Chris Rock has never been one to mince words, and his November 1st monologue on Saturday Night Live was no exception. Rock stirred controversy by referencing 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing in his set, which was perceived by some as making light of these traumatic events. An important question about the nature of comedy is raised: Are certain topics simply off-limits? Or can comedy, at its best, reach into the darkest corners of our collective memory, and help us see ourselves in a new way?
I suggest that Chris Rock’s references to 9/11 and the Marathon bombing on SNL demonstrate this other form of comedy. That is, it can be a societal mirror, showing us a reflection of ourselves that is more authentic than the one we typically imagine. His monologue was emphatically not offensive, and did exactly what comedy is supposed to do.
Let me back up a little bit. I was on a D Line train, halfway between Copley and Arlington, around midday on April 15th, 2013. In a dazed mix of fatigue and inebriation that can only be experienced by a person who woke up at 7 AM to drink shitty vodka, I took out my phone to see how long I had before work. I had a Twitter notification: Bombs go off at Boston Marathon finish line. Needless to say, I got off before my stop.
I stood on the packed Arlington Station escalator for what felt like a long time (in reality, it was the normal amount of escalator time). I was scared. I had no way of knowing that the whole station wasn’t about to blow, and even though I never learned how to be afraid that the subway would just up and explode, I learned very quickly in that moment. Above ground, it was hard to tell how much of the chaos was because of the bombings and how much was just routine for a marathon finish line. But whatever it was, it was an entirely alien experience for me. Never had I been told to stay out of crowds or away from trashcans. Never had I worried about using the last minutes of my cell phone battery to call my parents so that they wouldn’t wonder if I had died. I wandered around looking for a friend of a friend who’d been running. I barely knew her, but maybe I just needed to find something to be doing other than being scared. Maybe I needed to forget I was vulnerable.
But I was vulnerable. And that’s where Chris Rock’s monologue comes in. Rock’s set was a performance of unashamed vulnerability. By posing the question, “What could go wrong?” he forces us to acknowledge that something can go wrong. How many of us does Rock speak for when he joked he would never go into the Freedom Tower? On the flip side, how many of us feel comfortable voicing that fear? And how much of our public discourse acknowledges the vulnerability that was revealed on that day?
We were told that the best way to defeat terrorists is to refuse to be terrorized. We were told to be Boston Strong (and sold shirts as encouragement). Politicians and preachers and professors told us that what is great about Boston is that our spirit is never defeated. It reminded me of a line I vividly recall from President Bush’s speech to the nation on 9/11. He said, they may be able to knock down our buildings, but they can never destroy the foundation of America. I’m paraphrasing, but the message is clear: We are strong and that can never change.
To be clear, I’m not saying that vulnerability is something to be treasured. But it is something to be recognized. Judith Butler, noting the emphasis of American political rhetoric on strength and the concurrent unwillingness to recognize vulnerability, wrote “When grieving is something to be feared, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve it quickly…to reinvigorate a fantasy that the world formerly was orderly.” The vulnerability that I felt, that Rock expressed, is a basic fact of our existence in political society, a “part of bodily life.” This fact is all too often suppressed in order to protect a particular understanding of an “orderly” state or city, which is why Chris Rock’s performance is so important. This vulnerability “signifies a primary helplessness and need, one to which society must attend.” Once that vulnerability has been spoken, it can become the site of politics, and thus a means of coming to terms with ourselves.