Maybe because so many traditional voices of authority seem to be devolving into jokes, we turn more and more to comedians for commentary on serious matters. Politics and news? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Feminism? Amy Schumer and Tina Fey.
So, why not turn to Aziz Ansari for a look at how we find love in the 21st century, or Colin Quinn for thoughts on relations between the races?
Handily enough, Ansari and Quinn have new books on those very subjects, and both have some thoughtful things to say.
Ansari has called his book, “Modern Romance,” (288 pages; Penguin Press; $28.95) a “two-year science project” in recent interviews, and (for once) he’s not kidding. Best known for his standup act and for playing the entrepreneurial Tom Haverford on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” the South Carolina native dived into serious research for this book.
Ansari wrote it with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, and between them they interviewed numerous experts, conducted focus groups with hundreds of people, gathered scads of information from subjects’ smartphones and online dating accounts, and even traveled to three other continents to scope out dating scenes in Paris, Buenos Aires and Tokyo (where, in a nation whose marriage rate has dropped so alarmingly the government subsidizes nightclubs, they discovered the bizarre and growing phenomenon of the “herbivore man”).
The result of that research is a brightly written, insightful and often surprising book about just how much, and how rapidly, technology has changed our intimate relationships.
Ansari, who’s 32 and unmarried (although, he writes, happily in a relationship), is part of the millennial generation that is the book’s chief subject pool. He cracks wise from time to time about his own experiences, but “Modern Romance” isn’t a memoir.
Instead, it’s a smart and well-supported examination of the intersection of tech and romance. Just a few generations ago, Ansari points out, most couples met through family, friends or work. His own parents had an arranged marriage — as he tells it, his father’s parents introduced him to three suitable local girls. One was too tall, the second too short, but the third was the right height. They were married a week after that Goldilocks-like introduction and one conversation.
There’s something to be said for such limited choices, he thinks. Now, thanks to computers and smartphones, people looking for romantic partners have an almost infinite number of choices, which can be paralyzing.
Americans spend an average of 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen of one kind or another (and we’re not even in the top five nations for screen time; Indonesia wins with nine hours). As a result, our personal relationships more and more take place in digital spaces. Younger people report they’re more likely to find a potential partner via social media such as Facebook or Tinder, or online dating sites: “OKCupid alone is responsible for around forty thousand dates of new couples every day.” A 2014 survey of more than 2,000 18- to 30-year-olds showed that 56 percent of them had broken up with someone via digital media, most often in a text.
Does that equal a golden age of opportunities to find our soul mates, or a big hot mess? Too soon to know, Ansari suggests, because it’s happening so fast. He does write, though,“It made me wonder whether our ability and desire to interact with strangers is another muscle that risks atrophy in the smart-phone world. You don’t need to make small talk with strangers when you can read the ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ Wikipedia page anytime you want. Honestly, what stranger can compete with a video that documents the budding friendship of two baby hippopotamuses? No one, that’s who.”
In “The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America,” (240 pages; Grand Central Publishing, $26) Colin Quinn isn’t wondering whether the future looks like an improvement over the past. He’s firmly nostalgic: “I never thought I’d see the day when the ethnic group running New York was the nerds.”
Quinn is a baby boomer raised in Brooklyn, a veteran of “Saturday Night Live” and a standup stalwart. Despite its tongue-in-cheek subtitle, Quinn has more common sense than to think he’s going to solve a problem that complex. “The Coloring Book” is really a memoir.
Quinn grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, long before it became gentrified, then excruciatingly hip.
“Park Slope in the seventies was magical,” he writes.“It was a special place to grow up. Everyone felt it, except the murder victims.
“I would walk home from Intermediate School 88, past Puerto Rican blocks, black blocks, Italian blocks, Irish blocks, the Arab deli, the Chinese takeout place, the first Dominican bodega, and the remnants of what was once a big Polish neighborhood. … From kindergarten through high school, we had every kind of kid in my house all the time. So I should be the only person in the country allowed to talk about race.”
Quinn is being sarcastic, but he’s also aiming at the discussions we do have about race, which can circle around so many related topics that we never get to the heart of the matter.
But this book is in no way a polemic, or even mostly serious. It’s a warm, funny, often profane reminiscence about and celebration of growing up in that multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural neighborhood.
Do Quinn’s jokes deal in stereotypes? They do, as does virtually all comedy. The crux of the matter is how a joke subverts the stereotype, sets up our expectations and then tilts our perspective. Quinn doesn’t pull it off every time, but he’s a pro who rarely misses the mark, and beneath the cutting wit is a mostly soft heart. And a lot of the time the joke is on him.
Soon we’ll see how these jokes play on stage. “Colin Quinn: The New York Story,” based on “The Coloring Book” and produced and directed by Jerry Seinfeld (who made headlines a few weeks ago complaining about how he thinks political correctness is stifling comedy), opens off-Broadway on July 23.
| Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times