In the same way people say they’ve lived through different presidents, music styles or technologies, I can say with honesty that I have now lived through more than a few periods of comedy.
And just as once-popular musical tastes and old technologies, (not to mention presidents) have faded away, certain types of comedy have lost their former impact on the culture, and exist only as quaint mementos, preserved like fossils in TV reruns or on YouTube, and in the speech of humans “of a certain age.”
A sense of humor is a kind of a gauge of the state of mind of a culture. That’s a big subject, but suffice to say, as a person changes in life from childhood to maturity, their sense of humor and the things that make them laugh change as they gain experience and their perception of the world evolves.
So, too, does a culture evolve, which is of course made up of individuals.
One hears the word, “pivot” a lot these days, as a noun as well as a verb, and it has applications to comedy.
A pivot in basketball is “a movement in which the player holding the ball may move in any direction with one foot, while keeping the other in contact with the floor.”
To pivot allows one to rapidly change direction from a central point. In sports, this allows one to take advantage of a teammate’s position, or catch an opponent off-guard.
In entertainment, the comic, operating from a central point of a premise, is trying to catch his “opponent”, the audience, off-guard.
Laughter is earned by a comedian by crafting a change in emotion, or attitude or action, from an expected path to an unexpected one.
Comedy depends on an establishment of a concept, (the set-up of a joke, for example) then a change of expected direction. A pivot, if you will.
In very sophisticated comedy, that pivot can be quite subtle, as in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. In more “earthy” humor, the change of direction is drastic, exaggerated, as in Jackass, the Movie.
Did you ever see Bambi vs. Godzilla? Extreme pivot.
By the way, there’s practically nothing as boring as a discourse about the mechanics of comedy; one wants to hear an amusing story, not dissect what makes it funny. So I’ll gratuitously insert, at this point, a joke that I have heard was Johnny Carson’s favorite:
A man goes to visit his brother, Steve, in the hospital.
His brother was in a horrible car accident, and now has no limbs and no body.
He’s just a head, lying on a bed in a hospital.
The brother says, “Hi, Steve. I brought you a present.”
Nice pivot. We are prepared for a totally different emotion, not to mention a more suitable gift.
The preferred type of popular pivot, to stretch a metaphor, is subject to changing tastes, as hemlines, or the width of a man’s tie change with fashions of the day.
It’s inevitable perhaps that in one’s lifetime, some jokes that used to make one laugh no longer create the same effect. My wife Tamra reminds me that when we were young, the funniest thing on television was a show called Laugh In.
When I watch Laugh In now, I’m more impressed by the sight of the young Lily Tomlin or Goldie Hawn than by how funny the show was. In fact, it’s completely sophomoric. And yet, in 1970 we howled at it.
Of course, we were ten years old.
Nowadays, with some exceptions, I feel disconnected from the humor of mainstream comedic films and TV.
So much of the humor seems to come mainly from randomness. Randomness isn’t a bad way to create comedy, but it can, like all pivots, become overused.
Making use of “inappropriate emotion”, a fundamental technique of comedy, is generally short-circuited to “non-emotion”; something ghastly or embarrassing happens, and the guy says, unemotionally, “Huh, weird.”
Funny the first few times, but not for an entire movie.
I realize I sound exactly like the senior citizens of my day who complained, “these kids today and their rock n’ roll– it’s just a lotta goldurned noise!” the traditional wail of someone who just can’t keep up, and is married to the tropes of the past.
“Who was that trope I saw you with?
That was no trope… that was my wife!”
The evolution of the comedic pivot stops for no man.
Humor evolves, and as it does, it leaves behind whole segments of the population who were perfectly satisfied by an earlier tradition.
If you’ve ever watched an old comedy from the 1920’s on TCM, you’ve seen some scenes that probably had audiences rolling in the aisles, but are so tame today we barely recognize them as humorous.
Perhaps you’ve had a fond recollection of some old TV show or movie from your college days and in a fit of nostalgia you incautiously decided to go back and revisit it.
Although you might still have enjoyed it, it might have seemed like a different movie, one with all the hilarious parts redacted.
If it was too tightly merged with fashions of the day, it might fail to pack the explosive punch it did when originally viewed.
Younger people looking at the movies older folks consider to be “classics” might be baffled that they ever considered them such treasures.
That creates a reality gap between generations, exemplified by the “Dad jokes” that are so universally excoriated by the young. (Dammit, those jokes are FUNNY!)
In 1973, I got an early introduction to the comedy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was then an anarchistic new presence on British TV. My father brought home some record albums (record albums!) that, when my sister and I listened to them, seemed to contain a powerful mixture of comedic lightning.
The Pythons utilized pivots that blew apart all the stodgy, established forms and substituted clever and bizarre scenarios and characters in an intoxicating mash-up. They seemed to have no connection to the era they were in, but feasted on skeletons of the past, and created something completely out of time.
Their television episodes were SO dry, and demanded so much from the viewer, that many times I would continue to watch five or ten minutes of whatever show followed them on PBS, assuming it was the Python show doing another random bit of satire.
My sister, (who has gone on to become an award-winning comedy writer/producer) and I would listen to those Monty Python record albums over and over and over again. (One of the records, Matching Tie & Handkerchief, I think, had THREE sides, due to a novelty double-groove technique. Minds: blown.)
Has the “style of pivot” of the Pythons stood the test of time?
Much of it has, certainly. The initial shock of some of their work has been diluted with the years, because many of their inventions were copied by British and American shows, as well as advertisers, so they don’t stand out as they once did.
The early Saturday Night Live, for one, struggled to adapt their very British style to an American form and never really mastering it, ran it into the ground.
But some sketches from Monty Python will continue to be funny until the sun sets on the British empire. It’s hard to imagine them suddenly losing their potency and ability to delight… but then, we might have said this about the comedy of the unfortunate Bill Cosby. (Let’s hope Cleese, Idle, Palin, Gilliam and company have been far less salacious.)
Comedy that lasts over time is of course comedy that depends on the most fundamental principles.
The great comedic playwrights of ancient Greece; Aeschylus, Aristophanes and Menander are important to mention here, because they add a buttload of cred to my argument, even though I myself have never read them.
(See what I did there? Pivot, baby!)
William Shakespeare’s comedies I have read, and I find them still funny today because the structure of their situations are eternal.
The few jokes that were wedded inseparably to Shakespeare’s time are the clunky bits that modern theater companies always have to make their peace with, or edit out, but I notice you can always draw a good crowd with A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing.
These plays will be funny ’til long after the cows come home.
(Where did those cows even go to, I wonder? They’ve been gone SO long…)
Of course there’s a big difference between, say, a performance of a Shakespeare comedy by seventh graders, and one by an older, more professional troupe… but that again supports my thesis: ”these goldurned kids today, their comedy just isn’t FUNNY!”
What do you think? Are the kids all laughing at the wrong thing? Will the angle of “pivot” become so extreme that only the most mercurial audiences will be quick enough to come along for the ride?
Or is it just an inevitability that what was funny to one generation will fail to deliver the same laughs to the next?
And in the meantime:
Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est!
(Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over!)
As is this blog post.
Except for this last bit.
And this one.
The management wishes to inform the reader that, due to budgetary restrictions, there will be no addendum to this post.
Sincerely, The Management.