by Donovan Schaefer
Comedy makes me uncomfortable. Comedy starts with the creation of a zone of common sense, then defines whatever happens outside that zone as laughable. This boundary-line of common sense is not drawn through a patient elaboration of values between bodies in dialog, but in the striking of a match–through the voice, the face, and the body of the comedian. As with all boundaries of common sense, comedic common sense is designed to prevent you from asking questions, to speed up the heartrate of shared knowledge to the point that it can’t be moved in any other direction.
What about when comedy is not just about entertainment, but brings with it a politics, an effort to reshape the bodies around it? Then the circle of common sense has sloped borders. It becomes bowl-shaped, designed to bring people into the zone of understanding. These borders only slope in one direction. It is impossible to argue with a comedian, to reposition them with follow-up questions, to reshape the tensely held landscape of common sense underneath them. Jon Stewart has made an art of this method. So has Bill Maher.
Bill Maher’s 2008 collaboration with Larry Charles, Religulous, a documentary splicing together interviews Maher carried out with a range of religious believers, is a case study of this method. In the first half, he mostly addresses American Christians (white and black). In the second half, he addresses primarily Jews and Muslims in Europe and the Middle East.
What is fascinating about Maher’s method is the way he cajoles the American bodies he encounters. Rather than simply trying to hammer them with facts, he approaches them smiling, laughing, shaking his head, inviting them into the bowl of common sense. His method is a ring of friendly questions, giving his conversation partners channels to slide down into the space of shared sensibilities. When they refuse these channels, the penalty seems friendly: a chuckle or an eyeroll. To my eyes, the routine does not seem to be racialized: white and black American bodies are given identical treatment.
But the film takes on a decidedly different tone when Maher moves out of the American context. Interviewing Muslims (and some Jews) in England and the Middle East, Maher’s method seems to shift away from friendly questioning to acidic mockery. Maher is among the group of contemporary white atheists, including Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who hold that Islam is a special case among religions–the worst among equals. In Religulous, this prerogative to rage against Muslims comes across in the radically different tone of the second half of the film. Maher’s body changes: he is no longer addressing a friendly “us” that can be cajoled, but a primitive “they” to be shamed. The borders of common sense are closed.
What this doubling of the affects of atheism illustrates is that there is no neutral exercise of reason that can comfortably flow across borders. Our own bodies insert themselves into those spaces–our own prerogatives and preferences, as well as a legible set of racialized histories. An international conversation takes on a different affective cast than does an intra-national conversation, opening up a specific range of possible channels for dialog. The slope of the bowl of common sense is shaped in different ways in different contexts of address.
When Americans–usually white Americans–start speaking about Islam it is almost always from a situation not only of ignorance but of distance from Muslim communities. It takes on a putatively neutral mantle of reason while actually reveling in the play and production of borders and binaries. This doesn’t mean that there can’t ever be cross-community conversations (and obviously the constitution of the boundaries of a community is always fluid and needs to be negotiated on the ground in ways that often hover beneath the range of possibilities of discourse alone), only that we need to be triply sensitive to the politics of addressing a plural “You” or “They”–especially when those perimeters are constituted inside racialized histories of colonialism and imperialism.