Monday, October 17, 2011

Laughter in the Can

I’ve been trying to find the culprit for the watering down of humor to sweat and spit. If “sweat and spit” suggests the last stand-up comic you saw on “Letterman” or “Leno,” we’re on the same track.

As you can see, I’ve narrowed down the guilty to television, principally late-night TV talk shows. Television created a demand far in excess of supply for people who could enter and amuse for three minutes. Formerly, comics honed their talents and their acts out of the limelight, venturing anywhere they could find an audience, spending years randomly succeeding, more often bombing, until they were ready to step up to “the big time.” Talk show TV took people who got laughs in school, whose friends and family thought they were funny, and handed them “the big time” on a silver platter. All they had to do was show up and breathe words. Their introductions would do the rest. Good old Johnny was so delighted to have them on his show and so amused by people only the show’s talent booker may—or more likely, may not—have seen in advance that he couldn’t stop laughing when he introduced them. This guy comes to us directly from… (the unemployment line, Johnny?)—and opens tomorrow at… (the Orange Room at Nedicks?) By the time the comic enters, he’s star quality: the audience is laughing before he opens his mouth. “Hi,” draws laughter. “I just flew in from…” They don’t care where from—he’s funny! Leave it to Johnny!

So five nights a week, season after season, what we had foisted upon us were callow, unfunny people. To make matters worse, they were angry or sullen, or wounded, and always at a loss to tell us why they were so unhappy. Cut to Johnny, sitting at his desk yocking it up.

Almost 30 years of “The Late Show with Johnny Carson.” 4,531 episodes. That means 4,531 3-minute comic turns. Other than the select few who earned repeat visits to Johnny, how many did anyone ever hear of again?

Mediocrity passing for better had a strong small screen precedent: before television treated audiences to the merriment, concocted or kosher, of the late-night talk show, it brought them the canned hilarity of the prime-time sitcom.

People in their living rooms couldn’t be relied upon to recognize humor. Studio audiences weren’t much better, laughing too softly or loudly, laughing unevenly or—most disconcerting to performers—in the wrong place! So a CBS engineer began to mix in prerecorded laughter with audience laughter, or the lack of, to “sweeten” what became the “laugh tracks.”

Those presumed-to-be dense dolts in living rooms across America were introduced to, or more accurately subjected to and manipulated by, the first laugh track in 1950. The bearer of manipulated tidings was a weekly sitcom. The results were in without having to be tabulated—for the folks at home, if an audience anywhere else was consistently laughing so heartily, the show had to be funny! Live audiences quickly became irrelevant as “canned laughter” became the order of the day.

While watching a TV sitcom today, has it ever entered your mind that you’re laughing with people who may have been dead for as long as sixty years?

We laugh without laugh tracks on the Internet, don’t we? Generally speaking, yes, but without being cued?—no!, we’re not allowed to; those who send us jokes, and especially those who make their own, think they have to tell us “this is funny” (just like sound engineers). Either they’re afraid they’re genuinely not funny or they underestimate us, either way resulting in the omnipresence of the digital smiley-face emoticon, the “Kilroy was here” of the 21st century, and the killjoy.

Funny isn’t so funny anymore. Not when it’s dumb and dumber. In movie theaters, the big box office fare is frat-boy humor and gross out movies—if there’s a difference. Shock humor is extinct because no one can be shocked anymore. Permeating all media is what I’ve come to think of as the caca-doodoo school of comedy. It’s naughty as only children who don’t know better can be naughty; as humor, its shock value is decidedly of schlock value; and it’s not funny.

“It’s” not funny today unless a major voice—theater critic, cult icon, PR maven—tells them it’s not only funny, but the funniest [fill in the blank] to come along since… the last funniest one! They enter laughing. It’s come full circle: in Broadway theaters—the last stand, legs trembling, for quality humor and valid wit—a live audience is the new canned laughter.

Which brings us to today’s paltry excuse for yesteryear’s achieved illustriousness in the Broadway musical—and to this season’s pretender, “The Book of Mormon.” The laughter started the moment its high-profile creative team was announced, built while it was selling out even before an audience had seen it, and crescendoed when the New York Times’ chief theater critic pronounced it tantamount to “heaven on Broadway.” In his rapture, curiously, he never used the word “funny,” or any of its synonyms—because he found it too funny for words?

“Mormon’s” audiences are laughing at everything offered to them—because they paid dearly and in most cases waited months to laugh at what the word-of-mouth that follows the critics and the hype says is funny. If you care about wit, I can save you anxiety and money—it’s completely lacking in wit. I wouldn’t give away a good joke and spoil it for anyone, but here’s a very bad one, one that gives new definition to “gag” line: the show’s running joke, “I got maggots in my scrotum.”

What has humor become, or is it what has become of humor?