An Evening (or hour and a half, for the pedants) With Donald Glover

Can someone please get this man an Emmy? He has for some time been one of the best parts of Community, but, in my opinion, he really solidified his status as a national treasure in the recent mocumentary episode. I mean, for almost half an hour, all he did was sit, frozen and wide-eyed, in front of LeVar Burton – and it was freaking hilarious. I’m generally not a fan of physical humor – give me a finely tuned Stewart monologue over Step Brothers any day – but Glover singlehandedly restored my faith in the medium. And so, when he came to my school last Saturday to do stand-up, I was more thrilled than I was for the entire month before the seventh Harry Potter book came out (well, almost).

The one thing Donald Glover really, really, really wants you to know in his stand-up is that he is positively not his Community character. I mean, he’s hysterical – but if you go into his show expecting the guy who calls it “no-no juice,” you will likely be disappointed. Also extremely offended. I feel as though he may have at some point heard about the concept of “too far,” but seriously doubts its actual existence. The most reassuring thing I can tell PC addicts is that he doesn’t discriminate – yes, he (I’m just going to put an umbrella disclaimer that this all makes sense in context) compares having AIDS to having children, discusses racist deaf people, and pushes the women’s movement back about seventy years, but he also makes fun of Home Depot and the Holocaust in the same sentence.

But I mean, there’s something freeing about no-holds-barred comedy, and it’s more than just “I cannot believe he just went there…oh, he’s going further” shock. If you really think about what’s allowed in comedy, it is ludicrously constricting. Seriously, why do you think people so often resort to poop jokes? In a PG-13 movie, that’s about as far as you’re allowed to push the envelope. “Ah!” you might be saying to your computer. “But just two paragraphs ago, wasn’t Jon Stewart mentioned as a paragon of intelligent humor?” Well, yes, and political and cultural satire is all very well and good, but it is still forced to ignore – particularly in the way Stewart executes it – the humor inherent to a very large part of many people’s day-to-day existences. We have arranged our lives so that we are forbidden to even acknowledge that sad and horrible things can also be kind of funny.

Consider, for example, the recent Japanese earthquake. It was a horrible tragedy, and should be treated with delicacy and respect. That makes it difficult for comedians to deal with. Jon Stewart gets around the problem by making fun of people’s reactions to it. Stephen Colbert simply makes fun of himself. I don’t watch Leno, but I assume he was too busy pointing out typos in the headlines of local papers in the Midwest to even notice anything had happened. Gilbert Gottfried sat down, got on Twitter, and made a few utterly tasteless jokes about the tragedy itself. Should he have done this? Absolutely not. But I think that, rather than attempting to analyze why a guy who thrives on shock humor would say a few things designed to shock, we would come to far more interesting conclusions by analyzing our reactions to it.

Face it: we take ourselves too seriously. We’re so afraid of stepping over a few lines or on a few toes that we refuse to even get close. I just made fun of Jay Leno (you’re welcome, world), and the most common complaint people have about him is that he is “safe.” Well, I’m sorry, but, duh. Obviously, he’s safe – all that happens to people who are not is that they get fired from their jobs (even if that job is the quintessentially awful one of being the voice of an insurance company’s talking duck).

And yet, that being said, there is a huge difference between finding the humor in a terrible situation and simply being a jerk. I’m not sure what defines that difference, and I strongly suspect that it must be identified on a case-by-case basis, but I am absolutely certain it exists. Perhaps it’s time, perhaps it’s setting, perhaps it’s personal association, but there is a reason that Gilbert Gottfried was fired and Donald Glover had a room full of uproariously laughing college students.

Perhaps  it’s simply Glover’s innate likability. I could tell, even as he was saying some of the most outrageous things I have ever heard come out of a human mouth, that he did not actually believe what he was saying. He could recognize the humor in it without fully investing in it, and pushed the joke past the point where it was funny only because it was forbidden. And even though he clearly knows that a lot of his laughs come from their shock value and so that’s a route he should pursue, he still gives off a vibe of being a genuinely nice guy who loves the audience. In other words, there’s more to him than jokes about the KKK. For example, at the end of the show, after he finished his act, he asked if there was anything we’d like to know or see him do, and one guy in the back who though he was being funny yelled out ” Do a backflip!” Glover gave an incredulous look in the guy’s general direction, then shook his head, moved the microphone, stool, and water bottle – and did a freaking backflip (then yelled out, “I did gymnastics for seven years, bitches!” but he deserved it). Glover is amazingly talented (he also free-styled  for us, giving one of my classmates the coolest story ever about how he beat boxed for Donald Glover), enough so that he understands how to use shock humor to be funny and do more than just offend.

There were a few low points – sometimes, his timing is off, making the set-up overly prolonged or the punchline awkward – but you can tell at these points that it’s because Glover himself is so invested in the joke or story that he forgets for a moment that he is performing and not just talking to some friends. Which actually kind of made the experience better, because it invested the proceedings with a kind of intimacy and strengthened the connection between Glover and the audience. Ultimately, I left the show still laughing and with an admittedly creepy desire for Donald Glover to be my new best friend. I feel like that’s basically the stand-up comedian’s job, and Glover executed it perfectly. The one truly negative thing I have to say is that, after hearing Glover explain how the only way for him to be raped would be for a man to dress up as a chair and hide in a movie theater, waiting for him to accidentally sit down, watching Community is going to be a rather different experience.

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