Brevity is supposed to be the soul of wit. Or maybe brevity is the handmaiden of clarity, or at least its sardonic sidekick or something. I have gotten better at that over the years. But this time, not so much. I have had to step back, step back, then step back again to get around this one. I got a lot out of Facebook, its value is not illusory, but leaving it was easy, so that deserves some analysis. I will do this in two parts.
Part One - Comedians. No, really, this is connected. Hang in there.
A lot has been written over the last decade that comedy and comedians are no longer funny. I know this mostly indirectly, because I only catch the bits of popular culture that drift by me, as if I were a limpet. But it certainly seems that way. Being outrageous was always a possible path to humor, but now now the humor seems secondary, outrageousness primary. This is part of a long trend. I thoroughly get it. I laughed until it hurt at "Borat" precisely because it was I-can't-believe-what-I'm-seeing outrageous.
Humor is fragile, certainly, and nothing ruins a joke more than standing outside of it. Yet even I have noticed at my distance that the trend among TV comics, decade over decade, is toward a witty, or at least supercilious meanness. This is not mere cynicism on my part. The trick is not to show that someone is ridiculous, but to cleverly insult the one about whom the joke is already assumed to have been made. The repetitive banality of jokes about Trump is not at all new – I have known it since grade school, and was pretty good at it myself for many years. The measure of how easy it is is to note how many high school students are good at it. Comedians complained that it was hard to exercise their craft about Obama because there just wasn't anything to make fun of. His mother-in-law lived in the White House. He thought he was good at basketball. His wife tried to take control of school lunches. None of these things would be vicious attacks on a person to mention, they would just be mild joshing. Yet somehow it couldn't happen. A decade of comedians came up empty.
In a pinch, eye rolls, eyebrows, and tones of voice will suffice. These work better on TV or in small comedy venues than they do for main stage. Large stage solo comedy is more difficult, which is why most live performances now are actually filmed in from of smaller audiences. The SNL studio holds about 200 people – as Malcolm Gladwell notes, it’s relatively easy to get a small group of drunk people who already like you to laugh. If you are making fun of things they already think are funny, so much the easier.
When one takes away those advantages – when the comedian is not quite from your tribe, and you are sitting by yourself quite sober it suddenly hits you: This isn’t actually that funny. It’s just mean. This audience merely hates the same things. Comedians are now criticizing college audiences, who they claim get offended about everything. There is some justice in that. It is at least true that those who are offended have more power now. Still, I don’t know if there are actually more of them in this generation. I will also slyly note there is a flip side to that. The comedians are now working without the easy advantages they have enjoyed for their careers. That decade when there was nothing funny about Obama...They now believe they know what people should and shouldn’t be offended by. Some collegians disagree, so of course all the blame is on them. This is new territory for many comedians. I saw a Jay Leno interview in the 80s where he shook his head over so many who had never faced a hostile audience and gotten them to laugh. “I had a job at a strip club trying to tell jokes while the girls were changing between acts. You learn to be funny fast or your sport coat gets ruined from live cigarettes flicked at you.”
In front of their own audiences, however, they still get – hmm, not laughs, exactly, but chuckles, snorts, nods. It is like church conference audiences who try to laugh as they would be laughed for. It's weak, insipid. There is the tendency for comedians to get more bitter as they age. Chris Rock is still funny, but it’s different, and I can see how one day it will just fall flat. Garrison Keillor became dramatically more bitter and insulting. Part of his audience was never happier, as he was bitter about the right people. Even Eddie Izzard shows some of it. I’m not a John Oliver expert, but I did some homework and I see it in his work as well. More bitter, less funny. And increasingly, bitterness is the entire point. Kathy Griffin. Hannah Gadsby.
It’s an unstable situation, because people want to laugh, and they will find ways to laugh. Audiences will split in two directions: they will increasingly laugh, even uproariously, at meanness if it is directed at the proper targets*. The ability to laugh at oneself and one’s own tribe erodes in such circumstances. Most people are healthy enough that this does not vanish entirely, though it does seem in darker moments that it has gone out of the American character. As the ability to laugh at ourselves is one of the great distinctives of Americans (Really. Listen to other tribes and nations talk about themselves. Belgians, Swiss, Koreans see nothing funny about themselves, only others), both as a whole and as subgroups. This is a terrible sign of unhealth.
(Part Two: Twitter and Facebook are funny.)
*I have a book The Good Old Days, about the humor of perpetrators and bystanders in Nazi Germany. You might see our current political discourse in mild form there.