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Stand up comedy shifts from cynicism and irony to sincerity

Joshua Defibaugh

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Before taking his own life in 2008, celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace decried the effects the postmodern movement had on his and subsequent generations. “The problem, though, is now the shticks of postmodernism — irony, cynicism, irreverence — are now part of what’s emanating in the culture itself,” Wallace said in an interview with Charlie Rose. His chief concern was that of postmodern television.

Situational comedies like “Seinfeld,” “Arrested Development” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” depicted several of the postmodern qualities Wallace rejected. “Seinfeld” featured amoral characters bathed in cynicism and self-referential humor. “Arrested Development” — save the protagonist Michael Bluth, expertly portrayed by Jason Batemen — also contained amoral, narcissistic and superficial characters that relied on self-referential humor, inside jokes and familial deprecation to nth degree. The ultimate example of postmodern television, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” contains so much irony and cynicism that its amorally narcissistic characters are nothing but a sideshow accompaniment to the zany plots.

While postmodernism is often discussed as an encompassinggenre for television, film and literature, the movement of postmodern stand-up comedy is often overlooked. Comedians like Steve Martin, as noted by the Cambridge Companion to Post Modernism, “exemplified this tendency in his stand-up of the mid-1970s.” While Martin would show smugness, desperation would set it, signaling the ironic cynicism of the act.

After postmodernism had run its course, authors like Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon embraced a new form and movement of literature often dubbed the “New Sincerity.” Rejecting the ironic cynicism of postmodernism, these authors wrote fiction with a foundation in postmodernism but excluded superficiality and a morality.

Shows like “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Scrubs” and “Modern Family” all showed aspects of postmodernism, but — unlike Jerry Seinfeld, Gob Bluth from “Arrested Development” or Charlie Kelly from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” — the characters had values, morals and an obvious heart.

John Dorian (JD) and Dr. Cox, two of the protagonists from “Scrubs,” respectively and often ironically exemplify the typical mushy-feely overly sentimental and the rough and jaded doctor. Both want the best outcomes — in this case, the health and survival of a given patient — but both characters obviously have different ways of approaching that goal. Beyond that, though, there are overarching messages and motifs like, “You can never have too many friends” or “Sometimes you have to let go of the situations you can’t change.” These were messages and morals often shown at the conclusions of family-friendly sitcoms of the 1950s and 60s.

Stand-up comedy has seen a similar progression. No longer is the irony and cynicism from the likes of Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman and George Carlin the preferred methods of delivery for often edgy punchlines. Now, comedians like John Mulaney and Amy Schumer, with their introspective and thoughtful monologues, are the norm. While there are many comedians who can perform this way, Mike Birbiglia, whose new comedy special “Thank God for Jokes” was released on Netflix late last month, perfectly exemplifies the shift from postmodern irony and stand-up cynicism to sincerity.

His first special, “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing: Tales from My Secret Journal,” Birbiglia uses typical comedic timing describing growing up in an overly Catholic home, the awfulness of attending an all-boys Catholic high school and general day-to-day sluggishness of being a slightly overweight comedian. While “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing” can stand on its own as an exceptional piece of stand-up comedy, Birbiglia’s later work solidified his sincere tendencies.

Talking again about attending an all-boys school, among other things, in his second special, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” Birbiglia goes at length to describe with almost intensive sincerity his current life and the status and history of his interpersonal relationships.

His newest special, “Thank God for Jokes,” is more political and more personal than his previous specials. At one point, Birbiglia addressed the audience in a most serious tone to talk about the Charlie Hebdo incident where two Muslim brothers shot and killed 12 Charlie Hebdo editors and cartoonistsfor drawing the Islamic prophet Mohammed in incendiary terms.

“I love jokes,” Birbiglia said. “Jokes are meaningful to me. Tonight’s show here with you guys is meaningful tome. And the Charlie Hebdo incident in France two years ago was meaningful to me and to a lot of people. After that incident, I read about this peaceful rally in France with almost 4 million people … they were gathered behind the idea that despite our differing jokes and opinions, civility is ultimately what matters.”

Beyond expertly crafting jokes with sometimes subdued yet clever punchlines, Birbiglia is an expert in crafting and formatting his shows. In “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” Birbiglia starts with a story about an argument between him and his wife, then tangents to the story of his first kiss, then the story of meeting his wife and then the story and development of his views on marriage. Birbiglia expertly intertwined and combined narratives to create a seamless comedic experience. “Thank God for Jokes” is no different.

Initially discussing the importance of jokes and the Charlie Hebdo incident, Birbiglia moves into the differences between people who arrive late to events and people who arrive on time. He discusses at length his history with law enforcement while addressing someone in the audience. He offers cleverly subdued critiques of misogyny, President Donald Trump and other social ailments.

Birbiglia’s specials aren’t without self-referential humor and other aspects of postmodern art. He offers quips about Ira Glass and This American Life, an arts and culture radio show to which Birbiglia often contributes. He also alludes to previous bits and punch lines, giving devoted fansmore joy than others.

Birbiglia and his specials don’t enjoy the level of mainstream popularity his counterparts do; however, they should. Birbiglia offers sincere introspection with his work and provides such devastatingly honest comedy. “Thank God for Jokes,” is currently streaming on Netflix.

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The independent student newspaper of Western Illinois University. Serving Macomb since 1905.
Stand up comedy shifts from cynicism and irony to sincerity