Forum – Are Comedians And Comedy Less Funny Today Than They Used To Be?

 

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.

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