THOMAS F. BERTONNEAU writes:
Sage McLaughlin’s remarks on comedy are pertinent. I might add an observation or two. One way of explaining why comedy hasn’t been funny since, let’s say, Lenny Bruce is that at about the heyday of Lenny Bruce comedy began to be politicized, just like everything else. It’s a short step from Lenny Bruce to the Smothers Brothers and from Tommy and Dickie Smothers to Howard Hesseman and George Carlin.
There was comedy before Lenny Bruce. I once had the pleasure of seeing Jack Benny put on an impromptu performance for the undergraduates at UCLA. This was in the early 1970s. Benny was not entirely outside the collective memory of early-1970s undergraduates, who had probably seen re-runs of The Jack Benny Show on late-afternoon television when they were youngsters. Benny transfixed that crowd and got plenty of laughs. Absolutely none of his jokes was at anyone’s expense except his own.
The secret of Benny’s comedy was – absolutely no resentment against anyone and his willingness to pillory himself by steady reference to the peccadilloes of stage persona. As funny as Benny was, there was also something quite gentle in his self-presentation.
Modern comedy is nothing but resentment. Worse than that, it is politicized resentment. Modern comedians typically don’t tell jokes; they relate anecdotes that invite the audience to do two things: (1) to share the story-teller’s narcissism and (2) to share in his resentments. The resentments are invariably as nasty as possible and they resemble the “sound bites” of modern political sloganeering. The resentments are quite specialized although they all refer back to Standard Liberal Resentment: There is white comedian resentment, black comedian resentment, Hispanic comedian resentment, lesbian comedienne resentment, and in the case of Wanda Sykes, black lesbian comedienne resentment.
There is something utterly sophomoric about modern comedy, but that is hardly surprising given that narcissism and resentment are typical adolescent dispositions.
— Comments —
Kevin M. writes:
I agree with Mr. Bertonneau overwhelmingly, and I think Mr. McLaughlin would agree, that modern comedy is principally a tool used to provoke ridicule. And, principally, it comes from the Left.
Thank Heaven for P.G. Wodehouse!
Interesting that Lenny Bruce’s name is mentioned – I haven’t thought about him for many years. I learned about Lenny Bruce in my 20s from a man I worked for, a liberal and ex-hippie (but very sweet), who adored him. Lenny Bruce is the granddaddy of subversive stand-up comedy. He liked to push the envelope and when his audiences (in strip clubs) responded to this he took his routines to the mainstream. His Wikipedia bio reads like pulp fiction. Although his work would probably look tame to most now, his routines were shocking enough that he was arrested on obscenity charges in the 1960s.
People loved Lenny Bruce because he talked about things no one else did, but instead of making his audience uncomfortable he made them laugh. He disarmed them. Sage McLaughlin mentioned the disarming quality of comedy. Here’s how it works and herein lies the problem: while we laugh in spite of ourselves at something, something that normally we wouldn’t mention or might even find shocking, we become inured to that thing; we become accustomed to hearing that particular unmentionable talked about; maybe we repeat especially funny, but edgy, punchlines in a low voice over the water cooler or at school because it’s so enjoyable to share amusing quips. After a little of this type of interaction the red flag will be slowly lowered about that particular subject. And so it goes. Something sweet and good – laughter – is corrupted and helps to slowly coarsen us without our being aware of it.
Fascinating discussion of comedy as a way to lower our defenses against the perverse and shocking. I’d like to simply insert two names of major comedians who do not fall into this role and who deserve to be put right up there with the greats: Bill Cosby and Steven Wright. Very different types of comedy, but both telling truly funny jokes without ever descending into resentment or shocking topics.
Mr. Bertonneau writes:
I concur with Sibyl about Cosby and Wright. Cosby’s comedic achievement is notable because he was an angry man in the 1960s who could easily have channeled his anger into his performance; he chose not to do so, but to respond to other influences in his life, such as the love of his parents. Cosby’s comedy is the comedy of human insight, in his case insight into the workings of a functioning family.
Again in Wright’s case, the comedy is non-political and non-resentful, a kind of “comedy of surrealism.” There are probably a few others, but mainly contemporary comedy (a better phrase than “modern comedy”) is one more manifestation of smarmy antinomianism, which, of course, has long since established its own totalitarian nomos, or law.
Take my wife – please!