Many years ago, when I was a novice debater, Josh was a junior and invited a bunch of us younglings to a gay pirate puppet rock opera–The Jollyship the Whiz-bang–under the Brooklyn Bridge (on the Manhattan side). He himself had gone to see it when he was a freshman, and remembered it as being the best show he attended in New York. Let me pause here and credit Josh for organizing things like this and basically saving the Columbia debate team, which often seemed to be basically comprised of him and an entire class of novices (I should note that Chis S., Eric W., and Tom L. were also great upperclassmen, though they debated less often). Without these puppet shows, comedy club outings, team dinners, and cookie party/practice rounds, I don’t think the team would exist today, much less enjoy a return to competitive success. What’s more, he established the drama-free team culture of camaraderie and friendship that persists to this day–a culture that I would only later discover to be somewhat rara avis among teams on the circuit.
Anyway, that night, I distinctly remember Jollyship being a tremendously entertaining show, though I forgot nearly all of the details–save that there was a pair of great dancers who would become my gold standard for Williamsburg-style hipster gyrating. In 2010, the group came back for one show, and one show only, at The Public Theater. I serendipitously, and coincidentally, had recently started following their long-inactive Facebook page and saw this surprise and limited return as a sign that I must go. I excitedly gathered a few good friends who hadn’t seen it before (Caitlin H., Ryne D., and Sarah B.) for another fabulous night. The live band was fantastic, and the humor was clever and cutting–New York City at its best, shades of Jason Schwartzman. Music and comedy and performance were so perfectly integrated and I have yet to have a more complete entertainment experience. To some extent, watching the show again was like the final scene in Ratatouille, where the food critic takes one bite of his dish and it transports him back to his childhood. His immense pleasure did not merely reside in the intrinsic good preparation of the dish, but the delightful deja vu, a welcome homecoming of long-lost neurons, reinvigorated and firing anew. Though my friends raved about the show when we left the theater, I’m certain I enjoyed it most of all. It is the type of show one could see again and again, like re-watching Casablanca or the Ring cycle. Half of the experience is the memory of the last time you saw it, and the great evening you had. If I ever see it again, I’ll remember a fun night with old friends, and years earlier, a fun night with new ones.
Where does all this good feeling come from? Some psychologists speculate that pleasure of nostalgia comes from the mere act of correctly remembering an event rather than truly reflecting on what actually happened, and intuitively I do seem to get pleasure sometimes just from the act of remembering something I thought was lost. There are also psych studies that nostalgia is pleasurable even when the evoked memory was a bad one. Still that “oh cool I remembered” boost might be a separate pathway from nostalgia per se, as colloquially we only use ‘nostalgia’ to describe a good feeling (though it was originally coined to describe bad remembrance) and I think our brains generally do a good job of discriminating between positively and negatively rewarding experiences. Nostalgia is probably another type of reinforcing positive emotional response to some rewarding memory, just one that was formed long ago. The amygdala is a good candidate site for nostalgia to arise–it is the most central part of the brain for emotional experience, and connection with the neocortex could allow the amygdala to coordinate learning and experience with emotional response. Audio tones, for example, have been shown to have the ability to become associated with rewarding or nonrewarding food, while lesions in the amygdala prevent this learning of a pleasurable/unpleasurable response to a stimuli. Why we have a particularly large emotional response to distant memories is still unknown (as far as I can tell), though perhaps it has less to do with time than that the original experience itself had a powerful emotional effect. Scientists think the degree of arousal produced by an emotional stimulus determines the degree of amygdala participation in memory storage for the stimulus.
I never understood why Jollyship only reunited for one show, or why they never became a bigger and more enduring hit. They earned, after all, high praise from the NYTimes and Gothamist. Perhaps their humor was too edgy for most–metropolitan provincialism. Regardless, here’s a selection of clips of the show I found on YouTube. I hope that they’ll come back for another tour, and perhaps for future generations of Columbia debaters to continue the tradition.