Welcome to this week’s Watcher’s Forum, where each Monday the Council and their invited guests weigh in with short takes on a single topic.
This week’s question: Generally speaking, are comedians and comedy less funny today than they were previously? Has America lost touch with its sense of humor?
The Razor: Having been a fan of Comedy from the 3 Stooges to Dave Chappell, I think that Comedy today is much less free than it was 40 years ago. On one hand I can watch a comedienne talk in detail about masturbating on stage on the Comedy channel, something that would have been unthinkable in the era of George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Yet that same station has censored South Park for fear of offending Muslims.
Comedy used to be a revolutionary force. During the Renaissance, wandering groups used to stage puppet and stage shows that made fun of the clergy and aristocracy, stoking the fires that inevitably lead to the Reformation and revolutions in England, the US and France. In more recent times comedy was a countercultural force led in the underground by the likes of Lenny Bruce and Carlin and in the mainstream by shows like “Laugh In” and later “Saturday Night Live.” Comedy played an important role and breaking the color barrier, with Bill Cosby, Pryor and Eddie Murphy proving that black people were just like other ethnic groups.
Unfortunately today the subversive nature of Comedy has been lost, smothered by the corporate nature of the business that has adopted political correctness as a doctrine to avoid being sued when someone is offended. Today it’s only okay to poke fun at white males. If you think that ethnic humor today is alive and well, see an early routine by Eddie Murphy. If you think we are freer today than the past watch a re-run of Laugh In. Neither would be acceptable in today’s politically correct climate.
When President Obama is portrayed, as he is in the Key and Peele show, he is played as a “straight man,” calm, above the fray and respected. Similarly Saturday Night Live has struggled to do skits about the President that are funny yet respectful, with a bland result. Since Obama has taken over the genre is brain dead, kept on life support by the likes of Jon Stewart who does his best to make new jokes about safe subjects as Republican lawmakers and Tea Party activists.
When the cows are too sacred to slay Comedy is boring.
Bookworm Room: A very good question, Rob. Here’s my answer, for what it’s worth:
When I was in high school, a lot of the more precocious students in my English class wanted to write just like E.E. Cummings or John Dos Pasos. Who needs grammar, they asked. We are artists. Our teacher quickly disabused them of this notion, explaining that there’s a difference between deliberately abandoning formalism and just be too dumb, or uneducated, to know better.
Formalism has its virtues, and one of those virtues is rigor. In the old days, when there were clear boundaries which entertainers (outside of burlesque) could not cross, comedians didn’t complain about having to work within a social framework. Instead, they became masters of their small canvas. In much the same way, Jane Austen described her social comedy masterpieces as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”
I defy anyone to watch “I love Lucy” without at least cracking a smile. These episodes poked fun at the human condition. Young or old, black or white, we all understood and could laugh at the eternal battle between the sexes (one waged on the show with a great deal of love), at Lucy’s childlike machinations, at the abiding friendship binding together two disparate couples, and just at the plain silliness that ensued every week. Small canvas; big humor.
Nowadays, humor is an instrument of attack. Even outside of the Alinsky political model, humor has been politicized. On every Disney or Nick show, all of which are aimed at children, the “jokes” are savage — siblings hate each other (where’s the love Wally and Beav showed?); the sexes battle perpetually without any affection; and adults are buffoons. The adult shows are worse. They’re meaner, less moral, and less funny since they lack the slapstick that intermittently lightens the kids’ shows.
So yes, we’re not as funny as we once were, because we’re much meaner than we once were.
JoshuaPundit: I suppose it depends on whom you ask, but generally, I’d say yeah. There are a lot of reasons for it.
A lot of the essence of comedy can be summed up in three words… someone else’s misfortune. This is why we laugh at the man slipping on the banana peel, ethnic jokes and those one liners… either because they relate to situations we’ve found ourselves in, or because it’s funny to see someone else experience them and react. It’s why Lucille Ball and the Honeymooners were so funny. It’s why a lot of the truly great comedians came out of poverty or prejudice they experienced and why Charlie Chaplin’s films still break em’ up a century after they were made. The great comedians used that experience in their material.
However, in today’s America, everyone’s a victim. Which means no one is. That’s why a lot of comedy is so mean spirited and unfunny these days, because we’re no longer willing to laugh at ourselves.
And it isn’t the language either. I have live CDS of standup club sets from people like Red Foxx, Belle Barth, Nipsey Russell and others that were delightfully smutty but they approached in a good natured, earthy way. Eddie Murphy had the same quality. Almost all of today’s comics lack that sort of playful sensibility.
Another reason is that with some notable exceptions, the talent isn’t really there, largely because there are fewer and fewer places for them to work and develop their art. Comedians like the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Richard Pryor, Jim Carey and Redd Foxx had a lot more clubs to play and years to get their acts together. Whole club circuits, like the one in the Catskills where yesteryear’s Jewish comedians got their start and the one for black comedians known colloquially as the Chitlin’ Circuit, have simply disappeared.
Los Angeles is one of the entertainment centers of the world, and you can literally count the clubs where you can see live comedy on your fingers. When someone does come along with talent, they’re frequently pushed out into the spotlight before they’ve really had time to develop.
The lack of seasoning shows. I saw a delightful video of an 80-year-old Don Rickles on Jimmie Kimmel’s show and the old pro could barely walk to his seat, but he still understood funny in ways most of today’s comedians simply don’t.
The Colossus of Rhodey: YES! Comedy SUCKS these days! Political correctness and constant vigilance over “sensitivity” and “intolerance” have made mainstream “comedy” completely unfunny these days. Comedians are literally afraid of who they’ll offend, and how it may affect their careers. There’s not a single funny comedy on television these days, and there hasn’t been since “Seinfeld” in the 1990s. Personally, I maintain my funny bone with healthy doses of “M*A*S*H” (first through fifth seasons only!) on TVLand network, “Cheers” on Reelz network, and “Seinfeld” in syndication. Not to mention, I am a prodigious fan of the Three Stooges. Their earliest shorts are approaching eighty — EIGHTY!! — years old, and they still cause me to bust a gut every time I watch them. How many comedians can say their efforts have endured for so long?
But — contemporary comedies which break the PC mold, so to speak, have been incredibly successful. Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0? is totally irreverant, featuring jokes that will offend every race, ethnicity and orientation. E!’s “The Soup” is successful for the very same reasons. These shows’ “I don’t give a sh**” attitude is extremely refreshing in a glossy, polished, and scripted comedy world. But you’d never see these programs on a big network. Just as you’ll never again see shows like “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” and “The Jeffersons” again.
Movies are suffering from the same. I haven’t seen a single funny comedy movie since the 1980s. Will we ever see another “Animal House”? “North Dallas Forty”? “Slap Shot”? “Used Cars”?? Not in my opinion. Many modern comedies considered “funny” simply aren’t: “Wedding Crashers,” “Old School,” “The Forty Year Old Virgin” … no way. They all may include a few small chuckles here and there, but they essentially follow the same script and formula. And, hence, they’re boring as balls.
Some of personal faves have already been listed, but for specificity’s sake, here are Hube’s highest comedy recommendations:
* Three Stooges (any Curly short, as well early Shemp shorts)
* M*A*S*H (as mentioned, seasons 1-5. Seasons 2 and 3 are by far the best)
* Barney Miller
* Three’s Company (skip the last few seasons)
* All in the Family (but not very good after Mike and Gloria move away)
* Sanford and Son
* The Carol Burnett Show
* Used Cars
* Animal House
* Hollywood Shuffle
* Planes, Trains and Automobiles
* Fast Times at Ridgemont High
* This is Spinal Tap
* Monty Python and the Holy Grail
* Take the Money and Run
The Glittering Eye: Yes, but it’s not just the U.S. British humor isn’t as funny as it used to be, French humor isn’t as funny as it used to be, and Italian humor isn’t as funny as it used to be. German humor was never funny.
If you don’t believe me, compare the classic sketch comedy and sitcoms of the 70s and 80s (even the 90s) with those of today. What British sketch comedy series is as funny as Monty Python or The Two Ronnies? Is today’s SNL as funny as that of the 70s or 80s?
I don’t entirely know why it is. Part is novelty. Every sitcom wants to be “All in the Family” nowadays. There can be only one and that was 40 years ago.
But part is the writing. Carl Reiner said that the secret to comedy is “Talk British. Think Yiddish.” I don’t think today’s writers are thinking Yiddish any more.
Finally, Langston Hughes said “Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it.”
The guys getting jobs as TV writers today have too much already to be funny.
The Noisy Room: Comedians and comedy are definitely less funny today than they were in the past. Sadly so.
Gone are the slapstick, whacky days of the Three Stooges, Red Skelton, Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy. How I miss and long for the original Looney Tunes that I watched as a child and colored in coloring books. I used to watch Benny Hill with my dad and we would laugh till we cried. I loved the wit of Monty Python and the genius of Mr. Bean.
America has become so jaded and partisan, that as a nation, she seems to have gone somewhat psychotic. Laughing at inappropriate times and going stone faced during periods of obvious levity. In the midst of a national depression, our humor has turned dark and non-existent, unless it is at the expense of those who oppose us.
There are a few shining bits of light in comedy still however… Eddie Izzard is brilliant and uproariously funny (see his standup and Mockingbird Lane). But you know things have gone bad when what few laughs you get these days are from Jack In The Box and Allstate ads. I long for Bob Newhart or Carol Burnett. Heck, I even miss Phyllis Diller. I watch Carey Grant, Bing Crosby and Danny Kay just to get a chuckle.
I don’t know why I am upset – I mean every day we have the Keystone Cops in our government running around, smacking the crap out of us. Daily, evil whackiness ensues.
Well, there you have it.
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