If comedy equals tragedy plus time, it’s no wonder yuks have been hard to come by in 2017. The news cycle is so relentless that no event—no matter how preposterous—gets the chance to ferment into a good joke. Meanwhile, under an openly hypocritical US government, to say nothing of the instabilities plaguing the UK and Germany, the old mainstay irony has become, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, a meaningless currency.
But a chance encounter with an old YouTube clip the other night made me realize that there is one particular kind of humor that’s well-suited to our historical moment. I am thinking of the humor inherent in schadenfreude, the German word that describes the perversely satisfactory delight we take in the suffering of another. Consider the delirious crowing online as Alabama voters served Senate candidate Roy Moore his just deserts. Of the few truly cathartic laughs on offer this year, 2017 has given us schadenfreude, and little else.
The clip in question was a classic moment from Sascha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show— “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” in which Cohen’s comedic alter-ego Borat whips an Arizona crowd into an anti-Semitic frenzy in less than two minutes. Cohen’s genius was that his barbs emerged organically, without open malice. His absurd personae simply drew out existing bigotry and put it on display; exposing people to their own cruelty was the punchline.
But in our current political climate, even this sketch doesn’t seem quite mean enough. It ends, and all those sentient banalities of evil are still having the time of their lives. Someone needs to throw them down a well, I thought; now that would be funny.
Like Cohen, I’m Jewish. Jews have always laughed at our own misery as our primary survival tool. (Well, running all of the banks everywhere helps too. See what I did there?) But now that’s not sufficient, at least not for me. Now, in order for me to laugh at the horrors of existence, the joke has to be on someone who deserves to be shamed.
A brief history of schadenfreude
It’s impossible to determine when Germans started using Schadenfreude—capitalized in German, lowercase in English—in casual conversation. The rules of compound-noun formation allow for the spontaneous creation of all manner of highly specific words. For example, Verzweiflungsschokoladenkonsum, which I just made up, means “the consumption of chocolate in utter despair”—an apt description of the state of affairs (Sachverhalt) for a friend who is definitely not me.
In German print, however, Schadenfreude began appearing with regularity in the mid-18th century. The oldest known example I could find comes from a rather brutal 1739 text by Christian Heinrich Spiess, Biographies of Suicides, Vol. 4. Its author recounts a journey into a particular small village “P.,” where a love affair has gone awry and the young man has killed himself in prison. Spiess sees the faces of some villagers, “curious and outraged, on which one could read the Schadenfreude.”
However, the most notable early appearance of the infamous term is as the title of a 1767 lyric poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, about a dead man unhappily reincarnated as a butterfly whose only joy is in eluding capture by an amorous couple. It ends with the exhortation of the girl (unrhymed translation mine): “Darling, come, capture it!/Oh, but I wanted it so badly/the tiny multi-colored thing!”
By the time Germany’s so-called “long 18th century” came to a close, schadenfreude had both entered the English lexicon in its new small-letter glory and become the object of serious philosophical inquiry. As Julia Driver, a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, recently highlighted during a colloquium on her research into the emotion, Arthur Schopenhauer deemed it “the worst trait in human nature,” dominating our hearts in the place “which pity ought to take” when confronted with suffering.
Nietzsche gave the slightly more sympathetic exegesis in Human, All Too Human (link German; translation mine) that “Schadenfreude originates in the fact that everyone, in certain aspects of which he is quite aware, feels badly sometimes; that he has sorrow, or envy, or pain. The misfortune [Schaden] that befalls others makes them equal in his eyes; it appeases his envy.” In this way, schadenfreude is the “barest expression of the victory and restoration of equality, within the higher world order as well.”
Laughing in the dark
To my mind, they are both right. Schadenfreude is malicious; it’s also a natural human response when we see someone get their comeuppance. I know this as I laugh—briefly and ruefully, and yes, probably barbarically—at the things I probably shouldn’t: a quick miming approximation of Louis C.K.’s pathological onanism; a “Lock Him Up” chant about Michael Flynn; a Handmaid’s Tale joke about Trent Franks; an entire front-page New York Times story on the monumental, toddler-level insecurity of the president of the United States.
But schadenfreude also feels natural at a time when so many people deserve to be taken down. Late-night comedians are all leaning into the feeling, from Stephen Colbert on Bill O’Reilly to Trevor Noah on Trump, Samantha Bee on Harvey Weinstein, and John Oliver on, well, anyone. It’s hard not to delight in the woes of disgraced men, and to laugh victoriously at the gradual chipping away of a monumentally unfunny world order.
But therein lies the—you know what, considering the context, I’m not going to say rub. The worst thing about the 2017 schadenfreude moment is that it’s not even fully realized. I might feel a bit of wrathful glee over Weinstein’s downfall or Paul Manafort’s arrest, but these are just stand-ins for the real moment of schadenfreude that we may never get. What I really want is the catharsis of a Trump impeachment, and a reckoning for every man who’s abused his power. It’s the omnipresent longing for fully-realized schadenfreude that makes the emotion so unsatisfying. I now possess an aspirational schadenfreude that would make even the likes of Nietzsche blush. It’s hard to ignore the warning that fighting with monsters can make you a monster; that the longer you stare into the abyss, the harder it will stare back.
As many fine comedians (and serious people) have said better than I, it is a mark of extreme privilege to claim that this is the worst time in American history. That’s not what I’m doing. But I am going to take a calculated risk and say that we are in a uniquely bad era in American humor history. Right now, the desire to get one’s jollies courtesy of the most barbaric emotion in human nature is outweighed only by the fact that a significant portion of the public—the Trump faithful; that folksy white supremacist next door—gets to feel that emotion already, all day long, as they watch the rest of us rail against the current state of the world. Theirs is a second-order schadenfreude—at the unfulfilled, insatiable desire of people like me to revel in their misery. And not even the Germans have a word for that.