I’ve had more than a few people who sent me a recent Slate article by Peter Hyman called The Funniness Epidemic. The main conceit of the article is why are all of us trying to be funny these days.
There’s a couple of assumptions Peter makes that I have to disagree with - one of which is that comedy is in full flower on TV, particularly thanks to Seinfeld. If anything, post-Seinfeld, comedy has been in decline on network television. There’s a lot more comedy on TV now of course, thanks to the myriad of cable companies… but there is a lot more of everything now. And no comedy really holds an audience’s mind share right now - that’s all taken up with reality shows, Lost and Desperate Housewives (soap opera, not a comedy).
If there was any television to mark for why everybody is trying to be funny, I’d actually say it was reality TV, where “ordinary” people become the stars. The leap from 0 to stardom has never seemed easier in some ways, so naturally, anybody who wants it is honing whatever comedy skills they got. Combine that with the do-it-yourself ethic of the web and a decrease in the gateways of both distribution and production and you have a full-borne flourishing of funny.
But I don’t think this surge of people trying to be funny is anything new, rather it’s a side-effect of the fact that these voices couldn’t really be heard further than your water cooler before. It’s similar to all the kinky communities people found on the web in the 90s. All these would-be performers were just semi-closeted humor plushies. They were there before, we only knew about the one in our office or classroom.
Peter also points to irony or rather sarcasm as another reason for the popularity at being funny, but I would say that detachment is possibly on its way out. If you look at the Daily Show and, even, the Colbert Report - we know exactly where these people stand. There’s a sincerity behind the humor that people are responding to, even when it’s layered under a mask like Colbert’s. People respond so much because they know exactly how he feels about the issues even when he saying something completely contrary. It’s true irony rather than the dismissive brand we’ve lived with for so long. I might even make the same argument for Larry the Cable Guy - the sentiments and politics are real even if the persona is false. You know who Dan Whitney is and what he feels, even if he layers it under a character.
Of course that doesn’t mean the general public is picking up on that - it’s generally a big step for a comedian to realize that a joke he or she writes may not be a joke he or she can tell. Most comics know who they are on stage - where as the laypeople, like the IBM workers who made the Office-like videos Peter points to, are in an earlier stage - that of imitating another successful voice. Detachment isn’t so much of a pose then as a consequence of being a, for lack of better word here, amateur. You really only get attached to your jokes when you’re feeding yourself based on how they live or die.
I don’t really find myself too disheartened by the influx of people being funny - I kind of take zefrank’s approach on this - humor, like all arts, has developed codified rules - sometimes the people who don’t even know these rules at first are the ones who break new ground and expand them. And it ups the awareness and appreciation of those who do perform the art well in the meantime.