by William H. Benson
March 23, 2017
We now stand midway between the Ides of March, and April Fool’s Day. The first marks the day when Cassius and Brutus stabbed and assassinated Julius Caesar, March 15, 44 B.C., and the second is a day reserved for harmless jokes that people play on each, but without cruel motives. On occasion tragedy yields to comedy, but then comedy can and will defer to tragedy.
Tragedy is heavy, somber, intended to shock and horrify; comedy is light-hearted and playful fun. Although at opposite poles, both literary forms William Shakespeare mastered. His tragedies, such as Julius Caesar, and his comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rank among the world’s best.
Read the newspapers and discover the world’s tragedies. Somewhere in the world everyday, there is a tragedy unfolding. But somewhere in the world there is a comic ready to stand up, break into a monologue, and incite laughter. Look for them, and you will find them. I prefer the happy comic to the bearer of grim news. The jester’s jibes, I have found, are more satisfying than the king’s dull talk.
A theory of humor, called the “detection of mistaken reasoning,” argues that humor evolved in our species, because “it strengthens the ability of the brain to find mistakes in actual belief structures.” It is the comic who pokes fun at the ridiculous ideas that people proclaim as true.
Daniel Gilbert, now a Harvard psychology professor, wrote a most interesting article that appeared in the American Psychologist in February 1991, entitled “How Mental Systems Believe.” Gilbert argued that to comprehend a statement or idea, a person must first believe it. After that, upon reflection, he or she can continue to believe it, or suspend judgment, or yield to doubt and dismiss the notion.
Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, calls the first belief that coincides with comprehension “thinking fast,” or our brain’s System 1. It is quick, nimble, and impulsive. The second belief, or what we may call doubt, he calls “thinking slow,” or our brain’s System 2. It is ponderous, less enthusiastic to commit, and demands further information before proceeding.
Kahneman writes, “System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving.” This two-tiered system balances our thoughts, and works to keep us out of trouble. He also points out that “when System 2 is otherwise engaged, we will believe almost anything. System 2 is sometime busy and often lazy.” On those occasions, you and I will jump to a premature conclusion.
It is then that the comic should, or even must, step in and do her or his job. We need the comic to take center stage, burst into a monologue, wake us up, jar us loose from our hidebound thoughts, and bring into the light a superior set of ideas.
Jon Stewart hosted The Daily Show, a satirical news program on Comedy Central, from 1999 until 2015. David Letterman hosted The Late Show with David Letterman until May 20, 2015. I say that both comedians retired two years too early. We need them today. Still, we have Alec Baldwin imitating Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, but we need more comedians now, far more.
On March 5, David Marchese, of the New York magazine, interviewed a full-bearded David Letterman, now 69-years-old. Marchese asked him, “How would you interview Donald Trump?”
Letterman said, “I would start with a list. ‘You did this. You did that. Don’t you feel stupid for having done that, Don? And who’s this goon, Steve Bannon, and why do you want a white supremacist as one of your advisers? Come on, Don, we both know you’re lying. Now, stop it.’ Yeah, I would like an hour with Donald Trump; an hour and a half.”
Over the years, Letterman interviewed Trump a number of times. Letterman remembers, “He was a joke of a wealthy guy. We didn’t take him seriously. He’d sit down, and I would just start making fun of him. He never had any retort. He was big and doughy, and you could beat him up. He seemed to have a good time, and the audience loved it.”
Letterman perceives the need for more comedy now. “We gotta figure out ways to protect ourselves from him. We gotta take care of ourselves here now. Comedy’s one of the ways that we can protect ourselves. Alec Baldwin deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
In Shakespeare’s play, Henry VI, Part II, his character Dick the Butcher says, “The first thing we do. Let’s kill all the lawyers.” A modern-day Shakespeare would instead have his character say, “The first thing we do. Let’s kill all the comedians.” Today, jesters can upset the kings more than the lawyers. It is the comedians who pose the greater threat to a dictator’s power.
In anticipation of April Fool’s Day, join me in reciting King Lear’s words. “I cry that we have come to this great stage of fools.”