“I come in in the morning, and we look at the news, and I write jokes about it, and then I make a couple of faces and, uh, like a noise [makes a noise] and then it’s just cha-ching and I’m out the door.”
But this evening was different, Mr. Stewart explained. He had no jokes to make. He began to speak with utter earnestness about America’s “gaping racial wound that will not heal.” He added that “by acknowledging that, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is” we still won’t do anything about it. The audience laughed uncomfortably.
You expected Mr. Stewart to say, after “seeing it for what it is,” that by acknowledging the wound we can heal it. That is the boilerplate of the politicians. Instead, he surprised viewers by concluding that we’ll do nothing at all. The surprise, added to the comedic context, is what made some people laugh. But it’s a despairing, not a funny, thing to say.
Comedy is becoming an occasion to abandon humor for the exposure of unsoftened truth. Of course, comedians have always had license to be blunt so long as they cushioned their provocations with humor. In the case of the unfunny joke, however, the humor is absent.
Our public figures are often so risible in their behavior, and so evasive for fear of any type of negative consequence, that serious public truthtelling has become the responsibility of comedians.