Friday, August 21, 2009

Stewart, Maher, Colbert: America’s Sacred Clowns

After Walter Cronkite died, a Time Magazine online poll voted “fake newsman” and comic Jon Stewart as the new Most Trusted Newscaster in America. A few weeks ago on Bill Maher’s Real Time guest Anna Deaveare Smith referred to Maher as a “clown.” I’m fairly certain she meant that in a sociological sense. I believe this because, although most people know her as a film and television actress, she is also an award winning political playwright. Seems to me she would know about such things as sacred clowning. “Clowns” in the social sciences are understood to be more than entertainers: they are important, sometimes even sacred, social critics. Our modern clowns—among them Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert—are the American version of sacred clowns.

Sacred, or ritual, clowns have been documented in many cultures, most notably in American Pueblo societies (Hopi, Zuni, Tewa, et al). They are known in other cultures as tricksters, jesters and fools. Their purpose is to subvert cultural norms. Their tools are satire, parody, and ridicule.

Clowns are given social license to provoke. The fool stands slightly askew of the mainstream, taking a critical perspective. Their comic antics and satirical commentary are both entertainments and methods for controlling social behavior. They expose the flaws and the made-up-ness of cultural rules, creating in the witness a temporary state of uncertainty. From this liminal state, we reflect upon our personal and collective behavior. The role of Pueblo clowns is to “preserve the moral integrity of the community” (“White Face, Dark Heart”) by demonstrating the chaos that will ensue without those moral guidelines. The often offensive behavior of the clown arouses strong emotions of outrage, surprise, or shock. The laughter that ensues is a cathartic response driven by fear of that moral chaos.


When Bill Maher announces his “New Rules” at the end of an episode, he is contending with small(ish) social practices or large political events which cast a sharp light on the current ambiguities of our social rules. Maher rubs our collective noses in our fears about the current free-floating social order by inventing his own counter rules. Some point out the ridiculousness of the new status quo: “New Rule: If you're stuck on a plane that's not moving for more than five hours, you get to punch a baby.” (Episode airing Aug. 14, 2009) Some are bitter attacks on the political practices of right-wing radicals: “New Rule: Never underestimate the ability of a tiny fringe group of losers to ruin everything.” (Episode airing July 31, 2009)


Stephen Colbert acts as a “heyoka,” the Sioux clown who does everything backwards. Watch the old movie Little Big Man for an excellent portrayal of this traditional figure: he washes with sand and rinses with water; says hello when he means good-bye and no when he means yes. In the context of his nightly program, “Stephen Colbert” is a comedic contrarian; a false-faced persona reflecting right-wing absurdities as in a circus mirror. He impersonates extreme conservative pundits by assuming implacable and narrow religious positions, rudely shouting over his guest speakers, and surrounding himself with hyper-patriotic images. His “entrance” after he announces the evening’s guest (who would normally be the ones to enter the stage waving to the audience) is an overtly contrarian device.


All joking relies on collective knowledge of the socio-cultural rules; it isn’t funny if we don’t understand which social rule the joke is overturning. With our world—our society, culture, politics, and economy—in turmoil, with separate truths competing for control of our national agenda, it makes sense that we rely on our comics to help us sort out reality. We trust Jon Stewart because he is a clown, because he makes the turmoil palatable by helping us laugh at it. We are painfully unsure of our future as a nation and a people. Stewart’s humor helps to “preserve the moral integrity of the community.” He reminds us that we do still have a collective reality, even though we may be hanging on to it by a thread.

Culture is not a concrete or stable thing; it is a symbolic universe created by our own actions and words. Clowns remind us of what and who we are, and how tenuous that is, how easily order dissolves into disorder. They specialize in walking the wire between order and chaos, a dangerous balancing act. They make us laugh, and think, and reassess what we want from our nation. That’s why nearly every night, when I watch The Daily Show, I inevitably shout at some point “Thank you, Jon Stewart,” thank you for reminding me that I’m not crazy…they are.

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