Friday, July 22, 2016
I was scrolling through another mindless Facebook newsfeed, when I noticed something I found really interesting. Among the screeds of political haters and social justice warriors was a disproportionate batch of video clips and photo memes from comedians, all of which were politically themed. Most of them were snarky. A few were certifiably fake. But none of them, regardless of their agenda, were particularly funny.
Instead of making me laugh, this phenomenon made me wonder. Why is there so much comedy? And why is so much of it just not funny?
Okay, so I'm not a young, millennial hipster. I acknowledge that I am no longer cutting edge (not that I'm sure I ever was). I hail from an age when comedy was a completely different animal, dominated mainly by self-deprecating Jewish men. To this day, the works of Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Alan King, Don Rickles, Henny Youngman, Phil Silvers, Jerry Stiller, Albert Brooks, Garry Marshall -- schtickmeisters of the Golden Age -- still elicit chuckles from me and everyone else who has the motivation to seek them out.
In those days, everyone in the multi-ethnic audience laughed. Today, nobody really does. I think I know why:
First, the whole notion of "funny" has changed. And I'm not rehashing the whole social justice warrior thing. I'm talking about what people now identify as humorous. Sigmund Freud once asserted that humor is actually veiled hostility, citing the fact that unlike every other animal on the planet, humans are the only ones who ostensibly don't show their teeth as an expression of anger. Freud speculated that all humor, therefore, actually is rooted in anger, it's just served up as laughter.
Freud may have been right, considering a majority of what I now see passing as humor is much more akin to harsh rants and endless diatribes about all that's wrong with someone else. Whereas George Burns might have remarked on the adorable, misguided antics of his wife, Gracie Allen, now we watch any stand-up wannabe drone on about how stupid the people are at the DMV. Or the post office. Or in the government. Or at the very next desk where they work.
Today's comedy has also been dumbed down to the low level of education of the audience. Few people know anything about history, world events, art or literature. Were they to launch their act today, I'd bet Monty Python's Flying Circus would never get off the ground. In fact, with the world increasingly atomized by digital technology, everyone lives in his own individual world, unaware that others exist. As such, the comedians' frames of reference has shrunk dynamically to the point that very few common frames of reference can be addressed. Believe me, comedians don't focus on sex because it's edgy; they focus on sex because it's one of the increasingly few topics to which everyone in the audience can relate. As the country dumbs down, there's less relevant material. This is the momentum which powered Jerry Seinfeld's brand of relativistic comedy: Comedy went from people laughing at this is my funny observation to nodding in agreement to have you ever noticed?
Comedy was no longer funny. It became a sense of community which then morphed into factionalism. You either get it or you don't. You're either in or you're out. You're either one of us or you're not.
I also notice that what passes for comedy is often nothing more than petty sniping, offering no solutions to the problems the comedians cite. Even the dark humor of Lenny Bruce not only exposed the folly of narrow-mindedness, but offered up solutions. Today, if you listen closely, comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert offer nothing other than sharp criticisms, but never reveal their true cleverness by going the next step of solution, which would be far funnier, especially if the solution to the problem were simple and sensible.
It's too bad that comedy, like so much else, has deteriorated to the levels it has. But it doesn't come as a complete surprise. Now unzip your pants and enjoy the show.