July 15, 2010

In comedy, when do we roast others and when ourselves?

Previously I looked at why comedies tend not to age well, namely that so many comedies are devoted to bashing other people, and only audiences who despise those targets will fall over laughing. At some point in the future, whoever was being skewered will be totally forgotten, so new audiences won't get it. Comedies that make use of more universal themes will age just fine. And since human nature doesn't change as quickly as does the list of who is persona non grata, comedies that poke fun at mankind's foibles in a sympathetic way have the greatest staying power.

For example, anyone can watch National Lampoon's Vacation for the first time today and split their sides with laughter because the motifs are timeless -- the exploits that a lowly hero subjects himself to in order to obtain something that will make his friends or family happy, his growing sense that reaching this goal will only amount to a Pyrrhic victory as each solution to some obstacle only throws up another in its place, his struggle to put on a happy face in front of his friends and family when all he wants to do is choke the life out of this goddamned frustrating world, pride brought low (when he tries to be smooth by jumping into the pool with Christie Brinkley but flips out like a sissy because the water's freezing), and so on.

I touched somewhat on when the universal / sympathetic comedies flourish vs. when the provincial / haughty ones do -- not surprisingly, the former in dangerous times when people feel humbled before such an intimidating world, and the latter in safer times when they are more in a mindset of "nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah, you can't touch meeee!!!" But it's worth taking a brief look at recent history because that will give people a deep-down feel for how massive these changes are. We could look at all sorts of media, but why not TV shows? Here are lists of the top 30 TV shows by ratings, from 1950 to 1999.

The iconic comedy show that belongs to the provincial / haughty genre is obviously Seinfeld -- no one will know the context for 95% of those jokes within a single generation, and the rest is just griping "about nothing," as they smugly admit. The show began in 1989 but failed to break into the top 30 because the society was still in wild and carefree mode. It was not until the crime rate fell in 1992 and the society switched to boring and self-conscious mode that it ranked 25th in ratings. The very next year it had skyrocketed to #3, and by 1994, it was #1. Although it slipped to #2 for the next two years, it regained the #1 spot in its final year of 1997. (When it left the air, it was replaced in the top ranks by the rapidly ascending Frasier, which was the next-best contender in the provincial / haughty genre.)

Going through some of the top-rated shows of the early-mid 1950s, another time of falling crime rates and boring culture, I couldn't recognize enough of the comedic styles to say for sure whether it was more in the Seinfeld direction or the Chevy Chase direction. Trying to glean this from Wikipedia, though, it does look like TV comedy was more Seinfeldian -- Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Groucho Marx hosting You Bet Your Life, etc. It sounds like it was driven by caricature, making fun of others rather than of everyone, etc. The crime rate had been dropping since the mid-1930s, and this entire period of falling crime rates was when The Three Stooges were active. They're slapstick, which has timeless appeal, but it still is in the vein of thinking you're better than some group of others who you slice into pieces.

Crime rates had been increasing since at least 1900 up through the early 1930s. The Marx Brothers straddle both sides of the divide -- dangerous times up through 1933 and safe times from then until 1958. I have little exposure to their movies, but my guess would be that their movies up through 1933 are more sympathetic than the later ones, even if overall they are in the Three Stooges direction of sneering at the boors.

What is clear to me, though, is that during the 1960s TV comedies switch to a more timeless approach. I remember watching Nick at Nite as a little kid in the late '80s, and even though most of those shows were decades old -- Dennis the Menace, My Three Sons, etc. -- I could still laugh along because I didn't need to know obscure facts about who they were lampooning, as they didn't go that route in the first place (although it would've helped to know who the Beatniks were before I watched Dobie Gillis). Again just browse through the ratings list for '70s shows, and you'll see the same thing -- even for comedies that made reference to current events like All in the Family, that background is now considered major history, and so new audiences will know that context. And of course this lasted through the '80s and the very early '90s -- Family Matters, the early Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, etc. -- before the crime rate finally peaked.

Finally, after sifting through all these shows (and also thinking of movies off the top of my head), I wonder how much our image of "the Jewish comedian" is historically dependent. They're present in every era, of course, but they really seem to rise in popularity during falling-crime times when the society becomes more complacent and trivial, and to fade (although not vanish) when the crime rate picks up and people have larger concerns on their mind than raking the rubes over the coals. The Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, and Jack Benny were high-profile during the safe period of 1933 through 1958, and the current safe period of 1992 to today has seen the rise of Seinfeld, the Harvard mafia who ruined the Simpsons circa 1997, the writers for Family Guy, not to mention the Seth Rogen circle of the 2000s.

I have no idea who was funny during the earlier crime wave of roughly 1900 to 1933, other than that Vaudeville was big. But for the recent crime wave of 1959 through 1991, the prototypical Jewish comedian seems much less visible, other than Mel Brooks. And even his movies try to show sympathetic characters and focus on timeless and universal themes. Perhaps the larger culture of being carefree and only going in for Big Themes served as a check on the prototypical Jewish comedian's inclination and transformed what, in another time and place, would have become Seinfeld: The Movie Series into something more like the early Saturday Night Live and Midnight Run.

For those who want a reminder of what TV sit-coms used to be like, or for those who have only seen those from the '90s and 2000s, Hulu has some episodes of Who's the Boss? The characters are sympathetic -- even that horny old broad Mona -- there's no topical humor, so they don't put the screws to some group or trend that you've never even heard of, and the themes and motifs are drawn from the common store of Western folktales, which means there's actually a story to be told in each episode. It occasionally gets a bit sentimental, but never sappy, and there's always some sincere conflict (rather than trivial annoyances) that needs to be overcome.

A good place to start is the season 6 episode called "Life's a Ditch." Not only does this one show what program was like in general, but it's valuable as source material for what was going on in the larger society in 1989. Aside from the act of ditching school, which today's wimpy kids wouldn't dare do, it features a teenage runaway who revisits and stays with a childhood friend for awhile -- to escape from her mother and her series of live-in boyfriends -- before being spotted by a model agency executive and asked to stay in a boarding house for models. (Apparently this was spun off as its own show, Living Dolls, but I never saw that.) As with all other forms of wild behavior, running away from home has fallen since the early-mid '90s -- google "finkelhor runaway" -- with its last major impact on popular culture being the video for Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train" in 1993, although as late as 1994 My So-Called Life featured the ghost of a dead teenage runaway, played by Juliana Hatfield (here, episode titled "So-Called Angels").

Unlike these Generation X portrayals, where the sentimental outpouring is overbearing, the episode of Who's the Boss? treats it sincerely as something that might actually happen and that you might have to deal with, rather than something you only fantasize about in order to work up some tears for the suffering. (In this respect, it's like the Christmas episodes of Saved by the Bell where the affluent suburbanites befriend a homeless man and his daughter.) Still, despite this somewhat severe plot device, the episode as a whole is lighthearted and amusing. Plus it stars a 16 year-old Alyssa Milano with a 19 year-old Leah Remini -- and there are worse TV shows to be watching out there.

1 comment:

  1. On a Leah Remini inspired tangent...

    Whenever the totally hypothetical, which actress would you marry/date etc wind up with, for anything more than a one night stand, noting that I'm hanging out completely in the land of fantasy, I always say, "The twenty-something version of [older actress]," because I'm sure I'm not bound by temporal constraints in this world of nonsense.

    The thinking being, Remini used to look like this (I'm sure with some use of photoshop) and now looks like this.

    Whereas, wouldn't you feel much better knowing your never to be main squeze would start of looking like this and end up still looking like this 25 years later?

    I'd kill for that kind of certainty we mortals can only speculate on when looking at the mothers of the gals we're dating.


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