What constitutes humor today? What is funny? Is Aristophenes still funny? Is Buster Keaton? Milton Berle? Richard Pryor? Is there something intrinsically timeless about comedy…or does it vary with cultural trends and contextual world events? Must a joke ‘travel well’, from culture to culture, to be genuinely comedic?
I love to laugh, I think everyone does. There’s something so elemental about laughter – it is perhaps the single emotion that differentiates us from all other living species. There are many categories of humor, but no matter how they are differentiated, the acid test remains a constant: if we are moved to laughter, it is comedy. It matters not whether we are embarrassed by our response, or reminded of our frailties or remember having been there, if it makes us laugh, it’s funny. And a good laugh can sometimes be as rare and as appreciated as good sex. Suffice it to say humor is an integral component to our emotional well being.
I’ve read that exposure to violence in video games, films, rap music, television may somehow lead to violent behavior in viewers. I’ve read that exposure to pornography of various themes – rape, bondage, bestiality, children, etc, leads to de-sensitized and aberrant behavior in its viewers. I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that extended exposure to ANYTHING has an enduring effect. That’s the premise with which I begin, that humans are influenced by the images and themes and styles which constitute their daily reality.
- Here’s what troubles me. I find much of what I encounter lately that passes for entertainment and comedy to be essentially mean-spirited and exploitative. Sure, we’ve all laughed at the sight of someone slipping and falling on a banana peel. That’s a specific kind of comedy – we laugh because “HE fell rather than ME”. And we can take that to extremes (and still laugh) – THEIR spouse was unfaithful, THEIR country was nuked, THEIR body was betrayed by disease. And that part of us grateful to be audience rather than victim responds to that exploration of our fundamental fears…with laughter. Our laughter’s a release. To be alive is to be both hopeful (for more joy), and fearful (of the pain we know awaits us all.) I wonder if ever an analysis has been conducted that correlates evolving styles of humor with disintegrating cultures. What was the nature of stand-up as Rome was circling the drain? .
- Somewhere along the line, it became not good enough to be just amused (or maybe it’s ALWAYS been that way), blood had to be drawn to really get the job done. IRONY (how may of us truly appreciate what ‘ironic’ means) rose to prominence, I think after Vietnam. I won’t attribute the ascendance of irony to David Letterman, but he is truly its poster boy. It’s as though, (just as some of us drive Fords, others BMW’s), what is funny becomes compartmentalized, stratified…
(Even as I write this, I’m confronted with my own sense of history.) It’s ALWAYS been cool to mock our ‘cultural inferiors’ – Southern bigots, inner city minorities, third world wannabes, immigrant aspirants. There’ll never be a shortage of targets, because a society of peerage will never exist. Ever. As in all species, there is dominance and dominated. Eminence may shift, but that dynamic is eternal. Letterman was ‘cool’. He was ‘COUNTER- culture. That is a fluid reality, but he caught the wave and continues to ride it.
We’re experiencing a surge in the popularity of ‘reality TV’ these days, probably because we’re bored with the formulaic dramas and sit-coms of the networks and because these shows give EVERYONE a shot at their Warhol-ian fifteen minutes of fame. They seem to have the same appeal as the Roman circuses and their gladiatorial bouts. We as audiences cheer at the carnage, both physical and emotional. We delight in the humiliation, the comeuppances, just as we patronize the Hard Copy’s and Inside Editions, which exploit the frailties and character shortcomings of public figures. Why do we find so compelling the fall of those we’ve raised to the status of icons? Why do we celebrate their triumphs and glory in their flameouts? Does their failure somehow make them ‘more like us’? Satire and parody were once components of the comedy family; they seem now its mainstays. And as our society is debased by insensitivity, ambition, the hunger for attention; the coarseness of our humor reflects that shift.
What was once fringe outrageousness is now mainstream. It’s a vein mined by Howard Stern and his legion of imitators on radio; by the proliferation of late nite competitors on television, each vying to be more ‘incorrect’ than the other. Curiously enough, Bill Maher, host of “Politically Incorrect” lost his show because of a few statements made on air. What he said was not all that startling, WHEN he said it and to whom he said it (shortly after 911, to an ABC national TV audience) WAS. Among other things he expressed the view that the highjacking terrorists were NOT cowards (as the press described them in the days following the tragedy) but rather brave and purposeful people. I happen to agree. But for a few fleeting moments, evidently some things were SACRED and not to be trifled with…at least for a period of mourning, (about as enduring as the frenzy to mount flags on the antennas of SUV’s. Seen many lately?)
We mock our presidents, we mock our priests, we mock our parents, we mock our policemen, doctors, soldiers, teachers, civil servants, courts, legislators, judges, scientists…If there’s a sacred cow today in American society, I’m unaware of its existence. More often than not, humor today involves a genuine spasm of laughter combined with a twinge of conscience – we KNOW that’s not supposed to be funny or at least to be laughed at…but we laugh, none the less. And our laughter endorses this particular brand of humor, validates it, encourages it.
My sense is this is a reflection of a malaise, dominating our present reality. We are a wealthy and powerful free society, which lacks the respect and affection from much of the outside world. A society which cannot guarantee the well-being of its own citizens from terrorism, corruption, poverty, bias, crime DESPITE the fact that we are the most successful political experience in the history of mankind. That’s pretty fucked up. We’ve got more material shit than anyone ever dreamed of, convenience, access, opportunity…yet I question whether the quality of life in America today is superior to that of other people in other places in other times. And perhaps the bitter, corrosive quality of what passes for humor today is somehow a reflection of that poignant possibility.