“Study: Family History of Alcoholism Raises Risk of One-Man Show” In Need of Bedichuta

January 26, 2011 at 3:38 pm, by

4 days ago, The Onion published a fantastic article entitled “Study: Family History of Alcoholism Raises Risk of One-Man Show.” The Onion, you might know, is a satirical newspaper covering fake news. Also, you have possibly heard someone (maybe yourself), while laughing at something hysterical, say something like, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true!” I have long believed that that is one of the great powers of comedy: the ability to reveal truths about something we don’t think about until that great moment of laughter, when we realize how funny reality can be.

In the article at hand, the anonymous author writes about “an alarming new study” that shows that “children raised in households where alcoholism is present are at a significantly greater risk of writing and performing a one-man show than those who grow up in a more stable environment.” The article traces from the moment when “these kids develop an interest in theater and start working on impressions of their alcoholic family members” to when they “throw lives away by performing an hour-and-a-half-long monologue for 15 people in a tiny black-box theater.” The Onion then warns that “a young adult may begin experimenting with dangerously melodramatic lines” and exhibit a predisposition “toward wearing a baseball cap for the sequence in which they portray their father showing up drunk to little-league practice.” Perhaps most poignant in the article though is when the (fictitious) study’s lead author Dr. Richard Lowden comments on the friends and family who feel obligated to see these shows: “The worst part is [the actors] are completely oblivious as to how much they are hurting not just themselves, but everyone around them.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of these shows—I’ve fortunately been to only a small number of these—but I could not stop laughing at how spot-on this article is about such a show. The frequency of a one-man-show being about a difficult time growing up—either as a child or as an adult—is astonishing to me. The level of subjectivity (rather than objectivity) and personal experience (rather than universal experience) exhibited in some shows of this nature can truly get in the way of using the theater as an artistic medium for provoking the audience to gain anything personally meaningful out of this clearly hard work.

Of course, such shows are not without value—even Jewishly: these are serious reflections on shelom bayit (“the peace of home”), a Jewish (and humanistic) ideal. However, like most things, theater is inherently neither good nor bad: it’s what is made of it. The Onion very wisely chose to satire the frequency with which the antithesis of shelom bayit becomes the subject of a play that provides little to no entertainment or inspiration for the limited audience that sees it. Such plays—frequently inundated with dark or awkward seriousness and devoid of relatable humor—are likely to result in a distancing of the audience from the subject matter onstage.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 30b), there is a brief debate about the value of humor versus the value of seriousness. The debate’s final words recall Rabbah, who mikkamey defatach lehu lerabbanan amar mileta divdichuta (“before he began teaching our rabbis from a verse of the Bible, he would say a joke-like speech”), uvadechey rabbanan (“and our rabbis would be cheerful”). According to this passage, the excitement in the room was the right atmosphere for teaching Torah: lesof yateyv be’eymata (“in the end, the group would sit in awe”), ufatach bishma’ata (“and he would begin to teach his lesson”).

The Onion, a humor publication, is biased in this, and, as an indie comedy-musician, so am I. That being said, joy and jocularity are both important to the Jewish tradition and to the human condition. Having sat through at least one one-man-show (feel free to respond to this blog-post placing your bet on the exact number of these shows I’ve been to) and having read this piece in The Onion, I can say that the “Study” probably both has been more relatable to me and has taught me more about the artistic motives and process that result in these shows we’re talking about. In order for me to come to a new understanding of something, I need to feel comfort—not discomfort—in my learning environment.

Here, The Onion, choosing a stark contrast from an uncomfortable gravitas of so many poorly staged memoirs, reminds us that, just as the Talmudic sage Rabbah began his sermons around a millennium and a half ago with a joke to loosen up the crowd, so too the modern artist—if the artist has a message—must be sensitive to how the audience feels; an audience that is ultimately too uncomfortable with the artistry will not be receptive to any messages that lie within the art. The Onion and Rabbah remind us that we may need some bedichuta (humor) if we want to teach our own Torah. When we exert our energy towards building a positive connection with the spectators of our art, we can more clearly convey our messages. Through the links we build with our audience, we can effectively translate our personal insights into meaningful lessons for all those around us.

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