Laughing At Our Weakness

We smile, wince, and shake our heads precisely because the comedic tragedy of it all is true.

Sam Bush / 10.27.21

These days, we are so politically segregated that we often read, watch, eat and play according to our own values. Democrats wear Levi’s denim, watch the NBA, and drink Starbucks; for Republicans it’s Wrangler jeans, NASCAR, and Chick-fil-a. Of all the big data metrics, one’s political leanings are a reliable indicator of what you might consume. The realm of comedy is hardly an exception, offering a wide array of both red state comics and blue state comics. If you are a fan of John Oliver, there is very little chance you are also a fan of Larry the Cable Guy — both have significant followings but hardly ever within the same zip code.

Much of the late night TV crowd (Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, John Oliver) have developed their followings by marketing to a specific audience at the expense of another. Most play on a progressive interest by poking fun at right-wingers but, no matter the demographic, every comic has a fall guy: be it an out of touch liberal or a ignorant conservative. Over the years, satire became increasingly spiteful, evolving into what Caitlyn Flanagan once described as “all of us being judged by how well — how thoroughly and consistently and elaborately — we can hate each other.” The most recent demonstration of comedy scapegoating is Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special which, for the first time in a significant way, was released to a wave of criticism. It is a prime example that humor is always at someone’s expense.

Comedian Nate Bargatze (from Old Hickory, Tennessee) is a welcome change of tune. For starters, if most comics address the taboo issues of race, gender, and sexuality head on for the sake of shock value, Bargatze focuses on the utterly pointless. He talks about the strange developments when finding a dead horse on the side of the road. He reflects on the awkwardness of fighting with his wife in a tiny house. He admits he so badly wants to avoid telling his kid the family dog died that he denies the family ever had a dog in the first place. Where other comedians may seek to enlighten or persuade you, Bargatze’s stand-up bits are altogether useless beyond the laugh they induce. There is no moral to any story and the only common themes of his routines are his own ineptitude and awkwardness.

It’s been said that people will pay to see people believe in themselves. For this reason, comedians will often assume the posture of a preacher. But, where many comics speak with authority and self-confidence, Bargatze’s routine is demure and rambling. He talks as if he stumbled onto the stage after the main act left with a stomach bug. He’ll often cap off a bit with a throw-away line like, “I don’t know, maybe” as if to assure you that he, in fact, is not the guy with the answers. It turns out that what actually makes Bargatze so appealing is that he doesn’t believe in himself.

In the Atlantic‘s recent piece on Bargatze, Tim Alberta explores how Bargatze has amassed such a recent following. When Jim Gaffigan tells him that Bargatze’s magic lies in is his embrace of “victimless comedy,” Alberta disagrees. It’s not so much that the punchline doesn’t hit anyone, it’s that Bargatze is willing to take the hit. “What Bargatze does is make himself the victim of his jokes,” Alberta says, “turning anecdotes into uncharitable assessments of his own intelligence.” More often than not, he is the victim of his own gag.

In other words, Bargatze’s comedy is infused with a low anthropology. Rather than mocking or demonizing another group, he puts himself on the line for all to mock, the result being something at which everyone can laugh. With Bargatze as our lightning rod, our rage is disarmed without us even knowing. While his jokes may not appeal to every demographic, his posture is enough to disarm any angry mob. The broad appeal to his humor isn’t lost on Bargatze. In fact, that’s the point. In the article, he tells Alberta, “I’m trying to ride the line here. Because I want to be able to sell out a theater in San Francisco one week and Mobile, Alabama, the next week.” Red states and blue states alike delight in his foibles and weakness because we all identify in him something that is funny. Namely, our own weakness.

In Nate Bargatze, we find that a low anthropology is the antidote we need so badly. The political issues spotlighted by late-night TV are as funny as they are divisive. But our own day-to-day silliness and absurdity never fail to get a laugh from anyone. These things — losing your car keys, failing to open a new jar of mayonnaise, fighting with your spouse about the correct pronunciation of an actress — are all snapshots of what it means to be a ridiculous human being.

Our tendency to make the same mistakes over and over again resembles a type of spiritual slapstick, where the punchline is the absurdity of being human. We smile, wince, and shake our heads precisely because the comedic tragedy of it all is true. Our smug piety disperses as we realize that the joke of self-righteousness is on us. But a good comedian knows better than anyone that laughter can’t be forced. Laughter is simply a response. It is the sound of one’s defenses coming down, of an inner conflict being released.

This is where our low anthropology meets the story of our salvation. Belief, we find, often starts with a giggle and grows into a guffaw. We first laugh at our ridiculousness and then again at God’s equally absurd gratuity. The joy of faith is a laughter at God’s expense. The joke of grace, after all, is on Him.

Where is there hope for a house divided? What on earth can bring us together again? Perhaps the old cliché is true: laughter is the best medicine, no matter what brand of jeans you’re wearing.

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