Sometimes comedy hits so close to home it feels like horror. I was a fidgety wreck at Cinemapolis watching one scene in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, in which Josh (Ben Stiller) pitches his six-and-a-half-hour political documentary to a hedge fund bro. Trapped in close-up, Josh botches it, sputtering out undergrad filler (“prison-industrial complex,” “power structures in the global economy,” etc.) before closing with a Hail Mary to the heartland (“It’s really about America.”). The investor, bored as hell, asks, “So … what’s it about?” The horror of incoherence, at your ideas and the words you choose to share them with, is one I have felt many a time at home and at Cornell.
The unspoken reality in this movie is that Josh is a mediocre thinker and a lazy filmmaker, still stuck in that arrogant film student mode where the burden is all on the audience to comprehend the brilliance of your pièce de résistance. His documentary is boring (its footage is mostly of a renowned but colorless academic espousing his wide-ranging theory, in front of bookshelves or at an underlit dinner table), and it’s boring because Josh has no mastery of the rhetorical tools of filmmaking — like camera placement, sound or editing — that would involve the viewer, no matter how well-read he or she is, to care about the big issues his film tackles. Baumbach, on the other hand, is a subtle enough filmmaker to disclose Josh’s mediocrity without outright stating it, and one of the funniest, and trickiest, aspects of the film is how everyone lectures about the problems they see around them while remaining oblivious to their own. Can you relate?
Incoherence and obliviousness, together, make a distinctly modern comedic pair. Baumbach is not the first to venture into this subgenre of “cringe comedy,” as the Internet calls it, but he does not have a great deal of predecessors either. Of course we have all seen an intellectual caricatured as removed, dainty or impotent in an older film, book or TV show, but the manner in which Baumbach and Stiller render Josh’s esoteric babble engages more ongoing questions, like pretentiousness and privilege. In sustained, awkward close-up, Josh gives himself more than enough rope to hang any prospect of funding, and the discomfort we feel while watching him is sympathetic, if not empathetic, because words have, presumably, failed us all before. At the same time, Josh can spout this pseudo-intellectual nonsense in part due to his white male/Blue Steel privilege, which gave him an unearned soapbox long ago. He should really be trying harder, but still, damn, is he human.
Every thinker fears incoherence. You stumble upon an idea you think is novel, but then you must secure the argument, with the innumerable steps involved, in order to share it with the world. Otherwise your thought is just an abstract glob of noise. (I should know: I’m revising an honor’s thesis at the moment.)
“Noise-shaped air,” on the other hand, is a perfect phrase from the fourth season premiere of Armando Ianucci’s HBO comedy Veep, and it is used to describe the euphonic, fill-in-the-blank insincerity of a speech President Selina Meyer shares before Congress. Veep explores the other extreme of nonsense language — the political sermon — and how inane it sounds when spoken by someone like Selina, a woman with a preternatural gift for inventive vulgarity. I hope to one day buy a leather-bound book of her and the rest of the cast’s putdowns, because they are what make Veep the funniest show right now, but Selina’s facility with disingenuous but nonetheless effective public oratory elevates the show to conscious, critical heights. In the premiere, she riffs off a teleprompter glitch, which spells her presidential ambitions with the placeholder text left from earlier brainstorming: “FUTURE WHATEVER.” With conviction in herself and the drivel she is about to say, she sells worthless platitudes (“Whatever we have in store cannot be unknown. But given time, it can be understood. The past was once the future … ”) and her esteemed colleagues greet her noise-shaped air with rapturous applause.
In “The Universe,” one of their most popular sketches, Tim and Eric, from Adult Swim, make fun of a kind of language in between half-baked academic-speak and hollow, wowing rhetoric. Tim Heidecker, squeezed into a black turtleneck, talks about the wonders of the universe as intentionally crappy video effects whiz around him. “Picture a hot dog bun,” he says, as a hot dog bun fades on and off the screen. “And throw all the stars, the hundreds of stars, that there are in the universe into a … into a bag, and put the universe into a bag, and you, all of a sudden, they become, um … ” His face crumples into a pudgy frown as his tortured metaphor escapes him. I laugh every single time I see it.
Tim and Eric, premier parodists of white male pastiness, find funny the way self-appointed experts attempt to streamline their ideas, particularly when in extreme close-up. They share their so-called research with can-do cheer, living up to the democratic mission of popular science when they turn to metaphor or when Eric Wareheim says, “And us humans can’t even fathom the concept of that kind of time because it’s really really really really really really really really fun!”
But ultimately, Tim and Eric seem to say, incoherence is inherent to any discipline, if it truly is a discipline. True intellectual work requires logic, evidence and manageable innovation, yes, but it’s unlikely the casual reader can just walk in and comprehend a field written by experts. Communicating those big, important ideas should be done in a respectable way, without off-color humor … which is where Tim and Eric, Noah Baumbach and Armando Ianucci come in.This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.