Comedy in the Era of Gaslightenment: From Moms Mabley to Jen Kirkman, Donald Trump to Louis CK

By Anna Fields, Columnist

Moms Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken, the great-granddaughter of a slave, and one of 16 children in Brevard, North Carolina, in 1894. She’d been a Vaudeville star for a half a century when white audiences “discovered” her in the 1960’s – during the time that Lyndon Johnson was admitting the truth in our Upside Down. Leslie Bennetts reported in 1987 for the NY Times that Moms was “raped at the age of 11 by an older black man, and raped again two years later by the white town sheriff. Both rapes resulted in pregnancies; both babies were given away. Loretta’s father, a volunteer fireman, was blown to pieces when a fire engine exploded, and her mother was run over and killed by a truck while coming home from church on Christmas Day. At the age of 14, Loretta ran away to join a minstrel show.” She remained silent for most of her life about these atrocities, saying only that she was “raped and everything else.” Her pain, like Nancy’s, emerged later, in her mocking gay men as effeminate. She couldn’t see herself in them, and so she didn’t mind their suffering. She, too, wondered why on earth they could possibly be proud. Power corrupts, and the absence of power also corrupts. Our ability to see ourselves as good and others as bad – as either one or the other – is astonishing. We tend to judge ourselves by our best intentions and others through their worst examples. I certainly count myself, unfortunately, as one of these hypocritical people. I believed some of the petri dish messages about Hilary. I judged her against that by which no men are judged: perfection. I am as guilty as anyone else of everything. I supposed, in a way, I was tired of fighting, too. In her Wellesley College thesis, Hillary expressed some of this same fatigue. She asked us a simple question: “Is there only the fight?” And on November 8th, 2016, everyone who loves and respects us answered, “There is only the win.”

But then we lost.

The day after, I woke in shock. I didn’t know what else to say. I kept thinking of all the times I’d heard smug, untested Americans vaunt their moral superiority to the “good Germans.” But the day before – on the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht – almost 60 million of those same people closed their test booklets and put down their #2 pencils and said “Welcome to 1932.” Many people I’d known for years chose to do exactly this. My neighbors spent years watching World War II movies and documentaries, I thought, to celebrate a victory over fascism and a move towards democracy… but this, as it turned out, was the reason why I was watching. They were learning. No doubt that you, dear one, may have felt the same. Sometimes we say nothing because these are the people closest to us, who have loved us and cared for us and supported us all our lives. How wrenching it is to find the monsters in our closets. How painful to have to close the door.

On Day 2, I saw the KKK celebrating in the rain on a bridge in Mebane, North Carolina, and the words “HASTA LA VISTA HISPANICS” written on a white board at Elon University, and then it finally hit me then: My best intentions weren’t enough. I was married to a Jew. The irony was not lost. I immediately planned to leave town before the Southern Evangelicals came looking for “those who killed Christ.” I was convinced that we good Germans would someday regret exactly why and when the dancing started, or – as a much better writer once put it, “the wolves were out, and unless we wanted to be the last Rabbi’s standing on the train platform, it was time to leave.” Then I closed the window, poured myself a large glass of something strong, and wrote the following note to self:

Dear Self,

On the docket for today:

1) Bottle of wine for me.

2) Bottle of bleach for women of color.

3) Pussy removal for us both in the spirit of safety.

Xoxo, You

Watching those early days – and even hours – just after November 8th, 2016, taught me so much about the human condition and our need for comedy. I was struck by my own profound naiveté and my own deeply held complicity in our racist and sexist country. I realized then that white silence is indeed white complicity. Male silence is indeed male complicity. The last time I felt the true impact of silence upon a person was in the rural South of the 1990’s, when my best friend, Eleni, told me that she witnessed her life in a series of colors: Red for a fire, for Mulatto blood and her Father’s will. Blue for her Mother’s eyes, white for her skin, gold for her hair and none for her daughter’s. She saw black in our waters, in our histories and movements, and black in her Grandmother’s memory when she glimpsed the “white” in her. When she was seven years old, her Father came into his Mother’s house and took Eleni away from her. He resented his Mother for keeping Eleni away: away from him, away from his white wife. He was drunk. He was angry, a bit savage, and put her into the passenger seat of his yellow Ford truck before driving away. I remember we were cooking when he came. Her Grandmother would take mint leaves, boil them in water with Cacao roots, and make a clear tea that would calm the tension in Eleni’s stomach. Her stomach was always in knots, and that morning we were making a much stronger tea. I left to home before he walked in – before her Grandmother pulled Eleni back when he grabbed Eleni’s arms. She remembers her Grandmother’s voice and her struggle. She remembers her Grandmother’s face through the window when they left, and she remembers the taste of rice and butter in white coral bowls was on her fingers and in her skin when he hit another car head on and the blood came into her mouth.

A paramedic woke her up, asking her, “Honey, who is this? Who is this man? Do you know him?” And she nodded, yes, this is my father. He frowned. He looked away to another white man in dark blue. He stood and turned his back to her, whispering, “He’s kidnapped her, or she’s a run-away or something. Run the license—he might’ve taken her from somebody,” as he walked towards the others like him. She was angry. She couldn’t move her face for the bandages. She wanted to yell at him, kick him, tell him to think before judging… but her Father was awake. He’d heard what this man had said. He knew everyone who saw them together somehow believed her to be a lost girl, a taken, stolen thing, and he her capturer. He looked at her. He pointed to his eyes, then to his heart, and then to hers. He smiled, sadly, and he said, “I love you. You’re the only child I have. Go back to sleep.” She did sleep. She slept until she woke up.

Because of her years of sleep, she is not what she seems. She is a taxpayer. She is a Native American and Caucasian American and an African American. She is not an alcoholic. She is a college graduate. She is not “white.” She is not “black.” She is not an “Indian.” She is not, in their eyes, when she argues and pushed, contends and defies their opinions, even a woman. But she has indeed a voice – this is clear. And she will use it to this onslaught of silence – and silent judgment – for the rest of her life. She will always argue for her personal stake in the world. She will always wrestle with her need to correct her past, to clothe herself in ethnic identity onstage, to reveal hidden secrets and recreate forgotten truths. She will speak for herself, for her Grandmother, and for the others like them. Sun-browned women who cannot speak; white children with earthen, colored parents. Her writing is all this. Her words are her ethnicity, her blood, her voice, and her light. And because I love her, I will work my entire life to ensure that these stories are told — of women, of children, of Eleni’s people, and perhaps, of yours.

On Day 3, thinking of them all, I looked around. The silence had changed to something… else. So, I wrote another note:

Dear Self,

Now begins the revisionism. When we have so many lemons that we set up stands nationwide. When his Team of Transitionists will quietly begin erasing his words from his website because what happened is now The Past. We need to embrace The Now and forget The Then.

To help us forget, our televisions and our computer screens will provide us some comfort. It never happened. Feel better. Things aren’t so bad, you see. His racism and sexism and xenophobia never happened. His making lists of Muslims? Never happened, either. Oh, and Mike Pence never wanted to electrocute gay children to “cure” them. Steve Bannon and his “alt-right” followers never called their opponents “Renegade Jews” or threatened that our country was run by “dykes” from New England. Jeff Sessions was definitely not too racist even for Ronald Reagan, who also never denied him a federal judgeship in 1986 for his comments. Also: Donald Trump never mocked prisoners of war or impersonated the disabled or threatened to use criminal prosecution to “punish” women for having abortions (which, by the way, is 1 out of every 3 women you’ve ever met). None of “those women” who accused him were hot enough to rape, anyway. Especially the 13-year-old. He also never cheated on one wife while married to another. Definitely not. We’re all just hysterical, and he had a plan all along. His children never hunted endangered animals for trophies or posed for pictures while grinning with their hands covered in blood. The list of our waking dreams (nightmares?) goes on. Everything we’ve ever seen him do or heard him say were fictions of our own imaginations. Maybe we all ate some bad tacos. Or we could take a nap. Or swallow a reliable sedative. Whatever works, right?

The point is that the election is over now, and we need to embrace the truth: What we heard wasn’t what we heard. We’ve been inventing things again, and we need to learn our lesson. We need our hearing checked, our eyes are failing, and our reasoning is flawed. You see, if we only knew them. The real them – all of them – deep inside. In their private conversations, they’re perfectly reasonable… though, perhaps, some of their publications — the Breitbart News, for example – might have occasionally promoted “ethno-cleaning” as a way to “keep the trains running.”[1] But anti-Semitic? What hyperbolic nonsense. They’re actually very nice guys if we would just get to know them. We’re the bad ones. We’re all getting just a little too crazy, don’t we think? Wouldn’t we agree that it’s getting old? Isn’t everything just so tired of fighting? Shouldn’t we just go ahead and apologize for our misinterpretations and make a better effort to come together in our new reality? If we would all calm down and give him a chance and bring his helpers into the fold, they’ll calm down, too. They’ll settle in. So will we. And then, things will get better – we’ll see. Eventually.

And so, we do.

We always have.

Because we’re tired, and we want to be heroes, but the truth is, for the most part, that our history is built on the graves of everyone we’ve asked to be patient and give us a chance. The Good Guys have winked at us so often and so well that we can’t help it. We wink back. We even turn our winking into comedy, because comedy helps us cope, and an extra spoonful of sugar makes the bitterness go down. We go out and adopt female dogs and smirk as we name them Life. We craft the best one-liners and ask the darkest, most rib-tickling questions.

“Tell me again what Susan Sarandon wanted? Oh, right. To star in a remake of ‘Sophie’s Choice.’”

            “Nice people make the best Nazis!”

“First they came for the Muslims… but I was busy trying to start my Christmas shopping early.”

We smile into the face of the emergent Terror, and it smiles back – the toothless grimace of a recently slit throat. It opens its mouth, begs us to give it another chance, and then it uses our chains to build another country. Ask any Native American. Ask any slave. Ask any unhappy wife. But we deserve it for winking it back, in a way. In public high school, I knew a girl who was terrified of Latinos. Another called me a faggot because I liked to read. She’s a veterinarian now. (Which made things awkward when my cat needed his nuts removed.) A teammate on my Color Guard team routinely referred to another teammate as “nigger.” The rest of us didn’t, but that’s not the point anymore. It’s not about what you don’t do; it’s about what you won’t accept. We said nothing. That makes us guilty. So, we deserve what we get. Kind of like every single comedian who’s still, either secretly or not-so-secretly, supporting Louis CK—and conveniently going dark on Twitter. Because he can. Because it’s his privilege to ride out the storm and await the backlash, where society goes back to doubling down on Patriarchy and calling them “cunts.” By “them,” I’m referring to Tig Notaro and Jen Kirkman and Virginia Jones and all the others who were brave enough to actually say something out loud. Who martyred themselves in an attempt to shatter the seductive fantasy of Toxic Masculinity we all inherited from creepers like Jerry Lewis and John Belushi. In return, the Twittersphere answered their attempts with as much dark humor as I’ve seen since November, 2016:

            “It’s weird knowing that we’re living in a time period of history that’s probably going to have a name. The Lost Generation is already taken, so maybe The Post-Truth Era?”

            “Only 18% of Jews voted for Trump. We voted like African Americans, Latinos + Muslims, not like other whites. Because we remember.”

But most people don’t—they’re starting to forget what the world was like before trump, and they’ll likely forget all the harm sickos like Louis CK did to the world of comedy. They’ve already lost much of Moms’ history into the wind. Because this is what happens when the boxes tell the people the war never happened: The people nod their heads and agree, though they can hear the war outside their windows.[2] And then that thing happens, where one of countless comedienne-ballerinas is doing a show with one other woman and 17 men, and one of them points at her from onstage and says he’s gonna grab her pussy, and her only option is a tight-lipped smile and a curt headshake in the dark. Because the Good Guy in Chief said it first.

Xoxo, You

By Day 4, I was almost impressed. How quickly and earnestly the boxes were working to normalize the reality television show that had become our new reality – and how quickly we let accepted our new diet of Soylent Green[3] as a key part of an ultimately healthier (if we really thought about it and stopped being so stubborn about the details) way of life. It also became clear how sincerely we prefer what is comforting to what is true – and that this tendency, if nothing else, has always been true. Revising things away from what they are and replacing them with what we’d prefer is how we’ve survived thus far. Mythology and fairytales and changing the narrative from fact to fiction is how we’ve made lemonade out of some truly terrible lemons. It’s called Magical Thinking or, if you prefer the technical term, Cognitive Dissonance. By pretending everything’s not so bad after all, by closing our eyes when the train is coming, we can escape it. It’s why children in the Warsaw ghetto continued to plant flowers instead of eat them. It’s how the townspeople around Auschwitz could pretend they didn’t smell all the smoke. And it is because of this basic human need to normalize and minimize and rationalize that we now normalize and minimize and rationalize Male and White Supremacy – two of the most devastating branches growing from the tree of Patriarchy – to our mutual detriment. Both men and women are why both men and women suffer. We both minimize and normalize and rationalize away the tree’s ravages on our hearts and homes because doing so makes television so much easier to enjoy.

Another reason why we so often underestimate Gaslightenment’s ravaging effects may be our misguided belief that “we’ll know it when we see it.” While racism is experienced by more than one gender, and so those genders can compare notes on what to watch out for, sexism primarily affects and hurts women. And so, women (as the more routinely victimized gender) are busy taking notes while men (as the more heavily benefited gender) are standing with their backs turned to the problem, insisting “Nope! You’ve got the wrong guy! Others may do that to you, but not me! No way! #NotAllMen. I’M ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS SO YOU’RE EXAGGERATING.” Which is not only beside the point but also makes the note-taker feel crazy and misunderstood and – even worse – alone.

Murderers don’t murder everyone they meet, and yet no one is arguing that murder isn’t a problem. Every white person doesn’t join the KKK, and yet it’s pretty clear that the Alt-Right is a sign of White Supremacy. And 49% of society doesn’t have to be comprised of Men’s Rights Activists for Male Supremacy to continue destroying the other 51.

These are the kinds of realities we must openly confront or else leave countless millions of “Others” ostracized. These are the realities that the ever-expanding list of sexual abusers would rather we ignore. And when we allow ourselves to catch a case of Gaslightenment, we often do. We can’t help it. When a healthy person hangs out with contagious people, does she cure them? Or do they spread their germs until she develops a cough?

[1] In reference to Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator during World War II.

[2] Shout out to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451!

[3] I.E. Chopped-up people

Anna Fields is an author and independent filmmaker, whose various works have been published, produced, developed, and awarded by Penguin Putnam, Skyhorse/Arcade, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Forbes, Marie Claire, Bunim/Murray, PB&J Television, CBS, ABC, Turner/Cartoon Network, LaMaMa Etc., and the Austin and Toronto Film Festivals. Her latest book, The Girl in the Show, is available now wherever books are sold.