Last week, in his indispensible blog bykenlevine.com, my friend Ken Levine bewailed the disappearance – especially from the more critically approved “niche” comedies – of the classically formulated joke, wondering, “Since when did jokes become passé?” (Oh, look! My computer does accent egues!” Oops, not that time.)
Full Disclosure: When I was working, especially earlier in my career, I often took the opposing side, complaining, especially when a show’s writing staff replaced my more intelligent contributions with “just jokes” that my submitted drafts was being deleteriously “funnied down.”
While attending a runthrough of a revised Taxi episode I had written, I recall hearing Judd Hirsch complain, “What happened to that ‘primordial ooze’ reference we had yesterday?” I had in fact written that discarded-for-a-joke “primordial ooze" reference, and Judd’s bemoanment was music to my ears. To my credit, and the extension of my career, however, I did not chime in an irately supporting “Yeah!”
Here’s what this blog post is not about. It is not about “Times change, and comedy changes with it.” Though it could be. In his post, Kenny L. unhappily asserts, “I just want to laugh.”
Well, to paraphrase what ventriloquist Senor Wences used to say – “For you, easy; for me, difficult” – “For you, funny; for me, excruciatingly contrived.”
Over the decades, comedy has inexorably evolved. On the massively successful Milton Berle Show in the early fifties, the country laughed until it hurt when, upon the shouted cue “Makeup!”, a pint-sized Arnold Stang would come out and slam the show’s star in the face with an enormous powder puff.
Today, that would be funny to three year-olds. But a medianly savvy six year-old would likely sullenly respond, “That’s stupid.”
Without boring you and burdening myself with a survey of “Comedy Throughout The Ages”, “what’s funny” has inexorably evolved in the direction of greater and greater identifiable reality. It is generally known that both Seinfeld and – wait, let me go back further than that.
In the late seventies, before I departed for a vacation to Tahiti, I left my pet goldfish in the capable hands of (Cheers co-creator and friend) Les Charles and his wife Zora, and when I returned home it was dead.
I got two episodes out of that reverberating trauma, one on Taxi and one on The Cosby Show. My point here being, that, on the more respectable sitcoms of the day, unlike the stories from earlier sitcoms, the best stories were believed to derive from personal experience.
(By Stark Contrast:
INTERVIEWER: Where do you get the ideas for your “Mr. Ed” episodes?
“MR. ED” SCRIPTWRITER: Well, I have a talking horse myself, so the ideas derive from my everyday life.”
That did not happen.)
Going back to the sentence I started, it is generally know that both Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond were famous for requiring the writing staff to provide story ideas based on experiences that “actually happened to them.”
The evolution in that case was in the direction of making the shows more real. The thing is, though the experiences from which the episodes were developed may have been real – or at least realer – the writing style remained decidedly and unashamedly joke structured. (Which, to me, though unequivocally not to my bosses, seriously undercut the show’s “illusion of reality.”)
The latest evolution in comedy reflects a disaffection for stories based on everyday life, possibly because of the glut of them the audience had been subjected to growing up, or because writers simply ran out of interesting “reality based” ideas. Leading to – in the temporal rather than in the qualitative sense – an advance to…something which, having been stylistically left behind myself, I am not entirely comfortable defining, because I am not certain what it is.
The best I can do is to suggest that – what their detractors would call – “joke-free” comedy appears to be the product of a layered collective consciousness, to which the more demographically desirable segment of the audience appears to be wired. That’s kinda muddy, I know. But I’m on shaky ground here.
Unlike the “Uncle Miltie” show, today’s “cognoscenti” may not look at television’s signature sitcoms of the past and go, “That’s stupid.” (Or they might.) More likely, rather, their response to what the audience of that day laughed very hard at would be a hostilely pejorative “That’s just a joke.”
But, and not for the first time, I have deviated from my central concern.
Which is this.
From its inception comedy was intended to be entertainment, and it was taken as such by its audience, who had no objection to that whatsoever. Unless it was handled incompetently, the response was never “That’s just a joke”; it was a delighted and spontaneous “Ha-ha-ha!”
Today, at least for the ostensibly “in-crowd” segment of the audience, any tip-off that “They are trying to be funny”, such as a traditional (and structurally required) joke formulation – no matter how funny (or sophisticated) that joke may be, their reflexive response is,
“That’s just a joke. And we’re tired of jokes.”
In the latest comedy mutation, a joke, or ironic observation, or whatever, cannot, to be accepted, feel like a joke. Today’s audience still wants to be entertained, but seemingly contradictorily, they do not want what has traditionally been accepted as “entertainment.”
As they attest in their critical comments to Ken’s blog, that audience laughs at this latest mutation in comedy, sometimes, as hard as we used to laugh at the old stuff. So it is not that a joke cannot elicit laughter.
It just cannot, without being directly acknowledged as such,
Send off the musty aroma of a traditionally structured joke.