Okay, I’m a curmudgeon. But listen anyway.
In the game “Hide-and-Seek”, there is a situation called “Home Free.” You reach a designated location, and you are safe from all negative consequence.
That used to be comedy.
Comedy was a release. A protected safety zone from life.
It began with people whacking each other over the head with pig bladders (or whatever bladder was available), and it advanced – because we are a sophisticated species – into pie fights and people spritzing each other with seltzer bottles.
And it was – not literally but precariously close – to sidesplitting.
“Do you need your sides sewn up?”
“Not yet, but stick around.”
Comedy’s “release” phenomenon was an ameliorating asset to all humankind. And I’ll tell you why. You know how you cannot hold two thoughts in your head at the same time? Well, in a similar fashion, you cannot simultaneously laugh and worry.
EARLY CAVEMAN: “You know what I was thinking about while Zork was hilariously flatulating around the campfire? Not dinosaurs.”
Of course, as with all organic phenomena, comedy continued to evolve. As the audience grew more educated, physical comedy gave way to verbal comedy, (immediately de-universalizing the laugh-inducing process, as evidenced by Charlie Chaplin in his heyday being exponentially more popular than Will Ferrell will ever be.)
NON-ENGLISH-SPEAKING WILL FERRELL-VEHICLE-WATCHING FILMGOER:
(IN A NON-ENGLISH-SPEAKING ACCENT) “I do not see the humor in what I am looking at.”
Physical comedy unites. Language-driven comedy divides. *
(* A comedic hybrid? Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” – verbal, but you virtually do not have to speak English to appreciate it; you can laugh at Costello’s growingly frustrated body language. “Who’s On First?”, by the way, is my favorite comedy performance of all time. And now, back to our story.)
ANNOUNCER: (IN A SONOROUS, DOCUMENTARIAL INTONATION) “The advancement towards verbal comedy was only the beginning.”
The transition to verbal comedy was gradual. (Though it was never unilateral – See: Lucy and the conveyor belt.) There were riddles and puns. Infectious catchphrases. Memorable one-liners. The accepted approach was: Minimum content. Understandable verbiage.
“Take my wife. Please!”
What word do you need to look up? To hold the audience’s attention and guarantee the “ha-ha”: Always articulate in their particular dialect.
And never offend. (As with holding different two thoughts, you cannot laugh uproariously and go “Wait a minute…!” at the same time.)
Time matzas on…
And the comedy format expands further. Less one-liners, more extended storytelling. The comedian introduces personal experiences. But universally identifiable ones. Scratch “universally.” Culturally identifiable experiences.
Bob Newhart. Shelly Berman. Nichols and May.
Capturing the recognizable occurrences of everyday life. We all get it. Because we have all been at some point put on “Hold.” Or been thwarted pursuing perhaps not the purest of interpersonal intentions.
The material was elevated and entirely verbal. But it was still funny, focused less on what mechanically “works” than on psychological reality.
And then came the sixties…
(Don’t worry. I will not be chronicling every decade. I am focusing on the sixties, because that’s when comedy – among other things – turned the corner. And, for better or, for me at least, less so, it never stylistically turned back.)
Starting in the sixties – or, for groundbreaking comedian Lenny Bruce, the late fifties – comedy became less a platform for comedy than a revolutionizing lecture hall.
Without question, comedy changed people’s minds about things. Or at least opened them to our fellow human beings’ darker, previously swept-under-the-rug daily realities of existence.
Black comedians led the way, their grievances needing the most immediate attention. African-American comedy proceeded down paralleling tracks: the Richard Pryor-incited confrontational track, and the more conciliatory Bill Cosby track. The underlying message of both:
“We may look a little different, but we’re not going away, and we’re not going to be quiet.”
Shortly thereafter, other minorities, seeing comedy’s success at altering perceptions, jumped enthusiastically on board, using their stand-up acts as strategic platforms for cultural amelioration.
Virtually every “stand up” today has an agenda. It is comedy, but with (an often confrontationally-delivered) message. Or – comparatively benignly – a delineating litmus test dividing the current generation from its predecessors.
We’ve come a long way (baby) from “Who’s On First?”
Let me be perfectly clear here, says the man who is concerned that he unfortunately might not have been. (And is already on record as being a curmudgeon.)
There is room for all forms of comedic representation. And a heightened sensibility, no matter what package it arrives in, is indisputably a good thing.
But making it all adversarial takes the intrinsic fun out of comedy.
Which, for me at least, is considerably less of a good thing.
When every playground is transformed into an ideological launching pad –
Where then do I go for “Home Free”?