Life as an Extreme Sport

Jon Stewart, Osama bin Laden, and the Joker appearing as the id

Id. Not I.D. or intelligent design or any of the numerous other acronyms that exist for those two letters. Just id. It was a word casually slipped into the dialog of last night’s episode of The Daily Show as Stewart (and, one presumes, staff) unabashedly celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden.

I realized, from the opening closeup of the May 2nd episode, that there were going to be a lot of people disappointed in Stewart and company’s reaction. Why? Well, both Stewart and Colbert have reached that point in the cultural zeitgeist where a big event happens and people – or at least liberal people of a certain age – say “I can’t wait to see what Stewart and Colbert have to say.” (And an accompanying joke has arisen – the biggest news items happen when the two are on break. Thus, Danny DeVito’s celebratory tweet that The Daily Show was not on break.)

What I saw going around Monday night amongst the liberal crowd I associate with was a general eagerness to the gravitas and perspective Stewart was going to lend to the discussion. People were, I think, envisioning something like the September 20, 2001 return to broadcast: sober gravitas reflecting on tragedy and inspiring hope.

What people got, instead, was id. Pure, unadulterated id. So, it might help to know what id is.

Now, apparently my Freud ran off with Aristotle and Buddha only knows what those two are getting up to, so I’m doing this from memory. (In other words, pure psychologists, please don’t crucify me.) Id, given to us by Freud rather late in his academic career, is part of the trio he envisioned that runs our daily lives: id, ego, super-ego. It might help to think of them as tiers – the highest functioning level is the super-ego, and it’s what acts in direct opposition to the id. It’s focus is morality, rules, order – it’s kind of the Superman of your soul.

Then we have the ego. Ego is the mediator between the id, the super-ego, and external reality. This is reason and common sense that attempts to control the id and play nice with the world, while still ignoring the super-ego enough to have fun. The ego is totally Batman.

The id is the bottom layer of these tiers. It’s not the unconscious, but it is the uncontrolled. The id is pure passion and response, constantly seeking pleasure and relief of impulse; there is no thought of consequences, just desire and action. It’s sort of like a toddler hopped up on sugar and caffeine, rapidly shifting from one thing to the next without thought or sense; there’s no negation or “this might be a bad idea”, simply the satisfaction of whatever chaotic desire or impulse pops to mind. In other words, the id is the Joker.

Batman works to keep Superman in check enough to have fun, while simultaneously making sure that the Joker doesn’t get so out of control that you wake up with half the city covered in toilet paper and the other half on fire.

Monday night on The Daily Show, Batman and Superman went out for a drink and let the Joker run free.

Why? Well, I’m not them, so I can only speculate. Alliteratively, it’s cathexis seeking catharsis. Value judgements and morality come into play with Batman and Superman; the Joker just wants to have that release of pent up energy and stress and fear and anguish at seeing all the death and destruction inspired by one person. Stewart, in particular, has always been very honest about how he was affected by seeing the Twin Towers destroyed, and his reaction seemed rooted in that experience of a New Yorker who was there that day, who bore witness to the destruction.

In a day or two, Batman and Superman will shake off their hangovers, grab the Joker, and shove him back into Arkham Asylum. (There was already a significant pulling back on the id for both Stewart and Colbert in their May 3rd broadcasts.) But if you find yourself disgusted at the Mardi Gras coloured vomit over everything, you might be interested in knowing that Freud thought that the Joker (the id) controlled something that is essential to anyone who writes, acts, performs, or otherwise engages in the arts: the drive to create.