Are We Really Funnier Now?
Apparently, one way to get a response and get more views of your blog, is to pick a fight with a blog or person way more popular than you. And given the readership at the moment of this blog, that ain't hard. I'm always punching up. Picking a fight helped Popeye's sell out of their chicken sandwich, maybe I to could land a gig. But enough of that and on with it.
In a recent post, author Mike Pesca, as part of his look at comedy in 2019, tackles the question on whether we're funnier now in television comedy than we were a couple of decades ago. His resounding answer is yes. There's more comedy being written, there are more comedy shows out there, and the sheer variety of platforms, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, etc., are all available for comedy to grow. The content stranglehold the big three networks had through the 70's is long since gone. The genesis of Pesca's belief is his re-watching of some old Muppets shows. I agree with his initial reluctance to watch the shows for fear of losing the cherished memories of the show, but when he did, his evaluation of the comedy, it was pretty weak, showed that what we call comedy now, would dance circles around shows like the Muppets. It's not that Muppets was locked into it's time and the jokes now stale or aging poorly, it's that the jokes weren't even jokes. They were "joke-like" or joke doppelgangers. The linguistic form of the content seemed like a joke script, but they weren't jokes--not really.
I don't want to recount his entire piece here. It's worth a read because it does raise some important issues, but with my background as a philosopher and an academic there are number of frailties in Mr. Pesca's inferences. He may yet be right in his assessment, but I think how he gets there is problematic. And now I am really writing like an academic. Sorry about that.
One of the first things to worry about is simply a numbers game. Given that there is a whole lot more comedy out there, does that mean there is really more? The simple question is one not of numbers, but of relative numbers. The population has grown, and as such, the amount of everything has grown. Given this, Mr. Pesca's assertion that there is more comedy may mean that there is simply more--more shows, podcasts, videos-- than there was in the 70's. That's true. However, it's misleading. What we want to know, to make his general claim that that there is more and better comedy is if the relative amount of comedy has grown. Is there more comedy per person? It's an interesting claim, but to support it well we'd need to know if there are more comedy clubs, circuits and tours than back in the day. There was the vaudeville circuit, the comedians who did resorts in the Poconos, on cruise ships, etc. Since screens and video recording isn't as ubiquitous as now, we can't count what we don't see. But really, does anyone want to that sort of research? Perhaps we can find an eager grad student to do this sort of work, but it won't be funny. So maybe this evidence isn't as strong as he'd like it to be. It might be, but we can't just accept it.
But Mr. Pesca has bigger fish to fry. He uses this "growth in comedy idea" to support a broader point, that the comedy now is not only more, but better as a craft. And while it's better, more functionally tuned to eliciting a laugh (which should not be equated with humor), it's not necessarily doing what comedy really is. Current comedy might not be as good anymore, and the reason why is reflected in the comments of august comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, and others. For one, the comedy of today is too restrained, too bound by a sentiment that is at odds with how humor works. Because comedy is becoming more refined, detailed and possibly formulaic, it's becoming harder to escape whatever dominant view of humor might be out there. Once this sort of restriction sets in, and or the culture adopts a sort of shared language or an agreed upon sense of what the "funny" is, we begin to lose and crowd out what is at base necessary for comedy, wait for it... SURPRISE!
Mr. Pesca, perhaps rightly, suggests that a certain form of comedy is now dominant, a form of comedy that's progressive in the political sense and careful not to offend, demean, or ridicule. With issues like cancel culture and a desire not to offend, comedy is taking fewer risks, tracking to an audience that favors a more "progressive/liberal" view, and as such is actually not surprising and hence isn't really good comedy. Since, as Mr. Pesca reasons, comedy is fundamentally reliant on surprise, restricting content via a social or political preference prevents the comedian the ability to really surprise. If the jokes are within a certain formulaic approach, tested by many in their various comedy clubs, if there are certain ideas or issues that can't be explored and this is accepted by the comedian and culture, then the ability to surprise in interesting and comedically strong ways is greatly diminished. For those who've stuck with me this long, thanks, blog posts aren't typically long form, but the article and ideas are so many, that I might write an article about them. I'm about to wrap it up, so the end is near.
One thing to worry about with Mr. Pesca's view is that his claim that we might not recognize the past work in sitcoms as funny is that it's anachronistic. It's not advisable to use modes and frameworks of the present to judge the past. Often we think of the Middle Ages as a time bereft of science and high learning and that's simply false. There was some very interesting and advance learning done during that time, there were feats of mathematics, architecture, etc. So it wasn't only a backwater intellectually. Another worry I have is the overall structure of the case. Couldn't the case be made without the issue of more or less comedy arising that since we have a dominant political mindset that deeply influences what we accept, this might limit comedic creativity? The issue of amount of comedy isn't necessary. I think one could.
In closing, I have been critical of Mr. Pesca, and some might interpret me to then dislike the piece. Far from it, he raises a number of good points that I think warrant further discussion. Sometimes the mark of a good article is that it generates thought and discussion, not that it provides the answer. I read the article a couple of times and while I worry that some of the conclusions aren't as strong as he would like. But it was worth the read and anyone interested in humor or comedy, of the confluence of politics and social life would do well to read and think about the issues raised.