Friday, July 22, 2016

Why Comedy Isn't Funny

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.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Smith for President

Sometime between the Neolithic and Paleolithic Eras, I found myself a sophomore in college, which in the day of four-year university curricula, made me a second year student.  It was during these last years of childhood that I was fortunate to discover a variety of theories, philosophies and facts that expanded and altered my viewpoints on a number of topics.  At the top of the list was my exposure to economic theory.

Until college, I'd never heard of John Stuart Mill or Adam Smith.  To me, Malthusian Theory sounded like a first rate science fiction feature from the fifties.  Like most kids, I simply took economics for granted: as long as the liquor store had beer and I had cash, the system worked.

It was at the end of my junior year I chose to major in, and write a graduating thesis on, Economic History. Having discovered that everything I'd learned in life was pretty much a lie, I had no use for social, religious, political or art history.  I dismissed all of them as completely lacking any credibility. After all, who really marches across Europe to the Holy Land for religion? Isn't it really about pillage and treasure?  Of course. And that's when I embraced Adam Smith and the notion of humans moving in, and only for, their own self-interests.  

Now that made sense to me. But it also begged a much more important question: If so much of what I'd been taught was a lie, how much more was there to re-examine?  Turned out there was a lot. In fact, just about everything I looked at challenged the veracity of just about everything I'd been taught in my first 20 years of life.

The toughest transition young adults have to make is discovering the disparity between truths and teachings. Sure, it's great to hear how the American War Between the States was about the abolition of slavery. The truth, however, turns out to have far less to do about slavery than it does about economics, with the industrial North wresting control of the union from the agrarian South.  As politically incorrect as it may sound, prior to 1865, slaves were viewed as industrial capital, in the same way we view trucks, machines and hardware today.  Southern plantations invested the modern day equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars into the purchase, maintenance and propagation of their slave labor -- and weren't too keen about simply "letting them go" with no reimbursement.  Imagine today's government demanding Exxon and Chevron turning over their drilling, shipping, refining and research facilities with no remuneration. Probably wouldn't incite a whole lot of national favor.

When viewed through the economic lens, just about everything looks and acts differently, including politics. And nothing takes on a completely different personality than the Presidency of the United States.

For some reason, Americans -- including this, the least educated generation in modern history -- cling to the notion of the Presidency as they were taught in grade school.  Beginning with George Washington's chopping of the cherry tree, legends and under-qualified school teachers drone on about the political and social attributes of our national leaders, without ever addressing their true agenda: economic welfare of the union.   Oh, you may get a mention of the Louisiana Purchase or Seward's Folly (the purchase of Alaska), but that's just a minor withdrawal from petty cash.  Put on your big boy pants, and pretty soon you find that every President from Washington on down put the people's economic interests first and foremost.

The Boston Tea Party? Economic. The Whiskey Rebellion? Economic. The Stamp Act? Economic.  In fact, if you look hard enough, the vast majority of all legislation begins and ends with economic agenda.  The only reason Americans think otherwise is because too often, that legislation is cloaked in social agenda to help make the sale.

Look, I'm a branding strategist. I don't care about what it looks like.  I care about what works.

Women's suffrage? The fourteenth amendment banning slavery? The eighteenth amendment banning alcohol? Today, they're taught as matters of social justice.  But it wasn't always that way. At the time, it was all about the cash.  It's just more convenient to paint those issues over with a social justice spin to make ourselves feel better about the harsh realities that drive us.

As Adam Smith espoused, people move in their own self-interest.  As President Dwight D. Eisenhower pronounced, "You cannot legislate the hearts and minds of men." This is why you don't want a President who hides behind a social agenda. You want one who understands that the United States has always been, and always will be, driven by economic self-interest of its citizens.

It's not your traditional view of the American Presidency.  It may contradict everything you've been taught about it.  But that's okay. Discomfort is a good thing.  It's how you know you're on the verge of discovering the truth.