The Top Ten Moments Comedians Made Us Think in 2011

Legend has it that John Belushi would get frustrated when his performance elicited applause from an audience. The way he saw it, he was in the business of provoking the crowd, which meant either making them laugh or making them feel nervous. Applause signaled to him that the audience was too comfortable.

These days, we hardly distinguish between laughter and applause. We have turned our comedians into newsmen and preachers, lone voices of reason in a world of snake oil salesmen, where Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper now seem to be taking cues from the very men who made careers out of mocking them. People like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Louis C.K., and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are no longer merely comedians to us. We trust them on a level that I seriously doubt previous generations trusted Johnny Carson or Bill Cosby. Rather than helping us laugh away our troubles and chuckle off to sleep, our comedians help us understand and deal with the complex issues of our times.

So now that I’m finished paraphrasing the thesis of every Stewart or Colbert profile ever written, let’s get right to it. Here are the top ten moments comedians made us think in 2011.

10. Seth Meyers Hosts the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Seth Meyers was flying high in spring 2011, when a successful SNL season was coming to a close and he proved his mainstream appeal by hosting the ESPYs. His most glorious moment, however, was his flawless performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, a notoriously cold audience for many comedians. Meyers delivered the best routine since Stephen Colbert hosted in 2006, but the Weekend Update host’s friar’s club style humor and across the board roasting was more at home with the crowd. While we might be more familiar with an ironically timed joke about Osama bin Laden’s ongoing elusion of US forces (Obama grinned, knowing secretly that US intelligence had pinpointed bin Laden’s location and special forces would be moving in soon), Meyers worked in a pointed jab at the president, one that summed up perfectly how we feel about the man who promised so much in 2008:

“I tell you who can beat you, Mr. President: 2008 Barack Obama. You would have loved him. So charismatic, so charming. Was he a little too idealistic?”

Obama nods.

“Maybe. But you would have loved him.”

9. Audience Monologue at the Del Close Marathon Opens Up Date Rape Dialogue.

This moment may not have made the rounds on Fox News and CNN like some of the other items on this list, but as something that occurred at the epicenter of the comedy community (and that resulted in the year’s most commented upon article on Splitsider) it was without a doubt a moment that mattered to us. On August 14, at the closing night ASSSSCAT performance of the Del Close Marathon in New York, in a theater packed with over 500 people, an audience volunteer told a story of a time in which he more or less date raped a woman. The performers – UCB’s Matt Besser and Ian Roberts among them – handled the moment admirably, interrupting the monologist several times and mocking his misogyny and ignorance in the improvised scenes that followed. But the event sparked a heated online discussion in the following weeks about rape and how to treat sensitive issues in an improv show. Every improviser I knew was talking about this story, and it was fascinating to see an entire community accustomed to constant bits instead talking about something that actually mattered.

8. Community: Jeff Has a Dinner with Andre Dinner with Abed.

One of my favorite recurring jokes on Community is Abed’s obsession with the show Cougar Town, which has resulted in a number of fun crossovers between the two shows, including a storyline in which Abed gets to appear as an extra (a character he names “Chad”) in a Cougar Town episode (something that actually happened, by the way). The experience causes Abed to suffer an identity crisis, which he describes to Jeff in a My Dinner With Andre themed episode:

And with each step, I start remembering things from Chad’s life, like his first kiss under the big tree at Cougar Town field…Playing soccer at Cougar Town Junior High… Finding my first chest hair in the shower, my first apartment, my first true love falling for my best friend, birthdays, weddings, car crashes, taxes, playing charades at Thanksgiving. Chad had lived, Jeff. You know, Chad had lived more than Abed.

It’s a shame to see Community go on hiatus after so eloquently pondering what happens to us when we start valuing the lives of fictional characters over our own.

7. The Book of Mormon Dominates Broadway.

Usually when a comedian takes on religion as a subject matter, his tone tends to be mocking (think Bill Maher’s Religilous or any of Ricky Gervais’ atheism essays). So when South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone announced a Broadway musical about Mormonism, many of us expected them to attack the LDS with the same fury they did the Church of Scientology. Instead, what we got was an honest and heartwarming look at the lives of two young Mormons missionaries as they attempt to reconcile with their church’s strict moral codes and admittedly odd history. The backdrop of a remote village in Uganda, in which the natives suffer under a cruel warlord and afflictions of AIDS, poverty, and starvation, was a hilarious way to satirize the naiveté of the Mormon Church without antagonizing them. The Book of Mormon swept the Tonys. Mormons, for the most part, didn’t mind too much. And Parker and Stone proved no medium of entertainment is too out of reach.

6. Louie: Louis C.K. Gives Us a Reason to Live.

To be honest, I could probably have filled up this entire list with just moments from the second season of Louie, in which Louis C.K. somehow expanded the scope of his gritty thematic explorations to include subjects of mortality, loneliness, suicide, war, love, even joke stealing. The darkest episode featured Louis running into Eddie, an old friend from his early days as a stand-up comic. But unlike Louis, Eddie never moved up past living in his car, driving from show to show, largely because of his spurned, asshole nature. And after a night of drinking liquor and crashing open mics, Eddie reveals why he wanted to see Louis: Now that his career has washed up, he has no friends or family, and with no desire for something greater, he plans on killing himself. Most heartbreaking – and this is what makes Louie such a great show – is that Louis, as much as he wants to, can’t honestly give Eddie a reason to keep living. And after a failed big speech, Louis says goodbye to his friend, knowing full well what’s coming next.

5. South Park: Stan Gets Old.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone had little time to bask in their Broadway success before having to return to the all-nighters of making the 15th season of South Park. When the season went on its summer hiatus, we were left with one of the bleakest episodes the show has ever done. In “You’re Getting Old,” Stan celebrates his 10th birthday and discovers that everything he once enjoyed – music, movies, ice cream, etc. – all look and sound, literally, like shit. His friends abandon him because of his cynical outlook on life, and his parents get divorced after an argument. There’s no climax or resolution to this episode – just Stan staring emptily into the camera. Fans began to speculate whether 15 years of making South Park pretty much on their own had begun to take its toll on Parker and Stone. When the season resumed in October, Stan’s parents get back together, but he learns to accept his depression, drowning it in booze. It was a little shocking to see the show take such a dramatic leap in character development after all these years, and Parker and Stone proved they aren’t afraid to explore new psychological depths in their characters.

4. People Thought The Onion Headlines Were Real.

It’s about time The Onion started increasing its circulation, thanks to its new show on IFC and to the perpetual fountain of comedy gold it released this year. However, mainstream popularity comes at a price – a hilarious one, apparently – in that several people began to actually believe Onion headlines to be true. (You can find these sad moments documented on The most memorable case was in September, when The Onion’s website released hourly updates about a hostage situation in which Speaker John Boehner and the other members of Congress held a group of schoolchildren by gunpoint. Real life Capitol Police investigated after a brief, minor panic. I’m not sure whether to be thrilled that The Onion has become so relevant or worried that real life has become ridiculous enough to be confused with an Onion headline.

3. Stephen Colbert Launches His Super PAC.

While many other political comedians concerned themselves with GOP debates and the Occupy Wall Street movement, Stephen Colbert discovered a subject that gets right to the heart of the matter. Few issues present more dangerous scenarios to elections in this country than the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, aka “corporations are people,” in which massive corporations have the same free speech rights as individual citizens and can thus make unlimited campaign contributions. While many of us tried to make sense of what this meant for our country, Colbert painted a very clear picture for us by creating his own political action committee. Since approval from the FEC, the Colbert Super PAC has released mock political ads in Iowa, lobbied for a ballot initiative in South Carolina defining only people as “people,” and proved to be a bottomless well of material for Colbert’s show. Unlike Colbert’s presidential bid, this PAC is very real, and it has the potential to actually change the system.

2. Jon Stewart Discusses Class Warfare.

During a particularly frustrating moment of the debt ceiling debate in August, pundits and politicians on the right claimed that the only way to reduce the federal deficit was by scaling back entitlement programs – the very ones that low income earners and the elderly depend on to survive. When billionaire Warren Buffet stepped forward and recommended increasing taxes in the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the right cried foul, accusing Buffet and the left of inciting “class warfare.” That term struck a chord with Jon Stewart, who used simple math to illustrate that the only principle governing the 1 percent and their defenders is, frankly, pure greed. About a month after Stewart’s rant, the Occupy Wall Street movement began.

1. Louie: Louis C.K. Chases a Duckling, Saves Lives.

Sometimes, the most poignant messages require no big speeches, no shocking statistics, no words whatsoever. Sometimes all you need is a duck. In the most beautiful episode of the season, Louis goes on a USO tour in Afghanistan while having to conceal a duckling that his daughter snuck into his pack, making his nervousness over traveling in a war zone even worse. In the episode’s climax, Louis’ helicopter has engine trouble and has to be grounded in a remote area. A group of armed Afghani hunters approaches, and a verbal altercation starts up between the hunters and the American soldiers. Then, at the worst possible moment, the duckling slips out of Louis’ pack and runs off. Louis tries to catch it, trips, and falls on his ass. Perhaps because of his resemblance to a clown (red hair + white sunscreen), the hunters burst into laughter, joined quickly by the soldiers. Crisis averted. And in one simple stroke, Louis C.K. artfully demonstrated the universal healing power of humor.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team Natural 20 at the iO West Theater.

The Top Ten Moments Comedians Made Us Think in 2011