April 28, 2010

Why don't comedies age well?

Unlike most other genres, whatever the medium, comedies thought to be good from the past tend to fall flat today. Aristotle thought that one function of humor and comedy is to look down upon someone -- not just as in making someone the butt of a joke, but even looking down on yourself when you realize what a ridiculous situation you're in. Others building on that point to the status-seeking function of comedy. I don't see that so much because that assumes it's an individual satirist taking on his enemies. In reality, it looks more like a way for members of a single tribe to heighten the in-group vs. out-group distinction -- white people dance like this, and black people dance like this.

After awhile, the satirizing group may no longer be influential or even exist, and the same goes for their opponent tribes. A contemporary audience cannot sympathize with jokes about a group who they don't even know about; the group would need to be updated. And most of the comedy tends not to be a blatant attack on the group but a series of more subtle barbs at the group's mannerisms, slang, clothing style, minor foibles, and so on. No one in 100 years is going to know that such things were being spoofed by the makers of Ron Burgundy from Anchorman or the goth kid from South Park. Hell, look at how quickly Napoleon Dynamite vanished from public awareness. Superbad is just about there too.

Certainly every bit of topical humor added lowers the shelf-life of a comedy. It's only one generation later, and yet how many would laugh at a current events or pop culture-related gag from 1985 -- even among those who would still recognize its origin and logic?

On this basis, what comedy previously thought to be funny do I think will be most doomed to obscurity after its initial run? -- Family Guy. Most of the jokes are references to contemporary (or past!) pop culture and current events. What remains is mostly an attack on the tribes that rival with the creators' tribe for social and cultural influence. And even the jokes that don't seem to be aimed at anyone in particular still serve only as tribal membership badges for the creators and viewers -- we belong to the tribe that, for whatever reason, makes these kinds of pointless remarks. We're just weird like that.

I would add all of those dopey series on Cartoon Network like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Robot Chicken, but I don't think most people found them funny to begin with. Their existence has only been due to their use as a membership badge for a sub-culture of adolescent male dorks. The recent "frat pack" movies starring Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, bla bla bla will do terribly too, but at least they had to appeal to a broader audience than Family Guy did, so they aren't so pointless.

And which will hold up the best? Obviously those that focus on more timeless and universal themes, not dated provincial turf wars. Those themes are usually the forte of action or drama specialists, though. So drama-comedies like The Simpsons and action-comedies like Ghostbusters will endure the longest. Unfortunately the increase in identity politics and tribalism within American society means that most of the comedies from the past two decades are disposable, with a few exceptions. Still, the action-comedy reached its peak just before then, and it's currently OK to re-visit and enjoy stuff from the '80s. So you won't feel like such a weirdo for going outside the contemporary mainstream.


  1. Topical humour rarely lasts, true, but most things don't.

    How much of Film Noir is still watched? Casablanca, some Laurel and Hardy, some Chaplin, It's a Wonderful Life and Some Like it Hot.

    Note how much of that list was comedy. Laurel and Hardy are only less funny because their physical gags seem worn-out to us now.

    Also, British comedy does kick ass. We still watch reruns of the 3 Stooges, Morcombe and Wise, the 2 Ronnies, Monty Python, and some of that stuff is from the 60s.

  2. 3 Stooges, Marx Brothers, Chaplin, etc. is slapstick humor, and Monty Python and early Woody Allen largely involve physical and sight gags. So that proves my point: those aren't attempts to skewer a rival group, and their appeal is timeless and universal.

    Most comedies aren't so heavy on slapstick and sight gags, though, so overall comedy does worse than other genres. Easiest way to see this is comparing comedies vs. other genres across all media and as far back as they go.

    I'm sure there were some riotously funny poems and songs circulating hundreds of years ago, but they've been weeded out through the years while narratives based on action, adventure, conflict, etc., have survived better.

  3. Hughman: Film noir is not comedy. It is a dark genre about morally questionable people and actions - hardly the stuff of comedies.

    However, I can think of one movie from that era I find funny - The Philadelphia Story. But its story has timeless aspects in common with works such as Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

    Which backs up a point Agnostic made - that timeless comedy will last. However I think timeless comedy is almost impossible to achieve. I can think of no enduring comedies in the history of literature.

    But the reason most modern comedy will die is because its based on being insulting - which is very relative to what is offensive at the time.

    - Breeze

  4. Some comedies, even those that don't rely on physical comedy or sight gags, do stand the test of time. We still perform Elizabethean-era comedies, Moliere, and Lysistrata for example. I can still look back at a Eddie Murphy comedy from the 80s/90s and laugh. But things that weren't all that funny to begin with don't last for very long, but when has that not been true?

  5. When Monty Python began they had the specific aim of making a "formless" type of humour. John Cleese said that "the inclusion of the word Pythonesque in the Oxford English dictionary demonstrates that we failed".

  6. The comedies that do last don't lead to riotous laughing, in my opinion. Die Meistersinger has some laughs, but is more a lighthearted look on melancholy. Verdi's Falstaff offers some laughs. Don Quixote is funny, but not extremely.

    (as a counterexample, however, Henry IV Part I makes me suffocate from laughter at times, mostly because Falstaff is a timeless asshole)

    Usually, really good comedies usually make you chuckle, and lightheartedly examine deep, timeless concerns. The comedies that age quickly and fall to dust are those that are gag-based, not theme based. The problem with them is that the gags are only funny once or twice, and since they stack so much humor into a worthless plot, they are extremely tiring midway through.

  7. i think the old World War II era bugs bunny cartoons have held up well and there all gags often about things that happened 70 years ago.

  8. "Family Guy"

    I half agree and half disagree. Yes, the topical and celebrity humor will all get outdated. The meta-humor, which was especially wrong in seasons 1 and 2, should have a very long life span.

    The joke is at the experience of the material itself, and there are no story arcs, so people watching an entire episode should be able to get the jokes.

  9. As usual, I can't find much to disagree with.

    I'll be surprised if Planes, Trains, and Autos, and Groundhog Day, are not still cult-popular a century from now (cult popularity being the best one can hope for a century-old film).

  10. @ James O: Cult popularity is no guarantee that a film is even liked when people watch it to be rebellious and trendy at the same time.

    - Breeze

  11. Monty Python and the Marx brothers will never go out of style!

  12. "Young Frankenstein" still works for me after 35+ years - I don't see it dating quickly.


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