Shambhala Sun | November 2013
Unflinching honesty. Insightful observation. Outside-the-box thinking. Today’s great comedians may not know much about Buddhism but they practice some of its most important principles. ROD MEADE SPERRY takes a look at today’s comics of merit, including Louis C.K. (left), Sarah Silverman, Mike DeStefano, Garry Shandling, Tig Notaro, and more.
What is it about comedians and Buddhism? They sure love to joke about it. Last week alone, between late-night spots and satellite radio, I heard six different comics make jokes with Buddha references — and not one of them about smoking weed. Keep listening, and it becomes clear: there are tons of these jokes, and some are best left untold. (If fat jokes are lazy, then ones that feature the Buddha, who wasn’t fat, are just plain lame.) And even when these jokes are sort of clever, they don’t kill. Which, of course, sounds very Buddhist, but means something quite different in comedian-speak.
So why do these jokes fall flat? There are a few comedians who actually are Buddhists. But Buddhists often heed counsel to not talk too much about their practice, so this means Buddhist comics rarely make explicitly Buddhist jokes. On the other hand, your average non-Buddhist comedian doesn’t know shit from Shinola when it comes to Buddhism, and a joke without a proper setup will suffer out there. To wit: two comedians’ lines I heard last week — via Myq Kaplan’s Conan set and Sarah Silverman’s Twitter feed—were about the kooky notion of Buddhist militants, as if such a thing could never exist. Unfortunately, at exactly the same time, a group of self-identifying but horribly misguided Buddhists in Burma were aggressively tormenting local Muslims. This was full-on international news, and still is. Oops.
Fearless and Inquisitive:
Silverman doesn’t need to feel sheepish about not knowing much about Buddhism. After all, she has said, “I have no religion” and has described herself as “very Jewish” culturally. What’s interesting, though, is that her work and life nonetheless point to a raft of qualities that Buddhist practitioners try to cultivate. In fact, a surprising number of comics express values that are consistent with the essence of the Buddhist teachings.
On stage and in her writing, Silverman is fearless and inquisitive, taking on religion and sexuality and injustice and identity with abandon. She doesn’t hide from the suffering in her own life, either. The very title of her 2010 autobiography immediately telegraphs its author’s willingness to put it all out there when it comes to the truth about herself: It’s called The Bedwetter.
She seems to have developed a nice relationship with reality, too, and a sense of compassion. (A Silverman tweet from June reads, “My religion is science, nature & love love love.”) She believes in and works for social justice and political fair play.
And then there’s that sense of humor, that ability to laugh at all of it, which many a dharma teacher will tell you is fundamental to Buddhist practice.
The Buddha talked about spiritual friendship, of the value of having “admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades.” Spiritual or not, someone like Sarah Silverman sure comes across as being genuine, being boundless, being herself. That is, she comes across as a dharma practitioner’s comrade.
What’s the deal with that?
Rod Meade Sperry is associate editor of the Shambhala Sun and the editor of A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation, to be published by Shambhala Publications in early 2014.