David Foster Wallace and the Comedy Nerd

Mike Schur, showrunner of Parks and Recreation, is obsessed with David Foster Wallace. At Harvard, he made Wallace an honorary member of the Lampoon and wrote his thesis about Infinite Jest. He directed a music video depicting a scene from IJ. His wife banned him from discussing the book at social gatherings.

It’s not just Schur — a ton of comedians share David Foster Wallace enthusiasm. Adam Scott, Nick Offerman, Rob Delaney and a bunch more comedians read monologues from Pale King after its 2011 release. Tina Fey mentions Wallace in Bossypants. Anecdotally, a lot of my comedy friends are into Wallace. I read Infinite Jest while interning at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and even though they clearly had a million better things to be doing, staff members would talk to me about the wheelchair assassins and what Wallace essays I should read.

Why is Wallace so popular with comedy people? He’s funny, but a lot of authors are funny. His work is accomplishes what he saw as fiction’s ultimate task: it considers “what it is to be a fucking human being.” But again, a lot of authors do this. What makes Wallace specifically appealing to people who spend a lot of time thinking about comedy and entertainment, is that Wallace spent a lot of his time thinking about comedy and entertainment. In his essays and through his fiction, he explores comedy theory. David Foster Wallace was a comedy nerd.

My favorite Wallace quote, and his most succinct statement of what makes a joke good, comes in his essay “Laughing with Kafka.” Thinking about the relation of comedy to prose fiction, he says that the best jokes and the best short stories both leave out important information but evoke it “in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections.” It’s a thoughtful exploration of a theory held by Kant and Kierkegaard. (And by Ali Farahnakian, who once told my class “Laughter is the sound of surprise.”) And it’s worth it to Wallace to think about comedy, because as he writes, “jokes are a kind of art.”

Wallace champions Kafka as a sort of standard-bearer of artful jokes. Kafka finds humor not through wisecracks, double entendre, slapstick, vulgarity, or “Woody Allen-type kvetching.” Instead, his humor is tragic, and also rapturous and jubilant. It is funny in its “grotesque, gorgeous, and thoroughly modern complexity.”

But Americans, according to Wallace, couldn’t appreciate complex comedy. The television audience he saw desired only entertainment that was reassuring. TV, which in his essay “E Unibus Pluram” Wallace called a “low art” because its central mission was “to ensure as much watching as possible,” was more than happy to provide stupid sitcoms. The shows weren’t broad and crude because Americans are all dumb, but, as Wallace said, because “people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests.”

A statement so true makes it clear that even though Wallace didn’t think television was a high art, he still took it seriously. He saw that it not only had an immense influence on American culture, but it played an increasingly huge part in the lives of individuals. In lieu of religion, Americans were more and more directing their worshipping impulse inward, toward the gratification of their own desires. Mindless sitcoms provided easy entertainment and also fulfilled the social need of what Wallace described as a mass of sadly, lonely individuals (hence, E Unibus Pluram) who couldn’t bear the psychic cost of actual human interaction (which, hey-o, is a bit offensive, but casual elitism is just a part of Wallace’s style).

The eventual reaction to dumb sitcoms was irony. As a defense against criticism, TV criticized itself first. It became self-referential and self-deprecating. It refused to take anything seriously. Op-Eds about how TV was rotting society didn’t mean as much when TV had already made fun of the fact that it was rotting society. Irony gave the viewer permission to keep watching, and complimented the viewer on getting the joke. Wallace wrote that the irony was far from an improvement on sugary TV. He noted that irony is not sustaining; its function is wholly negative. It can point out problems but do nothing to fix them, like a rebel dethroning a tyrant only to become a better tyrant. “And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us,” Wallace says. Like a bad, comment-y improv scene, its humor stems not from actual funny events but from “the comedian’s stock ‘You ever notice how…?’”

Infinite Jest takes Wallace’s theory on the failings of ironic humor to the extreme. It is this exploration of theory, not the Monty-Python-deadly-joke-esque premise or the hilarious descriptions (“you would rather set your hair on fire than jog in a pack”) that makes the book essential reading for comedy nerds. Wallace explores his theory by focusing on the acts of creating and consuming entertainment in a near future where E Unibus Pluram is the official motto.

Most of the characters in the book embody a deep, cynical, problematic irony. Only one character is completely sincere, and he is a grotesque — for his sincerity as much as for his horribly deformed body. Orin, one of the characters most committed to irony, in one scene mourns the loss of broadcast sitcoms and “sneering at something I love.” With only irony to support them and yearning for connection and meaning, characters turn to drugs and mindless entertainment. Oh yeah, oops, spoilers.

Though the book offers no definite solutions because duh that’s life, Alcoholics Anonymous provides a way for characters to turn their lives outward. AA preaches empathy — which may be the secret to humor that is sincere and kind instead of cruel, which Hobbes suspected all humor is. (Will Hines wrote a great post on something close to this. Hines: “The revolutionary game-changing skill of long form improv is: EMPATHY.”)

AA also values plainness. Infinite Jest is obsessed with masks and veils, metaphors for the way irony lets us hide and distance ourselves from each other. But at AA all that is asked is the genuine truth. A description of personal testimonies at one meeting could double for an explanation of what makes a good Harold opening monologue. A sarcastic, joke-y speech by a new member only makes the audience embarrassed by proxy, but a raw and vulnerable speech given by a different member absolutely, unintentionally kills. A character realizes that to be compelling and funny, a story “can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic.”

All this comes to a head in a monologue from another character’s consciousness about how America’s unrelenting irony is a human tragedy:

“We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears.  And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. … What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

Is there a solution? At the end of “E Unibus Pluram” (written in 1990), Wallace suggests that “the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels’” who bravely embrace and take seriously sincerity and “old untrendy human troubles and emotions.”  I think that’s exactly what has started to happen on television. David Letterman is no longer the emblem of US comedy; his show, which won the Emmy from 1998-2002, wasn’t even nominated in the past three years. Instead, the sincere, joyous Late Night with Jimmy Fallon has emerged as a new path for late night comedy. We’ve seen the emergence of sitcoms with moral heart, pathos, character development, sincerity and soul. Parks and Recreation is perhaps superlative among these, in correlation with its showrunner’s DFW obsession.

Whereas Wallace saw TV as a medium that “engages without demanding,” we now have shows with season-long arcs and intelligence, which challenge the viewer and demand genius on both sides of the conversation. Shows like Two and a Half Men still fit Wallace’s description of audience-pandering low art, but increasingly there are shows whose mission is something other than accruing Nielsen points. Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and Community are, I think Wallace would agree, high art. We live in an age of Louie, a show about a stand-up that resists the ironic mode Wallace described as stand-up-esque. Instead it takes seriously the idea that “jokes are a type of art.” Like Kafka, Louie (and more and more comedy) is about human tragedy, and modern complexity, and “what it is to be a fucking human being.”

Blythe Roberson is a Harvard student, but she doesn’t know Megan Amram personally. She is a producer and writer for On Harvard Time.

David Foster Wallace and the Comedy Nerd