On a day of unthinkable tragedy, when most of us struggled to find any words, a comedian struck a nerve with a nation in mourning. But the comic chose not to go for the shock and awe that comes with spewing empty words on Twitter for a cheap, lazy laugh in the midst of horror and human suffering. In the wake of the terrible events that unfolded at the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people (including an 8-year-old boy) and injured more than 100 others, talented actor/comedian/generally awesome human being Patton Oswalt shared a genuinely heartfelt and wise post regarding the tragedy on Facebook.
The entry quickly went viral and Oswalt’s raw, thoughtful, and meaningful words brought comfort and insight to many. Please, if you haven’t already, read the full inspirational message (which includes some strong language) here:
“Boston. Fucking horrible.
I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, ‘Well, I’ve had it with humanity.’
But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.
But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.
So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will’.”
The world continues to be terrifying and overwhelmingly sad place at times. It’s easy to be cynical about the state of the world or feel hopeless and the images on our television screen only reinforce that sinking feeling. But Oswalt’s message of hope and love and goodness rang louder than any lingering fears. He’s right, after all — the good will always outnumber the bad.
But why does Oswalt’s essay stand out among the other inspirational quotes and reactions from those in the comedy world in the midst of this horror? Because he’s a comedian — a great comedian, at that — and truly great comedians are as wise as they are cutting. A truly great comedian can read the mood of the room (in this case, the Internet), cut the bulls**t, and speak from the heart.
Oswalt’s post about Boston obviously brings up thoughts of David Letterman‘s first episode back on the air after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Letterman, with a lump in his throat and his heart on his sleeve, spoke openly and gracefully about the confusion and pain that was radiating through New York City during that awful time.
While he peppered that particularly emotional episode with some soft humor to take the edge off, he was also vulnerable, outraged, and sensitive. Letterman’s opener (which still feels as gut-wrenching and stunningly raw now, nearly 12 years later, as it did on that day) set the standard for how comedy can and should deal with tragedy. (Case in point: how talk show hosts handled it during their opening segments on Monday.) The Late Night host didn’t stop being edgy or pushing buttons in a post-9/11 world, but he realized there’s a time to be human and that comedy can heal us again when we’ve actually had time to heal.
The question of “too soon” always comes up in regards to comedy during a time of tragedy. For every insensitive, ill-timed joke that riles many (Gilbert Gottfried‘s jokes about horrific historical events like September 11 and the 2011 tsunami in Japan drew criticism, vitriol, and even unemployment) there will be just as many who cry that every comedian has a right to freedom of speech and to say whatever they like at any time. It’s a fair argument: It is our right, in this country, to say what’s on our mind. But does it mean you should use that right to rattle a cage for the sake of rattling it, to add more darkness to an already dark mood? Why not let the actual moment and the gravity of the situation sink in? Why not exercise that freedom to say something of substance like Oswalt did? What does being the first person to prove how “above it” you are really say?
Louis C.K. is without question one of the greatest working comics today, a legend in the making with almost universal praise from critics and fans alike. But even he isn’t exempt from the “too soon” question. One of his most controversial jokes focuses on September 11: “You can tell how bad a person you are by how long after 9/11 you waited to masturbate. For me, it was between the first and second tower falling down.”
Now, even if this joke only makes you wince — it’s still “too soon”! — there are two things to consider here. For one, Louis C.K. has sensitively discussed September 11. On his Emmy-winning show Louie, the comic actor had an episode in which his character recalls the horror of watching the hell that unfolded in downtown Manhattan from Brooklyn. But, most importantly, he didn’t actually make the joke on that terrible Tuesday morning.
And this is exactly where some comedians run into trouble and lose sight of how they can be the serious, thoughtful voices without losing their “edge.” On the same afternoon that Oswalt posted his wonderful message of peace and piece of mind, stand-up comedian and Comedy Central Roast staple Anthony Jeselnik went against the grain and opted to post a tasteless joke on Twitter, a little over two hours after the senseless act of violence unfolded in Boston. “There are some lines that just shouldn’t be crossed today. Especially the finish line,” he tweeted. Jeselnik has since deleted the tweet, but you can see the original image here:
Clearly, Jeselnik hadn’t learned from the mistake Dane Cook made following the harrowing shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that claimed the lives of 12 people. Just a week after the tragedy, when the gun control debate nerve was still exposed in America, Cook joked during a live show that someone in the theater of The Dark Knight Rises screening was “realizing it was a piece of crap, was probably like, ‘Ugh f**king shoot me.'” Cook was met with immediate backlash and apologized, calling the joke “a bad judgement call.” No kidding.
Now, it’s not that jokes like the ones made by Jeselnik, Cook, or Gottfried are crude and insensitive that’s the issue here. All great comedy pushes buttons and holds an often ugly, unkind mirror up to society and its woes. No, it’s that truly great comedy and truly great comedians know how to hone their craft for its intended purpose: to make people laugh, feel, and think. Did Jeselnik’s joke really give some a hearty laugh on Monday? It’s entirely possible. Did that joke actually make anyone feel better or give them thoughtful insight about ugliness of the world around them? Much less likely.
Oswalt is one of the most cutting-edge, button-pushing comedians out there. Some of his classic routines are raunchy and expletive-filled rants on sensitive subjects like religion and child molestation. He also stands up for the sanctity of a comedian’s right to freedom of speech. When the s**t hit the fan for comedian Daniel Tosh after a blogger announced to the world that he made a string of threatening one-liners about rape to a female audience member during his routine, Oswalt came to his defense, both on Twitter and to the press. He told Entertainment Weekly at the time regarding backlash, “Obviously, I don’t agree with what he said, and I don’t agree with how he said it, but I think it’s very dangerous to create an atmosphere where people can’t f**k up.”
The man knows and respects comedy — in fact, he’d probably defend Jeselnik’s right to make that joke, even if he didn’t agree with it. But he also knew in this particular moment that this wasn’t the time or the place to crack wise. This was a time to be human and speak from the heart. You’re allowed to do that. You should do that. No one is going to take your comedy card away if you do.
And you know what the really funny thing is? No one will accuse Oswalt of being a sell-out or wonder why he didn’t use his freedom of speech to come up with a nasty joke instead. No one will unfollow him for his thoughts on the Boston tragedy. He won’t lose his edge for not stooping to make a cheap shot, nor will he stop making jokes about things that we normally wouldn’t. He’ll continue to do his job as brilliantly as he has for years, and he’ll gain even more fans and respect from the comedy world and beyond. Because that is what a great comedian does: they speak a universal language, whether that be one of humor or pain.
Follow Aly on Twitter @AlySemigran