Monday, July 13, 2015

"Where Comedy Went, And Why I Sincerely Wish That It Hadn't."

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.)


(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”?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Your historical account raises a question I don't think I've seen discussed: what happened to the comedy duo? Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Nichols and May, Reiner and Brooks...? Why are all stand-ups now singletons (is it because no one can stand to work with them?)

My guess is that at least some of that is because so many sitcoms (and even many dramas) are basically odd couples of one kind or another. Almost all Chuck Lorre shows are built around an odd couple (Dharma and Greg, Cybill and Maryann, Sheldon and Leonard, Alan and Charlie, Bonnie and Christy) is 2 BROKE GIRLS and, of course, THE ODD COUPLE.

But that can't be the whole thing, because while there have been sitcoms that are built around *single* stand-ups (SEINFELD, GRACE UNDER FIRE, ROSEANNE), I can't think of any modern sitcoms that are built around an existing comedy duo. Instead, the duo is conceived and then cast with actors who have usually never worked together before.

So, my question to you: what happened to the comedy duo?


Anonymous said...

"hilariously flatulating" would be a great name for a rock band.

Donna said...

Penn & Teller; Cheech & Chong; Amy & Tina. Don't know if the Smothers Brothers are still doing shows or just commercials. I'm sure there's many others that I've never heard of, probably local entertainers.

Canda said...

Amy and Tina only work together at awards shows, and occasionally films. They are not a team. Cheech and Chong and the Smothers Brothers are not a new comedy team. Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber were a team, also from that era.

Also gone, it seems, are the comedy groups like the Ace Trucking Coming (which included Fred Willard) and The Committee, which appeared on TV.

Canda said...

Sorry, meant The Ace Trucking Company.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Canda has it: none of those are new teams, and in the case of Penn & Teller, while they are indeed very funny, I would argue that they are primarily magicians, and comedians second - and they're the only ones that one could even describe as "modern", as much as I love the Smothers Brothers, who I believe are either still working or only recently retired.

Poehler and Fey are not a team: they are singles who occasionally team up. Nichols and May were a team who eventually went in different career directions, as did Reiner and Brooks, although they obviously remain very close.


e. l. cohen said...

Well, I think you have analyzed comedy to death - too much. The problem with comedy today is that, it seems, no one can be funny without using the "f" word, except for Seinfeld. I have heard people laughing at things that just are not funny; I don't know what they are all laughing about. I guess it's just a different generation.