Humor Can’t Wait
In the Tragic with Tig Notaro and Hannah Gadsby
It’s weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now.
—Tig Notaro, Live
“Good evening, hello. I have cancer, how are you?” stand-up Tig Notaro told her 2012 audience. In just a few short months before that appearance, she had been faced with a breakup, the loss of her mother, and the life-threatening diagnosis of breast cancer. Yet for Notaro, “this is when everything started to seem funny.” On stage, not knowing whether she would live much longer, she ponders a standard comedic formula: “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” “I am just at tragedy right now.” Not sure if time was on her side, Notaro emphatically embraces comedy in the here and now. As she begins a comic routine in the midst of the tragic, she teasingly asks her audience for dating advice: “Should I go online and make a profile?” But what would it say? “Profile: ‘I have cancer. Serious inquiries only.’”
The standard equation that tragedy plus time is comedy may trace back to the era of Mark Twain, the nineteenth-century Missouri satirist who signaled major changes in American cultural takes on the comic. At that time, the dominant culture in the United States wavered between a minstrel show turning on humiliation and the humor of self-transcendence. While the aphorism encapsulated well the modern humor of detachment, Notaro’s sketch points toward the rise of a humor of connection. In response to an interview inquiring whether it’s “weird that so many strangers . . . know . . . her stuff,” she responds, “I’m just so completely used to it. And I’m fine with it. It’s part of the strength of sharing and vulnerability and honesty and comedy, all mixed in. You can’t go wrong when you’re that wide open.” Confronted by the tragic, the comedic soul chooses to share and engage, to work through, not detach, as we live in the moment to change the moment. This is why we embrace Notaro’s philosophy that humor can’t wait.
When thinking back to the first chapters of this book, we look to humor to throw out the old formulas and replay comedy from the bottom up; now we turn to another stand-up who comes from the margins to take on the tragic. Hannah Gadsby tells us in her 2018 performance, Nanette, that she came of age in what she describes as the Bible belt of Tasmania, when being a lesbian was a still a crime—and also the butt of the joke. Trained in art history, she found in her routine a means to reject the legacy of a discipline and a culture that celebrated without question the reputations of “dead men” who “were dead then” and “are just deader now.” A middle-aged Pablo Picasso justified having an affair with a seventeen-year-old girl because they both, in his troubling words, were in their prime. Gadsby sees a legacy that celebrates the brilliance of Cubism with its perspectivism, yet masks a history of misogynist crime in the name of reputation. “Well, tell me, any of those perspectives a woman’s?” she asks. No—otherwise he would not have referred to an underage girl as someone in her prime. Reputation seems to be all that matters. “I’m gonna call it: High art—bullshit!” Of course, she knows “I will probably now never get a job in a gallery,” which is why she defiantly proclaims “Comedy? Lowbrow! . . . nobody here is leaving this room a better person. We’re just rolling around in our own shit here, people.”
As we roll around in the carnivalesque, we see that there is more in her roller-coaster performance than first meets the eye. Gadsby presses us to rethink yet another standard formula in comedy that rests on minstrel punch lines: “What sort of comedian can’t even make the lesbians laugh—every comedian!—classic,” she says sarcastically as she reminds her audience that there are people such as herself who are injured and do not find such jokes funny. “But we have got to laugh, because if we don’t, it proves the point.” Gatsby quips that this joke “was written before women were funny. Back then, a lesbian was just any woman not laughing at a man.” Hence the all-too familiar taunts: “Why aren’t you laughing? What are you, some kind of lesbian? You need to lighten up—you need a good dicking.” Such misogyny, which has long dominated the comic stage, demands that we, like Gadsby, pivot and look at humor from the margins to reject the old patriarchal formulas for laughs. Stunning her audience, Gadsby suddenly declares, “I need to quit comedy. I built a career on self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore, because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” In this serious break from her comedic routine, she explains how for too long, “I put myself down in order to speak in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply won’t do that anymore, to myself or anyone who identifies with me.”
Yet, Gadsby doesn’t actually quit comedy. Instead, she powerfully rejects that standard good old boy formula that only allows her a voice if she engages in a ritual of self-humiliation. In so doing, she changes the rules of the game, first through an anger that uses fumerism to punch up and tear down the misogynist, as would a drill sergeant. Taking command of her male audience, Gadsby uses scathing ridicule to raze the old social identities: “I don’t think it’s an easy time for you fellas. . . . Because, for the first time ever, you’re suddenly a subcategory of human. Right?” Imitating a male response, she declares: “No, we invented the categories. We’re not supposed to play! We’re human-neutral.” Sorry, “not anymore.” I know, she reassures them, “You hear ‘straight white man,’” and “you’re like, ‘No. No, that’s reverse sexism.’” But recall: “You wrote the rules. Read them.” By calling men out for any sign of their weakness or an inability to roll with the punches, she insists that they lighten up; after all, these are “Just jokes! Banter. Don’t feel intimidated. It’s just locker room talk.” Gadsby then lays it out: “A joke is simply two things . . . a setup and a punch line. . . . But in this context,” she says with a gendered flip, “I have artificially inseminated tension” to create “an abusive relationship.” And why not? Angry men who do the same on the comic stage have been celebrated as “heroes of free speech.”
Gadsby, taking her “freedom of speech as a responsibility,” however, does not leave her “story [or her audience] defined by anger” because it is “toxic” and “infectious.” Anger, Gadsby insists, “knows no other purpose than to spread blind hatred.” Thus, instead of quitting the emotion work of humor, she conjures laughter’s power to convert shame to anger as she treats her audience to a cathartic sloughing off of debilitating identities and norms, and a collective space for creating new ones. Along the way, she completes her heart-wrenching story of assault and rape, even sharing her own vulnerability in a final “appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.” Empowered by her anger, she is now free to sprinkle an element of self-depreciation in her final joke in an effort to establish a “tether, a connection to the world.” Returning to the art of stand-up, “I speak to you now, particularly the white men, especially the straight white men. Pull your fucking socks up! How humiliating!” she mischievously opines. “Fashion advice from a lesbian.” In the face of tragedy, amid waves of laughter, we find a new formula in which anger plus catharsis plus empathy defines the kind of comedy that speaks truth.
Gadsby’s transformative stand-up reminds us that by privileging the serious laughter of subversion, we can ditch those flawed philosophies of humor that assume mind/body splits and patriarchal reason. In our effort to reconceptualize humor, we have explored comics who eroticize unexpected sources of power and joy. Such mockery alters comedy’s aim and direction in order to dissolve stereotypes and turn the tables on slut shaming, ethnophobia, and other waves of toxic affect. Those who have been ridiculed as a subcategory of the human—those down with the animals—punch up to challenge established hierarchies and make egalitarian claims.
Indeed, the humor of transcendence as found in the old aphorism turns on the supposed ontological gap between the human and the animal. For the human, the animal has been the ultimate trope of ridicule. But humor, far from elevating the human above other animals, is shared by these nonhuman animals. At the same time, like other social creatures, humans are, deep down, tribal creatures with gut feelings. As social animals, we find suspect solutions to the limits of our animal nature that turn on superhuman powers and ideal theories of reason or transcendence. Much like that rebel primate, Georgia, who is assumed to do little more than roll around in her own carnivalesque world yet strategically spits on human tourists, we find more chances for hope in shared laughter with the rest of our tribe against a common oppressor.
Along with Gadsby, we also see how a body politics of humor needs to do more than mock superiors and solidify tribal alliances. Our final two chapters revisit catharsis and empathy—functions of comedy and art generally. Too often, when comic catharsis is mentioned, it is assumed that laughter is just a momentary release and a distraction from real problems, when in fact the notion of catharsis has a more complicated history. The ancient Greek philosophers searched for some redeeming quality of comedy, which was then viewed as the ridicule by elites of social inferiors, or as the out-of-control laugher of the buffoon. Aristotle points to the mystery of a catharsis that is never fully explained—something that moderns, with their use of mechanistic formulas, have flattened to simple venting and temporary relief. Instead, we find in holistic ancient rituals and healing medicines hints of how a communal catharsis might offer not a distraction but a transformation of a once-shamed soul and an oppressive society.
For a full transformation, a solidaric mode of empathy is required, one where souls are bared and truths are told, as Notaro so well understands. Empathy typically affords emotional connection—but only within communal boundaries. It thus seems limited. As empathy serves to reinforce borders, it all too often fails to cross enemy lines. If each side would lower defensive walls and consent to a playful vulnerability, empathy mixed with humor might offer a chance of opening, even crossing, what were once perceived to be impenetrable lines. Shared felt moments make a tragedy faced by one a tragedy faced by all. Deep down in the belly laugh, tragedy finds comedy without distance. In so doing, it envisions unpredictable alternatives to disavowed boundaries of exclusion and otherness. This is why humor can’t wait.