‘The Comedy’: An Earnest Look at Irony

The Comedy is a sobering film about the consequences of carrying ironic humour too far. It’s a bold act for comedian Tim Heidecker to play the lead character, as irony is central to his work — from his groundbreaking TV shows Tom Goes to the Mayor and Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (his creative partner, Eric Wareheim, also appears in the film), to his character-based, intentionally bad standup comedy and album of campaign songs about former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, which was priced at $9.99 in reference to Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan.

For a comedian to expose himself and his mode of interaction in such a critical light is not an easy thing to do. But Heidecker embraces the part, and he is a remarkably good actor. His deadpan comedic delivery comes naturally, yet it’s the down moments when he shows vulnerability while never quite disclosing what it is that’s troubling him that are most impressive. Heidecker is also expressive with his eyes, showing thoughts and emotions that he won’t reveal through speech and action. It’s reminiscent of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, though the stakes are never quite clear.

But this is not a film just for those familiar with Heidecker’s past work or his character’s environment. There are barely any allusions to pop culture, and no locations that need to be recognized to be understood. The taxis, the houses, the bar, the hospital and the restaurant could be anywhere. It’s true that the main cast of characters are mostly all privileged white males (one of them, if we take his words at face value, grew up in foster homes), but the operative characteristic of the film is the extremity of their cruel behaviour.

With that, director Rick Alverson’s 90-minute film seems, at first glance, perfectly designed to cash in on the zeitgeist. The culture war surrounding hipsters has been going on for years, but has increasingly spread into the mainstream — most recently with a New York Times editorial explaining “How To Live Without Irony.” Few labels are as complex and vaguely defined as the hipster, since many of those who have a clear idea of what a hipster is would be considered hipsters by more distant observers. The gradients become even stranger when you consider who would self-describe as a hipster and who would consider a hipster a good thing to be. The word is emotionally charged; it is uttered with unapologetic hatred and received with either defensive disavowal or ironic acceptance.

Vernacular complexity notwithstanding, the central character in The Comedy, Heidecker’s Swanson (though I missed ever hearing the name after two viewings), is clearly a hipster, and there is clearly something wrong with how he lives his life. As an unemployed and idle 35-year-old from a wealthy family living out of a houseboat in the East River off Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Swanson treats people with such ironic detachment that there’s often doubt as to whether he sees them as people at all. But Alverson’s film validates neither hipsters nor their most bitter detractors — which is admirable because it would be easy to pander to either of these powerful sentiments.

The two common treatments of a character like Swanson are to condemn him utterly, either as dramatic villain or comedic buffoon, or to write off his foibles as laughable, like the lovably selfish male protagonists seen in the majority of modern comedies on TV and in Hollywood. On one side, there’s plenty of demand for hipster blood; on the other, there’s an audience eager to see something hip and fun, celebrating the culture while simultaneously lampooning it. Instead, Alverson does something much more challenging and much more simple: he gives no indication of whether we are supposed to laugh with Swanson or at him — or if we are supposed to laugh at all. Alverson just leaves us with the character at an uncomfortable distance. We have no easy indication of what Swanson is thinking, and there is no strong countervailing presence, authorial or otherwise, to evaluate his behaviour for us. We are simply witnesses.

It’s an approach that I’ve seen before in Come and See, Elem Klimov’s 1985 war drama about a Belarusian boy surviving in the Nazi-occupied Eastern Front. It is a remarkably discomforting film, and Alverson has confirmed via Twitter that Come and See is one of his favourites. As harrowing as the violence in Come and See is — presented without warning and without relief — The Comedy may be even harder to watch. The boy in Come and See is a victim; the man in The Comedy is himself the perpetrator of dehumanizing behaviour. Swanson is obviously no death squad officer, but he shows a lack of regard for other people’s strife that far surpasses the normal bounds, whether they are cab drivers, the male nurse caring for Swanson’s dying father, a woman he seduces or even his own sister-in-law who’s dealing with an institutionalized husband. And because his crimes are less obviously defined, there’s an uneasy ambiguity as to when his behaviour his wrong.

This ambiguity contributes to a strange paranoia among critics who are uncertain where Alverson stands with Swanson. They worry that Alverson doesn’t comment morally on the character’s behaviour, or that hipsters will like the movie and see it as validation, or that the whole thing is intended as a joke. This paranoia is strange on a few levels: for one, Alverson comes across in all his interviews as an earnest man, and has been consistently open about how disheartening he finds ironic detachment to be. But it also speaks of a lack of self-confidence in the critics themselves, and a lack of confidence in moviegoers to condemn Swanson’s actions. It’s almost as though they demand that Alverson validate this judgment within the film. But if the director portrays the character’s actions as disturbing, isn’t that enough? Can’t we expect grown ups to tell right from wrong without a guiding hand? It should be more worrying that audiences are conditioned to be given an explicit moral compass than that this film does not hand them one.

Alverson also poses a challenge with his refusal to qualify Swanson as sympathetic. By never establishing a protagonist safe to root for, The Comedy seems to reject the notion that some people are deserving of sympathy while others are not. It’s actually a tremendously humane choice, if not a warm one. It asks that viewers recognize a human without asking him to prove himself worthy: Swanson may be a despicable hipster, but he is still a man. In fact, our ability to empathize, even with someone we aren’t rooting for or whose actions we don’t respect and can’t fully understand, is what separates us from Swanson, who is so often unwilling to grant people a basic recognition of their humanity.

On both viewings, I simultaneously loved the movie and hated Heidecker’s character: I frequently wanted him to stop what he was doing; I rarely wanted him to succeed; I was always infuriated when women found him attractive; and I normally felt more empathy for the other characters in the scene. I would find a man like Swanson intolerable if I ever encountered him, but that is no reason to dismiss him. I did want him to get better, to show signs of life. I did feel empathy for his pain even when I felt no sympathy for his role. I found myself not rooting for or against him, but rather for him to show more character, better behaviour.

It’s a human yet dehumanizing instinct to attempt to strip people we hate of any virtue. An honest look says that Swanson is not without redeeming characteristics. To me, the most disturbing scenes were those in which he showed qualities that I admired. In the film’s final scene, he bikes hard bent over his handlebars, walks to the beach in a state of full exhaustion and flops into the ocean. A laughing child runs up to him, splashing him with water. We see what might be true joy. As the child runs away again, Swanson shouts, “Hey, come back here!” There’s pain in his voice, genuine hurt, a fear of loss. Then the child returns, they play in the water again and he’s happy for a few more seconds. Then the movie ends.

Maybe the scene is intended to show personal growth, but perhaps it’s just another instance of Swanson’s dependence on creative spontaneity. As cruel as his games may be, they are playful. Through them, he’s able to extract some simple joy from the world — a world that offers him little satisfaction as an adult. But that’s no excuse for his trespasses. Children are stubborn and selfish because their brains aren’t fully developed; they ignore social cues because they don’t understand them. An adult should know better. For example, while a drunk Swanson pays a cab driver to let him drive the taxi for twenty minutes, thus putting the cabbie’s career at risk for Swanson’s own amusement, he is also turning a routine ride home into an adventure, feeling wide-eyed enthusiasm for the mundane. Obviously, Swanson should not be doing this, but at what point must he curtail his pursuit of happiness?

And while Swanson’s sense of humour is cruel when he’s needling the male nurse with jabs about his feminine profession, or joking to his sister-in-law about her husband’s mental illness, this kind of joyful antagonism is amusing to his like-minded friends. It would be ridiculous to fault him for entertaining people who enjoy that mode of speech, but for those who don’t find it entertaining, it’s worth nothing that the disengagement happens at both ends: Swanson won’t acknowledge others, yet others won’t indulge him in his games.

The difficult question, then, is when it’s necessary to switch from one mode of engagement to the other. An interesting moment occurs in another taxi ride, when Swanson and his friends are making their own music because the cabbie doesn’t have a radio. One of them knocks on the glass divider and says, “Maybe you know this hip hop song: you’re gonna get a no-no tip,” then begins to make it a refrain: “you’re gonna get a no-no tip, you’re gonna get a no-no tip.” Swanson smiles, but he shakes his head and says, “Shut up.” Amused, he soon mutters “fine” and joins in. He’s more seduced by the idea of playing with his friends than concerned about preserving a stranger’s feelings. His source of joy amongst friends is cruelty to strangers, and that’s disturbing.

After Come and See, the work that The Comedy most reminded me of was Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. Like The Comedy, it uses repetition with variation (episodes of violence, rather than mockery) in lieu of a traditional plot arc, and follows a group who have no respect for the subjectivity of outsiders. It, too, is a difficult work. The novel was appalling enough that critic Harold Bloom, now one of the book’s most outspoken supporters, gave up on his first read. But Blood Meridian is now regarded as a great piece of writing, and not just for those who can sympathize with ruthless scalphunters. Soulless murderers they may be, but there is something to be learned from them.

Obviously, Alverson is not McCarthy, and early-middle-aged hipsters who refuse to grow up are not roving murderers. There’s some strong resistance to seeing anything about this class of people as important, especially since they’re a group that badly wants to be. But this is a case where it’s best to bite the bullet. Ironic disengagement is a real force in this world, especially in this new generation, and a work that examines it closely without compromise is worth enduring some discomfort, even if some overgrown children may be patting themselves on the back if you do.

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David Iscoe is a humour writer and serious writer in Brooklyn, New York. When he’s not writing for someone else, he posts things on his website and on Twitter.