“Mind if we watch another Curb Your Enthusiasm?” my husband asks at midnight. Nobody has to get up before 8:30 a.m., so why not? It’s become something of a ritual: we started watching the new season of Larry David’s sitcom a few weeks ago, and then returned to the early episodes when Larry was – gasp – younger than we are today. And slightly less prickly than Bernie Sanders’ doppelganger is now in his seventies, making him expendable for the sake of the economy, according to some politicians. Turning off Brian Williams and turning to comedy has become a way to mitigate the stress of anxiety-tainted days. We sleep better when the night’s last note is hilarity rather than foreboding.
Comedy television is no panacea for a world on fire, but it does provide temporary relief from the flames. Some mornings I wake up and feel the weight of all the generations of my immediate and extended family. The most difficult has been my older sister’s failing health, and the barrier that the coronavirus has erected between her and a safer, healthier day-to-day life. She and her husband, who has Parkinson’s, were planning to move from Rhode Island to an assisted living community in Wisconsin near one of her daughters, a herculean effort for some of us in the days leading up to the move. The complex went on corona lockdown fifteen hours before her flight was scheduled to take off.
There seemed to be no humor in that moment– just disbelief at the unluckiness of our timing.
But isn’t that where humor is often buried? In irony, in bad luck and misfortune? My friend Eileen, one of the funniest people I know, helped me laugh at the absurdity of the situation for the first time. If you Google humor quotes, you’ll find the inspirational words of everyone from Erma Bombeck to Langston Hughes. Some are more profound than others. I like these words from (the also expendable) Mel Brooks, “Humor is just another defense against the universe.”
We need all the defenses we can muster these days. Cue Curb Your Enthusiasm’s clownish theme song. Larry David’s petty grievances, politically incorrect rants and personal interactions are so ridiculous and cringe-worthy that my husband and I can’t help but laugh for the twenty-five – forty minutes that each episode lasts. It’s enough time to forget that our college senior didn’t get to finish her final year at the school she loves and will probably have a hell of a time finding a job; or that our college freshman wasn’t able to complete his first year of independence and is now stuck with us for at least six months. (There is a silver lining in having our adult children home a little longer.)
Some people will be unable to find any silver linings in this time of crisis. Too many have already have faced unimaginable tragedy and thousands more will follow. As another elder statesman of comedy, 98-year-old Carl Reiner recently tweeted, “For the first time in memory I see nothing in this world about which I care to joke.” Agreed. But it is precisely the time that we can look to the fiction of television and film comedy for the jokes, for the respite.
Maybe Larry David the TV character can worry so freely about life’s nothings because he has no kids to worry about, and enough money to be insulated against economic anxiety. Oh to be wealthy and frivolous enough to open a coffee shop just for spite. That was so 2019.
2020 will be a year of financial reckoning for many. There is someone in our extended family whose company is struggling for survival. Another two who have been looking for a job – that task will be more difficult now than ever. We have two young nurses in our midst – one waiting for the dreaded peak, the other at home with a ten-week-old – my grand-niece – worried about going back to work in this inhospitable climate. And there’s the patriarch of our extended family who is ninety-two and in relatively good health for his age. But he is ninety-two – one can’t help but worry about him and his peers.
This virus is a multi-generational scourge: it may prefer the elderly, but it does not discriminate against the young, as we have begun to learn. And as the long arm of its economic fallout reaches into the 401k’s of our retirees, it also empties the wallets of the working class, feeds the instability of our hourly workers and undercuts the fragile economies of our newly minted high school and college grads. Many of our waiters and service workers are young or supporting young children. And many are society’s most vulnerable members.
Humor will not play a part in the economic stimulus package, of course. But humor can provide an assist in our psychological recovery plans that reaches across generations. Fleabag, Veep, Big Mouth, SNL, I think You Should Leave, Barry, Schitt’s Creek – their comedic social commentary can help us get through the night and redirect us to a future when this virus is in our rearview. (Save too-close-to-home dramas like Years and Years for post-pandemic viewing.)
There should be no guilt in alleviating the darkness of the moment for a short while, especially in the hours before we sleep.
With every episode we watch of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I hope HBO does a coronavirus season next year. Just imagine Larry David fumbling with this crisis – infuriating people, saying and doing all the wrong things, paranoid about every sniffle and cough. They probably won’t touch the subject for good reason, but maybe David is just irreverent enough that he will. And maybe it will be the balm we need when this is all over.