Comedy and Values

Posted on 11 October 2011

I grew up in a family of scientists, diplomats, and fundamentalists in any number of combinations of those three things. As a child trying to survive the vagaries of adult interactions, I of course saw the holes, flaws, and inconsistencies present in all these roles. That’s what kids do. Worse I had to experience some of the child-abuse that can be found in both “rationalism” and “fundamentalism”. I did not have recourse to swinging out to one in defense and opposition to the other.

When scientists (and comedians) decide to stick the boot in religion, I frequently think to myself, “Amateurs!” You guys haven’t grown up with it, nor have you done any real study in this field. Their arguments are often shallow and miss their target. But I find the inverse is true as well. People of a spiritual bent will want to put the boot into the excesses of science and I will also think, “Amateurs!” Science, very broadly speaking, is not lily white.

So what to do?

My solution was to try to understand the people in dichotomies such as this, try to recognise what is worthwhile about both science and religion, and to cast a discerning eye upon those things that are less than life-affirming. I believed this could only be done fairly from a strong ethical position that embraced human values such as compassion.

Certainly, as a child I would not have put it in those terms. But I did ask myself regularly, what do I believe is true? Why do I believe it is true? And did my best to clear away all the emotional entanglement, which is a big ask at any age. It’s harder still when you are subject to the people with whom you may find yourself disagreeing, and could lose their physical and emotional support. This sounds a little over-wrought to people in Australia. In the US it is sadly all too common.

I can’t say I was perfect at it. I remember the fights. More than twenty years later I’m still living with the consequences of one such fight that brought about an estrangement between myself and my family. I do what I can to build bridges, but some bridges will never be made.

The important question that highlights why these fights occur is, how does a person value themselves? Do you value yourself because you are part of a particular group such as a country, political party, or football team? Do you value yourself because you have so much education or wealth? Do you value yourself because you are attractive or popular? Do you value yourself because you feel you are right, certainly more right than anyone else? Do you value yourself because you do your best to be a kind, respectful, and caring person?

I threw my lot in with the last one. And yes, I sometimes think I’m better than other people because of it. Then I think, I can’t do that! How respectful is that? Then I think, how bad can one-upmanship in kindness be. I don’t think we can ever get completely away from our egos, but we can at least point them in healthier directions.

Somehow in the discourse amongst institutions scientific, academic, political, religious, etc the discussion of positive values has either been dropped due to cynicism or hijacked in order to push an agenda (hence the cynicism). The problem is: they are important, hugely important in an over-populated world where we have to start talking and listening for our very survival. It’s positively suicidal that people in the scientific community are unable to speak with the vast majority of people because they participate in a religion.

Here are a list of some of my favourite values:

Love Compassion Kindness Respect
Peace Forgiveness Acceptance Freedom
Equality Ethics Human rights Social justice
Community Friendship Laughter Balance

Even as a child I wanted to make a difference in the world. I thought long and hard about it and decided I could do the most to help improve the world by going into the arts. That was a place where I could freely express these values and potentially inspire people to take them up as their own.

The more people take up the value of peace, the more likely they are to do the things that will create peace. The more people embrace the value of caring for our environment, the more likely politicians will take up that value as a way to get into power. I’ve seen this happen in Seattle, where both left and right espouse environmental positions as the only way to gain votes.

Comedians have a larger audience than most artists and are listened to more carefully (Literally not metaphorically, how else are you going to catch the punchline? Musicians have the problem of people being unable to hear their lyrics). We have a fair amount of untainted power. We excel at pointing out absurdities in people’s logic. We are also in a fabulous position to tell stories that illustrate positive values in an accessible manner. One of my favourites is a story told by Bart Freebairn about his grandfather saving his grandmother from embarassment by claiming her farts. It’s funny and it illustrates the true nature of kindness and love.

I felt it important to write this article, because I thought I needed to shed light on where I’m coming from. I also hope it will inspire other comedians to go ahead and talk a little more about those things that might feel “twee” like joy, but hey isn’t the world more fun to live in with it?

Peace and kindess,


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