious fundamentalists. Taboo subjects were explored with continued hilarity, and those of us in the audience spent most the night laughing.
Maher’s routine — funny yet biting — represented the type of comedy most helpful in maintaining our freedoms and our moral resolve.
On his stage, no individual was above criticism. The powerful became accountable to the electorate. They turned into mere mortals and their behavior became funny, demonstrating predictable, puzzling and amusing patterns.
Maher dealt with the mundane — a Seinfeldian “what’s the deal with dental floss?” — and world affairs by exposing hypocrisy and juxtaposing contradictions. Nothing was out of his reach. While he, like many comedians took a jab at small towns — apparently they’re small because no one wants to live there — he also poked fun of the things we love about cities and our darling shorelines. We might be more progressive, less religious and arguably more fun, but we’re just as mockable. Somehow, the far off, the elite, “Hollywood” and “Washington” seemed not so different from the small town.
And whether in small towns or big cities, the community the stand-up comedian promotes is a pluralistic one.
In good comedy, all ethnic groups have ridiculous traditions and no opportunity should be missed for a laugh. We laugh at ourselves and others and so do they. All are criticized; all are embraced. Humor, not English, is the universal language. It shows our nation at its best. It shows a pluralistic society, not as one in which conformity is forced nor one that has disintegrated into contiguous regions with little sense of unity, but one in which the melting pot is a challenge to be met and overcome. It shows we haven’t created a cultureless culture. We embrace our differences and we unify under the stars and stripes in defense of this freedom: Christians frequent Shabbat dinners at Chabad, Jews love the Ramadan banquets in Commons and Muslims study at the Saint Thomas More Church.
The stand-up comedian is a defender of Western civilization. He is not quieted by the politically correct. His is a solo act, but his existence is the surest sign that a society embodies the individualism we too often take for granted. He celebrates freedom. He inherently values certain inalienable rights that a broker or labor leader or military general may not. Whether a society has a culture of stand-up comedy answers Natan Sharansky’s Town Square Test — “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.”
After all, not all cultures are equally worhty of criticism – a society where a comedian is killed rather than “kills,” or Wahhabism rather than separation of Church and State is the law of the land is probably not a place where you want to spend much time.
America has long been in the business of fostering democracy abroad. It achieves this through free trade, through diplomacy, through war and through foreign aid. America hands out billions of dollars a year to countries in order to establish or prop up democratic institutions. This includes translating books of democratic theory – like De Tocqueville or Locke – into foreign languages, particularly Arabic, and giving them away. Similarly, the State Department ought to fund efforts to dub the performances of stand-up comedians – the Mahers, the Seinfelds, the Pryors – into foreign languages. Humor is a liberalizing and stabilizing force.
At the Shubert on Saturday, there was a policeman holding the door as we entered and left the theater. In many countries around the world, policemen shoot those who criticize the state; in America, they laugh along with us.
Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.