Don DeLillo’s doorstop-sized novel Underworld portrays several characters splayed out across a non-linear romp through recent American history. Among these characters is comedian Lenny Bruce, who reacts to the Cuban Missile Crisis on stage with a series of hectic monologues, satirizing the furor of the general public (“We’re all gonna die,” is repeated frequently in Bruce’s impression of a housewife). The implication is that Bruce is the only person in the world reacting appropriately—realizing the dark humor inherent in the world and essentially standing on the tracks, giving the finger to the oncoming train of mankind’s destruction. (An aptly named masked adventurer’s outlook is similarly situated in the universe of Watchmen.)
It seems like we have been warned now, as a society, about every kind of possible post-apocalypse. There have been the tyrannies of both extreme right- and left-wing governments, there have been economic collapses and environmental collapses and takeovers by robots who can make their own robots and murder-contests between groups of children. Of course, it’s not prophecy; all this dystopian media tells us more about its creators’ states of mind during the time that they were written, or what their fears said about the society they were living in. They also failed to warn us about the actual dystopia that we’re living in right now, the one where sincerity is going the way of free thought in 1984 or all emotions in Equilibrium, slowly and thoroughly being squelched out of pop culture by a monolithic and oppressive sense of irony.
Who is warning us about the modern-day dystopia? More so than whom we perceive to be culture’s greatest thinkers—the novelists, the scientists, the politicians—it’s the people on stages talking about their balls, their failed relationships and the trials of the subway that are delivering some of the keenest insight into the condition of the 21st century human. We might just be laughing too hard to realize it.
Comedian Pete Holmes has an early set on Conan where he talks about one of the terrifying aspects of having a smart phone. With Google in your pocket, the gap of time between you not knowing something and you knowing that thing is wholly determined by how articulate your thumbs are. The state of knowing therefore feels the same as the state of non-knowing, because of how little effort gets put into acquiring the knowledge. Maybe the methodology of his study is suspect but times have certainly changed since you had to ask everyone you ran into where Tom Petty is from, if that’s what you wanted to know.
The great Louis C.K. has an interview (also on Conan) where he talks about being so emotionally affected by the best song ever written (Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” or per Mr. C.K.: “the one where Bruce goes “huuuaaahhhhhhhhhhh”) that he has to pull his car over and cry. He talks about suppressing the instinct to call or text someone so that he can stand in the way of the sadness and let it hit him “like a truck.” The wave of compensatory happiness “antibodies” comes in after.
The point being that we’re getting our needs and wants all mixed up when it comes to other people. We can’t reach out when we need to, because we don’t have to anymore, and we think we need to get in touch with someone immediately when it might be better to not. Knowing feels the same as non-knowing, and we’re getting to a point where enjoying feels the same as not enjoying.
This is where irony comes in. We’ve devised an entirely new category of enjoyment based on how enjoyable it is to be subjected to something that’s difficult to enjoy. It’s essentially the same thing as drinking: we poison ourselves mildly so that we can enjoy how good it feels to be mildly poisoned. A little bit of red wine can be good for you, sure, with the antioxidants and whatnot, but now the whole human race is doing kegstands on top of the SyFy Channel’s cottage industry of deplorable shark movies and between that and The Room we’re all drunk on irony.
The other point being that DeLillo was right. It might be time to start looking to the sources of our favorite jokes about masturbation, Cinnabon and brutalizing telemarketers for a little of the sad truth about what the human race is up to. Writer and Time-designated influential human George Saunders defines humor as being told the truth too fast to be able to react to it. It might be time to slow down long enough to hear the truth behind the funny things that the Louis C.K.s and Pete Holmeses of the world are saying to us.