The Funniness Common Cold

Filed Under Funny 2.0

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.

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Comments

Posted by Anthony DeVito on 09/25  at  11:28 PM

Personally, I like that everyone’s trying comedy… I’m always happy to see people being creative, even if it’s not always “good.” It reminds me of all the awful type and layouts that were everywhere in the early 90s, thanks to desktop publishing. People were wailing about the “death of graphic design” but it survived just fine.

But I do hope and pray this irony crap is FINALLY waning… I’m so sick of it at this point. Nothing is less funny than not committing to an idea or a joke… like if it doesn’t work, you didn’t really mean it anyway, so you’re still cool. Comedy is not cool, comedians are not cool. That’s where real humor comes from… taking a stand and sticking to it. Anyone who can’t or won’t do that should just stay out of comedy and quote funny lines to their buddies at TGI Fridays.

Posted by Mike on 09/26  at  02:07 AM

Yep, it isn’t like “comedy” is the whole new rage.  It’s always been there.  Hyman seems to suggest that popular humor’s zeitgeist is crescendoing, but that’s hogwash.  It’s merely assuming newer forms, with more outlets, which makes it appear to be a renaissance. 

I fully agree that the availability of more media, mostly in the form of cable networks and, probably equally, the internet, has contributed to perhaps a marginal resurgence of the art form.  While Seinfeld had a major impact on mainstream comedy culture, Hyman can’t pop up 10 years later and legitimately attribute today’s perceived comedy explosion to it.

The major networks often follow the cable trends and throw a bucket o’money behind their plagiarized efforts.  Sometimes it works—The NBC Office comes to mind.  More often it doesn’t.  As much as I dislike Fox as a corporate entity, they’ve set some trailblazing precedents for comedy, like King of the Hill and Family Guy (Simpsons are a “duh”).  Can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of any of their non-animated comedy series, however.

Well, okay That 70’s Show has its moments.

I’m quite surprised none of the networks are trying to rip off the Daily Show or Colbert.  Yes, they concretely sell themselves as coming from an entrenched ideological perspective.  A network knock-off would surely have to be watered down to appeal to a politically divided audience, and would tank big time, but I would’ve thought they’d at least attempt it.

The whole mockumentary trend with its shaky hand-held camera technique is getting a little old, though.  The Office (particularly BBC) and Curb Your Enthusiasm came close to perfecting it.  Dog Bites Man and Reno 911 are doing an admirable job as well.  Unfortunately with its success, the genre opened the door to several wannabes that mimic the style but not the quality (Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Campus Ladies, etc.), but fail miserably.  Arrested Development I’d probably place in the middle. 

Okay, my manifesto is 7% complete now.

Posted by kreisler on 09/26  at  12:43 PM

i, too, agree that an often overlooked factor in the success of The Daily Show and Colbert Report, etc. is their sincerity.  the flippant, disinterested, unpassionate (that’s a word now, i’ve decided)
comedy movement of the last few years has it’s place, but hopefully more room is being made for comedy with meaning, purpose, and k words.

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