The other night, we visited the South Street Seaport, where a branch of the McNally Jackson bookstore is located. On the pier, regular water cost six dollars and everyone was the age of the horizon. They looked beautiful in Bermuda shorts, walking dogs.
At the event, I read a little from my new book and talked about freedom in front of the assembled group with the writer Vince Passaro. A man I had not seen in thirty years showed up, and I remembered the fancy restaurants we’d gone to. I remembered the exceptional beauty of his face, and the way, calmly and with precision, he’d informed me about the cancer that had ended the life of Gardner Leaver, an artist I had been with in my thirties and early forties. The writer Brandon Judell was also at the reading, which was fitting, because over the years, I have magpied a style of writing based partly on his jump cuts and dismantled fourth wall.
In the ’90s, for a few years, Caroline Hirsch relocated her comedy club to the Seaport, and Gardner and I would go there and prowl around Fulton Street when it was splintery and salty and shadowy. Caroline was a loving and generous person. I was in love with comedy. Gardner was in love with going places. The other night, the man I live with and I ghosted around the narrow streets of our city’s first settlement. Today, back in Hudson, we are weeding the garden.
Once upon a time, a friend brought me to the country house of a famous poet she was getting to know. The opinion of the famous poet was important to my friend. My friend wasn’t on probation, but friendship is skittery, even after a long time of knowing someone, and this was a new connection. Everyone is on probation, even when people say you will always know each other.
The famous poet was making chicken soup when we arrived. She was a shy and contained sort of person, and her poems did not prompt laughter. They were intellectual. The poet imagined she could make chicken soup with water and a chicken. I should have kept my mouth shut. The poet invited some sort of feedback about how long to boil the chicken, but my friend knew she didn’t really want instruction on what to do. I said, “You need stock. You can’t make soup with water and vegetables and a chicken. At the very least, you need bouillon and herbs.”
The famous poet stared back at me and didn’t say anything. This news was some kind of blow. I could have mentioned the thing about roasting bones, but I knew enough not to go that far. My friend was sorry she had brought me. My friendship with her was falling apart, and I was the wrong third for the intellectual pair. I want to tell you that never again did I offer cooking advice that wasn’t welcome, but I can’t tell you that.
We watched SuperNature (Netflix), the latest monologue by Ricky Gervais. In the piece, he claims the freedom to punch down. That’s not supposed to be kosher in the church of Rightthink these days. Punching down often fails as comedy because the power position in comedy is the place of no power. Sometimes, a comedian can make punching down work, just like some artist somewhere can break any law du jour about what you can do and what you can’t do and make you love it.
What I mean by comedy is a thing that stirs eruptive laughter. The laughter has to be convulsive, leaving no time to check what other people expect you to do. This is the laughter that counts—laughter that shows what you feel and think and believe that, ahead of time, you didn’t know you felt and thought and believed. Or you did know and were trying to keep these things under wraps because you didn’t want to be thought a pig or maybe lose your job.
What I mean by comedy is a thing that stirs eruptive laughter. The laughter has to be convulsive, leaving no time to check what other people expect you to do.
Ricky Gervais loves where his comedy springs from. This love for his origins is tender, even when his comedy is mean. His comedy is born in the family and the culture of working-class people, who, instead of hugging you, say something devastating “to take the piss out of you,” as Ricky puts it. When, as a kid, he comes home from school and tells his mother a teacher has turned out to be a pedophile, his mother asks him if the man made moves on him. When Ricky says no, she says, “Well, he didn’t fancy you, then, did he—not good-looking enough, are you,” or words to that effect. Ricky says he felt bad about not measuring up. The bit is funny. It reverses pieties about parents and pedophiles. Reversal is funny. If you don’t think so, I’m not going to argue with you.
Ricky loves where his comedy comes from so much, he has dedicated his life to using the word cunt as an all-purpose pejorative as often as he can, and when I think about his use of the word cunt in the context of “taking the piss out of you,” I think, Okay, go on saying it, you little motherfucking turd. And I mean it. I love the origins of his comedy because they’re tied to the way comedy originates in the brains of homo sapiens.
Ricky’s “taking the piss out of you” comedy reminds me of the early standup of Damon Wayans, who grew up on the streets of Harlem. It’s just like Ricky’s working-class world in the sense that mean, verbal wit is the art form you can practice for free. And mean, verbal wit often relies on metonymy—where a part of something stands for the whole.
In the world of “taking the piss out of you” humor, the kid with the clubbed foot and the corrective orthotic is referred to as the shoe, much in the way the residents of the Bronx tenement—a few degrees removed from a shtetl—where writer Vivian Gornick grew up, would refer to the woman in the building who’d had a stroke as the chair. If you laughed at the words shoe or chair, you laughed at the pleasure of metonymy, even if you think you should not have laughed. Saying the shoe and the chair connects the narrators of these stories to a culture they love, and when you laugh, you are remembering something specific about your own private culture you also treasure, even if you don’t want people to know about it. Two things being true and opposing at the same time is good—good for comedy. Damon Wayans was the kid who was once called the shoe.
Let’s return to the concept of metonymy and why comedy depends on it. Comedy depends on it because metonymy is built into our language. The man I live with is going through a Wittgenstein phase, and we have been talking about language. Language is symbolic. Wittgenstein didn’t say this. I’m saying this. A word is always not the thing it signifies. Words are, therefore, ineluctably metaphysical. They are not material in the sense of some of the things words conjure, such as a hamster or a bush. Wittgenstein says you can’t have thought without language. You can have other types of mental activity but not thought. Human beings are, because of language, ineluctably trapped in the metaphysics of language—even when they use language to disprove other kinds of metaphysical understandings, such as that God exists. This is comical. It’s a contradiction that can’t be resolved, and comedy is about limits. Tragedy is about transcendence, which, from the perspective of our collective political moment, has to be the biggest joke of all time.
To sum up for a moment: it’s possible to be funny while punching down when comedy exposes that we are all in some way summarized by others as the shoe or the chair. Please spare me the way you summarize me. It would break my heart, even if I also laughed.
Parts of Ricky’s monologue don’t work because, in these sections, he isn’t showing you how the world works and giving you permission to feel what you feel. He’s lying about how the world works to get cheap laughs that pander to a popular English prejudice against trans people. The routine he tells about trans people asks you to love what he loves. He doesn’t know he’s asking you to love what he loves, I don’t think, or he would make comedy more important than getting his rocks off in front of you.
It’s possible to make a joke about anything if you can figure out the context. The trans routine doesn’t fail because it punches down. It doesn’t fail because trans experience is roped off from satire. It fails because the joke relies on something that isn’t true. Ricky imagines becoming a trans woman. It’s an extended bit with lots of detail—how his parents buy him an expensive, first-rate “fanny” (vagina), etc. The joke asks you to go along with the idea that a trans woman would want to turn into a stone butch dyke with a beard (the way Ricky more or less looks now), hit on a beautiful woman in a bar, go back to her place and get it on, then, in order to give her maximum pleasure, buckle on a strap-on and wonder why he bothered having his penis chopped off when he was going to wind up doing this. The problem with the joke is that, amid the myriad ideas trans women might devise about how they want to look and behave, only a staggeringly tiny number—a number that might be zero—would eagerly choose to model themselves on Ricky Gervais. Maybe anyone but Ricky Gervais?
To sum up again: if you want to be funny about how the world works, you have to start with a picture of how the world works.
Something happened last night that changed my life.
I’m at a concert in Chatham at an outdoor theater with a roof. The sun has set, and a man is at the piano, playing Bach. Every time he sits at the piano to play Bach, birds begin to chirp. The space is beautiful. It’s situated in an apple orchard, and you are inside and outside at the same time. In the dimness, I look down at the forefinger on my left hand, where, for months—probably six months—I have been wearing two rings: the gold wedding band of a friend whose partner died and, on top of it, the diamond wedding band my mother wore. My mother left it to my sister, along with the huge diamond ring that went with the band, and when my sister was dying, she gave me the diamond band. Just the band. She gave the huge diamond to her daughter. You don’t really need to know this, but I’m telling you in case a clue is hidden in here somewhere.
A year ago or so, I’m at the house of my friend, D, and she’s showing me jewelry she wants to sell. She isn’t going to wear it anymore. She’s in a shedding phase. I have a friend who can sell the jewelry for her. D is ready to let go of the two gold rings she and her partner wore when they were together. Her partner, L, has been dead for twelve years. The bands are beautiful, made of hammered gold, very bright, and I say I love them, and D says, “Why don’t you wear them for now, and we can see about selling them down the road,” and I try them on various fingers to make sure they will be safe on my hands.
L’s ring is larger and I wear it on the forefinger of my right hand, where the knuckle is a little large and I think it can secure the ring. One day, I’m out in the garden. I’m always out in the garden, except when the garden is dead. The garden is dying. It’s early fall. All the leaves in Columbia County fall on our property, and by now they are everywhere, crunching under our feet and piling up in the flower beds. I’m on my way to visit a friend, and I see my hand on the steering wheel, and I see L’s ring is missing. It came off while I was digging around in the beds and leaves, or it’s come off somewhere else. My heart is racing. I turn the car around and come back to the house. I feel a wretched sense of failure and heaviness lower onto me. The only thing I can compare it to is losing my dog from time to time in the country or in Riverside Park, when I would let him run off the leash. I always found him.
I search and search and search and search for the ring, outside and inside. I rent a metal detector. I am offered a metal detector from a friend of D’s. Nothing nothing nothing nothing. I can’t let go of the loss. D is not upset and is philosophical. I want to pay her for the value of the ring. She won’t allow it at this time. “It’s a thing,” she says. To me, it is not a thing. I don’t know what it is. When my mother was close to death and in the hospital for something that would not kill her, the ring she was going to leave to me was stolen from her room. When I was informed, whatever I was standing on gave way, and I was nowhere, and it was hard to breathe. It’s hard to breathe now, as I’m writing this. I say to D, “I have the worst ring karma possible.” She says, “Yup.”
Last night, in the dimness of the theater and with the sound of Bach in their air, I look down at the forefinger of my left hand, the one with the diamond band over D’s gold band, and I see L’s gold band is there, over the diamond band. There are three bands. I wonder if I’m seeing right. I touch it. It’s real. I slip it off that finger, where it is loose, and I push it hard over the knuckle of my right thumb, where it is secure. When the lights come up, I say to the man I live with, “L’s ring has magically returned.” He says, “There’s no such thing as magic. It’s Occam’s razor—the simplest explanation is the one to be preferred.”
But what if there isn’t one?
Before we got ready for the concert, I was planting dahlia tubers in two different beds. Maybe three? I was using a little fork to move the soil and also my bare hands. I am always using my bare hands in the soil—that’s how I lost L’s ring to begin with, I assume. I had washed my hair before the concert. My hands were in my hair. Even if the ring had surfaced in one of the flower beds without my seeing it and somehow worked its way onto my left forefinger with the other two rings, it wouldn’t have stayed on my hand when I washed my hair—unless it did and I didn’t notice. I look at these rings dozens of times a day to make sure I haven’t lost them. But maybe things occur I don’t see. That is for sure. Mainly, the things I don’t see are the ways people are reacting to me when I’m telling them a story. Later, when we are alone, the man I live with will tell me a different version of something that’s happened, and I enjoy seeing myself and all sorts of other things in life, as I cannot see them on my own.
This morning on the phone, D said she has a friend who sees ghosts. She said she herself does not see ghosts, but she doesn’t disbelieve her friend. I said, “L’s ghost found the ring and placed it on my forefinger at the concert.” D said, “Exactly. L thought, For fuck’s sake, she’s never going to find it, so here.”