BROOKE GLADSTONE: Over here and over there, and especially lately, the news has been basically soulsucking.
JON STEWART: You go on vacation for two weeks and you come back to find out that things are so [BLEEP] up in our world that the two happiest places on Earth right now are Germany and Cleveland.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” says the narrator of a Samuel Beckett novel. It’s a comically desperate, desperately comic line. Surely now is a time of desperate comedy, of comic desperation. The show must go on, the show can't go on, the show goes on.
JON STEWART: Now, obviously, there’s no way to completely escape this, but we can at least take a sadness break, featuring stories that sound like they would end violently but don’t, in our new segment, “Yeah, we’ll take it.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter McGraw, co-author of The Humor Code, posits the Benign Violation Theory of humor. A violation, he says, refers to anything that threatens one's beliefs about how the world should be, something threatening, unsettling or wrong. But to be funny, it must somehow seem benign or safe. Violations, he says, become safer and funnier with physical distance and time. But our most emblematic comedy, as rendered by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and now John Oliver, seems in no way distant or safe.
JOHN OLIVER: I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking, wait, you’re not – you’re not gonna really do a comic take on the death penalty, right? It’s your second episode. I haven’t even decided if I like this show yet.
Well, okay, okay, so let’s do this then, before you turn this show off. There was a YouTube video this week of tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos.
And it’s as magical and as uncomplicated as you think. And if you make it to the end of this story, I promise we will watch it together.
Okay? But you have to stay with us.
Okay, so the death penalty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lord Buckley, a hipster comedian some 60 years ago, said, in a bit on the H-bomb, that “It is the duty of the humor of any given nation in times of high crisis to attack the catastrophe that faces it in such a manner as to cause the people to laugh at it in such a manner that they do not die before they get killed.” Would anyone believe Jon Stewart if he still said, which he doesn't, that he just it just for laughs?
JON STEWART: We'll start tonight in, in the Middle East, where Israel…
MAN: What, Israel isn't supposed to defend itself?
WOMAN: Oh, yeah, if Mexico bombs Texas, will we exercise restraint?
MAN: What other countries are held to the same standard of Israel!
MAN: Four thousand years, 4,000 years of war in the Middle East, you jerk!
MAN: Self-hating Jew!
JON STEWART: That was, that was weird.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is an increasing urgency to the comedy of Stewart, Oliver and Colbert, an edge that no amount of potty and penis jokes can dissipate. And yet, it's still really funny. It's truly a marvelous magic trick, this seamless weaving of silliness and moral indignation. Cervantes wrote that “The most difficult character in comedy is that of the fool and he must be no simpleton that plays that part,”
STEPHEN COLBERT: Think about it, folks, how can we rich trickle down prosperity to everyone else, unless we have all the money first?
Our cup must filleth before it runneth over.
Clearly, Congress hath underestimated the size of my cupeth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stephen Colbert’s blowhard alter ego, with his asserted idiocy and crocodile tears actually embodies our cynical, heartless politics. And he’s probably the funniest.
STEPHEN COLBERT: We will have complete coverage of both of these stories on tomorrow night’s show, and I’m being – I’m being told we do not have a show on Friday nights. Okay.
Oh-oh, oh, thank God.
Those are really depressing stories.
So let’s turn to a lighter story, child refugees.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Do you know what I like about comedy,” Colbert told Parade Magazine. “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time, of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.”
If you’re like me, you grab at the chance to laugh at the horrible. It's sweet relief to see that, in fact, the world has gone mad. But for me, that relief doesn't last long. Maybe it's a matter of character. Albert Einstein had to flee the Nazis and yet, he could still insouciantly observe that two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity. And I'm not sure about the universe. Marilyn Monroe expressed a similar view when she said, “Ever notice how ‘what the hell’ is always the right answer?” But she couldn’t shrug it off.
I think it's funny that Peter McGraw, who cooked up the benign violation theory of humor at his University of Colorado Humor Research Lab, also co-directs its Moral Research Lab. It could be that the only way to hold onto the laughter is to make moral choices, take moral action when the TV is off, and, though they don't say that exactly, our madcap Mahatmas won’t let us forget it.