Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Persistence of Comedy

I loved listening to Hudson and Landry in college. Laugh out loud funny. This particular sketch was probably their best known. Yet I don't find it that funny now. Chuckle-worthy, but not big.

Improv comedy is at a disadvantage when viewed later, especially 40 years later. Part of the humor is it's freshness, and the knowledge that the audience isn't being set up in any way, but are participants. Yet even with that caveat, this isn't as funny now as it was then. And its Winters, who was simply the best at improv, so we know that it's something about the passage of time, not the skill of the comedian, that drains the humor.

For years I thought it was just me, grumpier and jaded, unable to laugh as before. But tracking down vaudeville routines over the years, I wondered at how little they amused me. And this was supposed to be Vaudeville! The humor of legend. Not until I watch ancient clips from earliest vaudeville, from the turn of the previous century did the awareness dawn. This isn't funny. But people split their sides over it. The following would be from half a century later, the height of vaudeville, not only in its most developed stage, but one of its finest practitioners, and chosen among many possible routines to be recreated over a decade after. It's cute. It's okay.

But there is something very fragile about comedy, something that embeds it in the precise time that it was created that makes it funny. There are a hundred thousand tiny cues in the culture, and playing off them or on them is not something of calculation, but of intuition. Some of those tiny cues are unchanged a decade or a century later - others have morphed entirely.


karrde said...

But it was so funny!

You had to be there...I mean, it was funny when he said it.

I suppose such sayings are more true than are realized. At least, they cover more than stories about the thing that Some Guy said At That One Party.

dangph said...

Here is the latest Forbes list of the top-earning stand-up comedians at the moment:

1. Jeff Dunham
2. Dane Cook
3. Terry Fator
4. Chelsea Handler
5. George Lopez
6. Larry the Cable Guy
7. Russell Peters
8(tie). Jeff Foxworthy
8(tie). Howie Mandel
10. Bill Engvall

These are the best of the best. People find them funny.

But personally I don't find any of them funny. None of them even make me break out into a smile.

Now suppose a few decades from now someone repeats your experiment. They ask me, do you find these people funny? I would say, no, they don't.

I do agree with you that there is some time-dependency to comedy, but your experiment doesn't conclusively demonstrate that.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, N=1 isn't much of an experiment. I could try it with comedians I found uproariously funny for more than a year or two, I suppose, to see if I found them funny. Bill Cosby is the only entry that comes to mind on that.

Certainly any comedy that depends on a certain outrageousness, saying things that have a shock vale, would have some expiration date.

Maybe I should think movies instead of standup.

Anna said...

Mitch Hedberg was funny - alas he overdosed.

Racist comedians like George Lopez are really tough to listen to.

Brian Regan is clean and funny (but some people don't like him).

At work we are allowed to listed to headphones on our computers, and we all share our mp3s. That is why I have listened to so many comedians recently. There is only so much raunchiness I can take before my brain rebels. Then I need a bleach rinse or something, snort some detergent.

Sam L. said...

I have 2 H&L albums; this is one of them. I will have to play them again. My favorite bit of theirs was an interview with a Japanese photog who strapped himself to the front of a bullet train and took pix of the trip. "How'd they turn out?" "Not know, dlugstore roose film."

Maybe the loss of humor is in us--we are no longer the persons we were when we first heard the routine. We are no longer in that moment, and too much has happened to change us.

"Dave's not here, man."

How about the Marx Brothers? Martin and Lewis? I Love Lucy?

And then, "Who's On First" still works.

Gringo said...

I do not recall Hudson and Landry. I bypassed them entirely. Even though I was involved in a fatal auto accident when I was 6, caused by a staggering drunk who had to be helped into his car at the tavern, in my childhood and youth I found the drunken comedy of the era to be funny, such as Jim Backus’s “Delicious” [“Even the cork tastes good”], or Frank Fontaine’s Crazy Guggenheim character. Perhaps that shows the primacy of culture over personal experience. I doubt that good ol’ Craze would go over as well these days. We have a different attitude these days towards drunks/alcoholics, with a higher public awareness of the devastation that they leave in their wake.

But yes, comedy is topical, best appreciated in the time and place from where it sprang up. While others see me as a humorous person, I don’t pay too much attention to comedy these days. It seems too snarky and over politicized- or it least my side gets gored too often. Comedy these days seems more nasty than funny.

As Sam L. points out , the Marx Brothers and Who’s on First are still funny. I would add Tom Lehrer to the list. I recently saw some old Jack Benny clips, and found them still funny. Which reminds me of a favorite joke of my brother and his friends when they were in 3rd grade. “Knock Knock. Who’s there? Jack Benny in his underwear.”

After that “humor,” I had better stop.