Thursday, November 16, 2017

Comedy Just Died

Appalling behavior is not entertainment. Harassment - sexual and otherwise - is not the least bit funny. Watching people be awful to one another should not be how we get our jollies.

This all sounds completely reasonable, but only because it's the new normal. New normals can arrive with startling speed (no one in 1985 would have imagined Americans taking to raw fish). But here's the question: All those years I spent watching the Three Stooges smash each other, and guffawing at "What knockers!" jokes in Young Frankenstein, and seeing Jerry Lewis portray poor motor function and cognitive disability for laughs....was it all a depraved fever dream of me-as-monstrous-brute?

Have we evolved beyond that? Should we view characters slipping on banana peels with due empathy, rather than laughing at their pain and misfortune? Our laughter reflects our ability to desensitize, and human desensitization is the root of all evil. Are we waking up from a long civilizational sickness, and, finally, rightfully spurning the central propositions of comedy?

That seems to be where we're headed. And it's accelerating wildly. I recently predicted that, within 50 years, Marx Brothers films would be viewed as appalling, barbaric, and unfunny. There's nothing to laugh at while watching that asshole Groucho harass that nice Margaret Dumont woman as she tries to throw her parties, or to sing her lovely opera arias! But I'm stepping up that prediction. I believe that within five years, Groucho will be an obsolete relic. No thoughtful parent will let their children watch Roadrunner or Bugs Bunny cartoons. Because we're better than that.

Comedy may well be over, because it's based, fundamentally, on the notion that appalling behavior is entertainment. Harassment - sexual and otherwise - is hilarious. And watching people be awful to one another should be the preeminent way to get our jollies.

Are we evolving into something kinder, gentler, better? Hey, perhaps! I don't discount it! On the other hand, humans deny their darkness at their peril (it's no coincidence that holier-than-thou types so often turn out to be the most secretly depraved). Comedy's a release valve for our crueler instincts, even though it often pushes past uncomfortable lines, just as pro sports are a release valve for our warrior instincts in spite of the concussions and fan hooliganism. The more sensitive we become, the less tolerant we feel toward release valves, because they carry too much whiff of the full-throttled thing.

I can see both sides. Comedy is appalling, if you think about it. It will very likely cease to exist under currently shifting fashions. But when I think of Groucho and Bugs and Wiley Coyote and the Stooges, I have trouble mustering a fashionable sense of disapproval for those assholes. I guess I slightly favor legacy (i.e. decades of enjoyment) over new-fashioned social waves; I lean slightly conservative, at least in this matter.

But here's the thing. When the Marx Brothers films become cultura-non-grata - and they will, soon - many will sincerely believe they always hated those films. Consider how, by 2015, nearly everyone was a crusading gay rights proponent unable to fathom any other position. That was strange, given that only a few years earlier there was virtually no full-throated condemnation of gay persecution (much less support for rights like marriage). I've supported those rights for some time, but I remember when homosexuality creeped me out. But only me, apparently. Everyone else seems to have acquired a weird amnesia. They always approved of sushi.

Watch. Groucho's going down. And no one will have ever liked him.


Richard Stanford said...

Comedy may well be over, because it's based, fundamentally, on the notion that appalling behavior is entertainment.

It varies, though. Much of the comedy that I enjoy is self-effacing, or seen to be punching up rather than punching down. Mr. Bean would be a classic example of this in relatively modern times.

Richard Stanford said...

Hit submit too soon. Meant to add that in the example of things like Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner, even the Marx Brothers, in general the lead was never the butt of the joke, and in fact they always triumphed while simultaneously making their opponent look like an idiot. Even in somewhat more recent cartoons that was changing - think back a few decades to things like Pinky and the Brain, in which Our Heroes frequently end up being the ones with egg on their face and, while they survive to plan another day, never really triumph. Maybe this change has been coming for a while.

James Leff said...

I guess when a certain clique of Chowhound users savaged, trolled, and mocked me for managing, at great personal sacrifice, a free party intended solely to delight them and better their lives - perfect strangers all - they were "punching up"? Hey, I was the top dog, right? And a little famous. So I totally had it coming!

For that matter, was Groucho punching up? Margaret Dumont was rich and pompous. But, wait....she was a woman. That's a no-fly zone, correct? Oops, there goes half the species, in terms of comedy. So comedy is where we enjoy seeing successful middle-aged white guys get victimized, 'cuz that's okay? Hmmm, would my "Jew" card earn me a pass on that? Hell, I'm sure I can find some victim category or other to slip myself into for a deferment.

Victimization (as entertainment or otherwise) isn't a gentler, fairer thing when we handpick the victims. This is why identity politics don't work. The neo-nativism thing (sometimes edging, logically enough, toward neo-white supremacy) which so perplexes so many liberals, is the inevitable outcome of the memes and modes they put out there. We are witnessing the logical outcome of a society obsessed with Grievance. And yet it's still a visceral go-to ideology for many intelligent folks on the left. How badly does it all need to crumble before this stops feeling like a dandy well to be drawing upon?

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