That’s Not Funny

Ever notice how serious comedy has become? The art of eliciting laughter, like just about every other form of leisure and entertainment, is today a political marker that aggravates the social polarization once driven solely by hard stories like war or taxation. A joke’s premise, its target, its audience, and certainly its teller are now classed along a left-right, progressive-oppressive spectrum whereby its actual humor is the least relevant quality about it. Wouldn’t it be nice to reclaim irreverence, absurdity, and amusement as a universal language?

Consider, for one thing, how the monologues of late-night talk show hosts and the topical skits of Saturday Night Live are reported as mainstream news the next morning. The morphing of show business and journalism has been going on for decades, certainly, but in the 2020s there exists a kind of feeder system between television comedy and serious commentary, such that material performed as diversion is quickly made the subject of sober essays in the New York Times or The Atlantic. Standup comics from the 1960s onward were making pointed jokes about important issues – Lenny Bruce said he didn’t participate in civil rights marches because of “people shoving back and forth…Ray Charles walking into people” – but they weren’t instantly repeated in more respectable outlets for broader publics. Indeed, when parodies of Donald Trump or anti-vaxxers are covered by supposedly neutral forums as newsworthy events, it’s easy to understand the resentment of people who complain about “the liberal media”: the articles and video clips amount to both free publicity for TV celebrities, and easily digestible endorsements of pre-existing editorial positions, reinforcing each other’s messages in an endless cycle.

Of course that works all ways. There are lately a range of websites, talk shows, and comedians catering to fan bases who already know who and what will be the main targets of mockery. Onion knockoffs like The Beaverton and The Babylon Bee, and Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah or Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld, have become legitimate news sources for select followings, all of them just grounded in reality enough for readers or viewers to trust their liberal or conservative satires as useful guides to current affairs. Since there is almost no broad consensus on “objective” broadcasters and publications anymore, why not forget trying to be objective at all and just go for some easy approval? Who needs Cronkite when you can have Colbert? The Babylon Bee itself kidded this tendency in a recent headline, “Late Night Host Knows His Joke Killed As Crowd Breaks Into Uproarious Applause.”

It’s true that comedy in all forms has long held an element of partisanship. Mad and National Lampoon magazines were adolescent baby boomers’ favorite digs at the Establishment; if you liked Milton Berle you were likely outraged by the Smothers Brothers; Richard Pryor’s audiences didn’t much overlap with Rich Little’s; in 1977, Saturday Night Live appealed to different tastes than The Carol Burnett Show. But those divides were more about age and style than about politics. Now humor can be equally profane or equally outrageous, but in service of opposing ideologies. More, what many of us might find hilarious – e.g. Dave Chappelle’s bits about race or sex or gender – are denounced from some quarters not on grounds of obscenity, as in the old days, but of offensiveness. Unfortunately for the offended, laughter, like fear or desire, is an involuntary response that bypasses our mental censors to reach us at an instinctive level; even the nastiest jokes will land if we recognize an underlying truth in them. Still, there is something to be said for the equal-opportunity observations of Steve Martin (“Who here has never raised their hand?”), Steven Wright (“Some people are afraid of heights, but I’m afraid of widths”), or the late Bernie Mac (on making eye contact while receiving oral sex: “Uh, keep up the good work”) that didn’t need a friendly crowd to crack everyone up. Some things are funny for everybody, or at least they should be. I leave you with this: My grandpa has just discovered Viagra, and now he’s addicted.

Grandma’s been taking it really hard.