In the wake of the violent attack in Charleston this week, comedian Jon Stewart dropped his funnyman persona and spoke emotionally and honestly about the shooting. He had no jokes to tell.
“I honestly have nothing, other than just sadness that once again we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other in the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn’t exist,” Stewart said.
“I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that, and seeing it for what it is,” he continued, “we still won’t do jack s**t.”
That last line is sort of a joke, albeit a dark and frustrated one.
Of course, aversion to humor in the wake of a tragedy like this one makes sense—it doesn’t feel appropriate to tell jokes after people have lost their lives. Comedians are people just like the rest of us, and they feel the need to grieve.
But it’s also more than that. Seeing our best-loved comedians step down from their role as performers can have a more significant impact on us than watching a politician speak in a similar way. We’re used to Stewart and other comedians bending over backwards to be funny. His sudden straightforwardness is its own small shock, and underscores the much larger shock of a tragedy like the Charleston shooting. And his inability to be funny can helps us to understand our own emotions.
Earlier this year, after the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, Conan O’Brien opened his show in a similarly serious mode, addressing the violence directly.
After the 9/11 attacks, comedians struggled with how to respond. Comedy, they say, equals tragedy plus time. But how much time? The Daily Show went off the air for nine days. David Letterman was one of the first to address the attacks directly, and he did so powerfully and emotionally.
In his book “Following the Equator,” Mark Twain wrote, “the secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” Humor may spring from sorrow, and it may help us deal with sorrow. But seeing our humorists put down their instrument and speak to us directly is also a balm.