Comedy as Coping Mechanism in Trying Times

October 05, 2017


Actor holds phone with look of horror on his faceA funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse, riff late night TV hosts, tapping into a wellspring of political satire tied to national politics this year.

Stand-up has hit ratings gold as many turn to comedy for solace in unsettling times. But while “unprecedented” may be 2017’s most overused word, there are many precedents for an outpouring of humor as tonic, said John Mayer, chair of the California State University, Stanislaus Theatre department.

“The history of comedy, certainly American comedy, has always been about commentary on the way life was going,” said Mayer, sitting in his Turlock office surrounded by signed playbills and theatrical mementoes. “For people who are in a state of disbelief or sadness, it’s a way to speak the truth. It’s absolutely a coping mechanism. Comedy has always had curative powers. It’s a great healer.”

Mayer speaks with insight from both sides of the floodlights, having studied improvisation at The Second City in Chicago, where two of the best-known names in today’s political humor, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey, got their start. Mayer authored a book about the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago.

Stand-up has long been associated with cities like Chicago and New York, areas that trend more blue than red, which may explain why liberal humor is the better known and best watched, Mayer said.

“Generally, people in comedy are very well educated, and they grow up, predominantly, in an urban environment,” he said. “Certainly, President Donald Trump provides much fodder as a political personality, and that’s kind-of exploding right now. He’s so off the straight and narrow. There’s so much to work with, and I think a lot of it is really smart comedy. It’s shining a spotlight on a lot of very talented people.”

This semester, Mayer sits in the front row as student comedians rehearse for Boeing Boeing: A non-stop comedy! that runs Oct. 5-8 and Oct. 12-15, 7:30 p.m., at the Stan State Studio Theatre.

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The play, “about secret relationships and fly-by-night romance!” was written in 1960 by Marc Camoletti, another time when social conflict was in the news and television comedy was taking off. Comedy in the sixties avoided politics, however, preferring the slap-dash humor of The Lucy Show, The Monkees and McHale’s Navy.

“It’s fun, active theater. It’s a great challenge for our students,” Mayer said, adding he chose the play for its meaty roles and the physicality it demands of the actors. “This play captures what that era was like.”