Comedians worth their salt know that neuroses, awkwardness, and dissatisfaction are often the best places to plumb for material. The Buddha knew it, too, although he wasn’t doing slapstick—Buddhism’s first noble truth is an acknowledgement of life’s inevitable suffering, from the most trifling irritation to the greatest tragedy.
Cue Christopher Kelley, a Buddhist Studies professor at Brooklyn College and the New School who explores the parallels between dark comedy and basic Buddhist tenets in talks across the country. Like Buddhism, Kelley thinks, comedy of the truth-telling sort can help us confront moments and experiences that can be painfully awkward, deeply unsettling, or outright depressing.
Thinkolio, a think tank that connects professors with the general public, is partnering with the Strand Bookstore in New York City to host an upcoming talk with Kelley, “Buddhist Realism and Dark Comedy: It’s Funny Because It’s True,” at 7 p.m. on May 5. Below, Kelley discusses the merits of dark comedy as an effective vehicle for facing what pains us the most.
What does dark comedy have in common with Buddhist philosophy?
Buddhism and dark comedy both seek to expose unsettling truths about the human condition, which we normally choose to deny—namely, old age, sickness, and death. In Buddhacarita (“Life of Buddha”), an epic poem written by the Indian monk Ashvaghosha in the 2nd-century CE, it is Prince Siddhartha’s encounters with old age, sickness, and death that lead him to seek out a solution to the problem of suffering. These encounters eventually transform him into an awakened Buddha. Like the Buddha, the comic can be a powerful medium for communicating the disquieting, shunned truths in life. In comedy—as any good comedian knows—making jokes about the human condition usually gets a big laugh. It’s funny because it’s true.
From day-to-day anxiety to existential dread, how can comic relief be an effective antidote for dealing with our messy afflictions?
The Buddha diagnosed the root cause of human suffering (dukkha) as our own compulsive tendency to cling to unreal ideas about ourselves and the world we inhabit. I think dark comedy offers a kind of disruptive therapy for our anxieties about life by using humor to reveal the profound incongruence between the way we think the world should be and the way the world actually is. A lot of research has been dedicated to understanding why we laugh. One such theory says that we laugh at incongruence itself. We find humor in these moments, be they as simple and absurd as a throng of clowns spilling out of a tiny car or, as I would argue, the disconnect between our idealizations and the way things really are.
Dark comics like Louis C. K. explore this juncture in their stand-up acts when they make jokes about the certainty of death. In a show he performed at the Beacon Theater in 2011, Louis told the audience that it was a statistical fact that one of them would most certainly die within the next year. Everyone laughed at his “joke” because nobody really believes that they’ll be the statistical fatality. We laugh at dark jokes because the reality of things doesn’t quite square with our own perceptions about ourselves and the world. Intellectually, I know that I’ll die some day, but I don’t really believe that I’ll be that statistic. Except I very well could be!
Who are some contemporary comedians we should look out for that “get” Buddhism best?
I’ve already mentioned Louis C.K., and would also add Tig Notaro and the late Andy Kaufman to the bill. Notaro, for example, made headlines in 2012 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and used the comedy stage to process her own fears and anxieties. She certainly made an impression on Louis C. K., who was in the crowd one night, recalling later that “Tig took us to a scary place and made us laugh there. Not by distracting us from the terror but by looking right at it . . . She proved that everything is funny. And has to be. She could only do this by giving us her own death as an example.”
Though I don’t believe these comics are necessarily doing anything consciously “Buddhist,” what they do well is share a comedic style that finds humor in what we’d rather not confront, challenging our tendency to shy away from that which—as they say in show business—“kills.”
Learn more about Kelley’s May 5 talk here.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.