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Laughing with Goldstein at the Ottawa Writer’s Fest

By Alessandro Marcon on November 2, 2012

From the moment that Jonathan Goldstein steps into the lights and behind the podium, he looks uncomfortable. Within mere minutes, the audience is laughing. The guffaws, hoots and chuckles that sound through the church continue throughout the evening as he reads from his book, converses with the host and fields questions from the audience. Though I can’t actually see the shimmering glare of perspiration on his neck or bald head, I imagine he’s sweating. I wouldn’t expect less. It’s part of his humour and part of why we laugh.

Goldstein, now on tour promoting his latest book, I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow, is most famous for his radio show WireTap, which airs on CBC Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons, for his work on the PRI radio show, This American Life and for a weekly column which he writes for the National Post. Wire Tap, if you’ve never heard it, is a prime example of post laugh-track comedy that reflects on the world while simultaneously poking fun at it. It wallows in the comedic and absurdist dilemma of existential angst: trying to make sense of a world which is essentially void of meaning and in which our destiny is death. While evident are glimpses of what one might call “seriousness,” said moments are deeply entrenched in a jovial self-mockery which might, as Goldstein reflects on his style of humour, “get at a greater truth.”

A recent episode titled “The World Upside Down” features Gregor (a reoccurring character) berating Goldstein for being one of the last to congratulate him on the birth of his son, an eloquent, existential monologue on the purity of the unborn, and a conversation with a one Laura Kraft, whose uncontrollable eye-rolling leads to her eye-balls physically flipping 180, causing her vision to appear upside-down. It’s a rollicking ride—half an hour very well spent.

Goldstein, looking just a tad squeamish at the podium, says, “Thank you. Thank you,” while the audience splashes him with a hearty round of applause. He begins reading the first of three stories which he’ll share from I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow. A large projection in the centre of the stage shows cartoon images by Arthur Jones which brilliantly accompany the story Goldstein tells of his family coming together to celebrate the birth of his niece. The audience roars with laughter at the reading, howls at the drawings. The piece both makes fun of and celebrates the particular lunacy of his family as seen through his eyes–a theme which runs through the entirety of the book.

The audience loves the stories that he reads, and though I’ll surely be mocked for my gushy and mushy insinuations, there’s an air of warmth in the room, something almost religious about the experience that has nothing to do with the fact we’re in a house of God and everything to do with the simple fact that shared laughter is a wonderful thing.

I note, as I sit on my wooden chair among the others in the space, that the laughter, which does in fact rise in swells that accompany the cadence of the words and the patterns of the story, is also quite personal. A huge and grizzly guffaw screams out from the back. A wild, airy giggle flits through the air long after a joke has passed and the topic has changed. In short, good humour opens spaces for all kinds of perspectives and interpretations. Everyone is laughing together, yet in their own way, and at their own time. There is not one singular joke to get. No one is being instructed as to which thing is meant to be funny or ironic.  David Foster Wallace, who in a 1990 essay titled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” noted the suffocating and futile irony prevalent on television, might have been pleased at the fact that a greater spectrum of comedy and irony now wanders around our media saturated world.  It takes a certain kind of humourist – not to be confused with a stand-up comedian (Goldstein makes this clear and would consider the act “terrifying”) – to pull this off.

Speckled through the self-deprecating stories are philosophical insights—sound cultural reflections. And while it’s possible to critique Goldstein for somehow exploiting his family for laughs (this question is asked), the topic illuminates a sensitive and genuine side to his character. The goal of his work is not the humiliation of others. “I’d feel terrible if that happened,” he says. He goes on to tell the audience how nervous he was that his sister might be offended at the story which he’d just previously shared with the audience. Goldstein’s humour, ultimately, is celebratory of the pain that life causes us, the conflicting tangle of emotions we feel in any given situation, and that these events which cause hurt and confusion can in fact be commemorated with a good dose of laughter. In short, it celebrates the complexity of being human, helps make the at-times unbearable, bearable.

His effort to be “live” at this event is case in point.

Like Goldstein, comedians like Louis CK, Tig Notaro, Marc Maron (to name just a few) work in a similar strain, taking comedy to places where we can laugh in a somehow more deeply cathartic way, transgressing the dangerous and banal rehashing of trite stereotypes or empty schadenfraude.

While Jonathan reflects on his hopes to continue progressing Wire Tap into new territory – the latest episode was a conscious effort to be “scary” – I, like many in the sold-out venue, will be listening along. But, for now, we’ll read, as I did last night.

Page 69 from I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow:

I don’t think my grandfather even knew how to use a fast-food drive-through speaker,’ I say. ‘I was once with him when he tried to order at Wendy’s. He started yelling for boiled eggs in all directions. Didn’t even bother to roll down the car windows.’

Our grandfathers could have no more predicted this world than we can predict the world of our grandchildren.