The Sunday NY Times had an obituary for the joke that was more akin to the discovery of a tombstone than a corpse - far too late. I don’t think any comic since Lenny Bruce has told the party jokes that the author describes (‘cept maybe Jackie Martling). In fact, I’d argue that comics have been performing more personal observational humor since the very beginning… there’s no ownership in a joke that anyone can tell. Who’s act does it belong to and why can’t I hire this guy who will tell it for cheaper. Not telling “a guy walks into a bar…” isn’t a trend, it’s a tradition.
Of course, with more than a few references to the forthcoming Aristocrats movie, it’s obvious that the author was hunting for a trend to talk about the film. But if there is a trend in humor that the Aristocrats joke does reflect it’s the “anti-joke.”
Anti-jokes use the tension of a setup that telegraphs “here’s something funny” coming with the followup of delivering something intentionally not, either in a mundane or, in the Aristocrats’ case, filthy way. A good example of these is here and here. It’s for and from sophisticated audiences who know comedians and their tells well enough that it becomes funnier to watch humor eat its own tail than hear a tride-and-true punchline. When I was working on Jokes.com in 2000, we were so jaded from screening 20,000 jokes we built an anti-joke category as a relief. The recent book “A Portrait of Yo Mama as a Young Man” does what feels like a anti-joke crucification of the “Yo Mama” joke. On television, I’d argue that the original “Office” and much of the Adult Swim line-up are good reflections of the anti-joke aesthetic in action.
This desire to subvert typical setups and being “funny” even infiltrates homes for anti-jokes. I’ve noticed a few submissions to the Aristocrats Joke database have been about writing a straight version of the family’s act rather than going for the filth typically associated with the joke. It may just be that those writers are unfamiliar with the tradition or exactly the opposite, familiar enough that it’s funnier to subvert it.
The NY Times piece is right about one thing, we are much more self-conscious about being funny… it’s just taking a different form and may well eat the observational humor it says is ascendent now.
Thanks to Jesse Thorn for the heads-up on this. Go listen to his radio show!