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?


  1. I disagree completely. I find Trey Parker to be about the funniest person there is. His first musical, "Cannibal! the Musical" was the first show I ever directed. His humor is far more than fart jokes. He is probably one of the greatest Satirists out there right now. I love the Book of Mormon. I love its message, that "religion can do good when it isn't about Dogma, but about helping people. Take the line from the show: "Who cares what happens when we're dead, we shouldn't think that far ahead, the only latter day that matters is tomorrow." pointing out that Mormons should be working to make "this" our paradise planet instead of working towards the reward of a Paradise planet given to them in the latter days of their afterlife. The "maggots in my scrotum" line is the juxtaposition of the feeling one is supposed to get when being preached to about the centuries old events of Farmer Joseph Smith in New York that has no relevance to a starving, Aids infected Ugandan whose squirming feeling is caused by the maggots in his scrotum not the useless words of a missionary speaking about events with no relevance to this man's life.

    As Trey Parker said ""Obviously, anyone can go out there and go, 'Fuck, fuck, fuck, cunt, cunt, cunt, piss, piss, piss,' whatever. And, like, it's not gonna do anything, unless at the root of it there is this heart and this soul."

    There is a reason the man has won countless awards including a Tony, Peabody, Emmy, and been nominated for an Oscar. I particularly think you would enjoy his "Passion of the Jew" satire of Mel Brooks and his movie... as well as his take on censorship in "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" for which he was nominated for said Academy Award.

    I think Book of the Mormon is one of the top ten musicals of all time... it is the first musical in over 40 years to put a Broadway soundtrack into the Billboard popular music top ten. It is far more than just saying poop... but as Mel Brooks and George Carlin and countless others realize... farts are funny... it is the mixture of the brilliant satire and base comedy that in my opinion make this man and his work stellar.

  2. Guess you never watched South Park, and still think Obama is a better president than a book writing showman! Of course those folk living in the past can't understand the humour today. If you don't get the joke you won't laugh. Enough said:)

  3. How very interesting...

    Reading this almost seemed to me like taking a stroll through a museum. It has been a long time since I examined comedy as just another philosophy or field of study.

    If you get the chance, I am interested to hear more of your thoughts on the growing field of internet comedy. Your remark on how "we laugh without laugh tracks on the Internet, don’t we?" seems like the tip of the iceberg on the subject.

  4. At the start of this article, at least, it seems like you're talking about stand-up. The Carson thing didn't quite work the way you present it though: what happened more often than not was that a comic had to either work the road or clubs in New York and LA in obscurity, opening for better-known comics, until and if you got the attention of Carson's booker. That's why comedy in the 80s was plagued by the notion of a "tight 5" minutes of clean material that could be performed on TV to make your career.
    The perception, anyways, was that if you got on the Tonight Show, you'd automatically be a feature act at clubs, and if Johnny called you over to his desk you'd be on the track to success.

    This has all changed since Carson went off the air, though. The alternative comedy 'movement' has broadened considerably everyone's notions of what comedians can do onstage (and, btw, since the 90s alt comedy has taken over the mainstream), and of course the avenues to success are much more varied.

  5. I haven't seen the show (Mormon) yet, but I love Matt Stone and Trey Parker's humor. They are, I believe, the bravest men in comedy today. They push the envelope as far as it will go...and then, a mile farther. I do agree about the humor of the old talk shows, and the new, for that matter--there are far more unfunny comics out there getting an audience, than there are funny ones. I look forward to seeing "The Book Of Mormon," someday, when I can actually get a ticket. I'll let you know, then, if I agree, or disagree, with your assessment!

  6. I liked Mormon but agree entirely about what passes for humor these days. Gail Collins does a better job observing and quoting our politicians.


  7. Hi Ray,

    I hope this gets your message across--

    Where is the the "applause" sign when it is needed the most? Maybe this will help:
    "aplauso", "applaudissements", "aplordirn",...


  8. One of your most interesting posts, Ray, and one that I agree with, for the most part. Haven't seen Mormon (and won't), but I do think the creators' (of Book of Mormon) South Park has had a lot of good and funny stuff in it over the years.

  9. An all too sad but accurate assessment of how the turn of the culture can turn one's stomach. If Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce set the standards of modern comedy ( with Pryor and Carlin quickly following) then Parker and Stone have set the standards for offensive comedy ( although the Christmas fight between Jesus and Santa is classic).
    I yearn for A Frank Capra movie and get the Coen Brothers; I yearn for a Mickey Mantle and get juiced up Alex Rodriguez; I yearn for Everett Dirksen and get Nancy Pelosi; I yearn for the genius of Paul Samuelson and get the insanity of Paul Krugman; I yearn for Abott and Costello and get Opie and Anthony.
    I think the point I'm making is that we have accepted Parker and Stone because culturally we have accepted lower standards and expectations. It's why our schools are failing. It's why most of the good stories coming out of Hollywood are remakes of the good old ones. It's why we have accepted the mediocrity of our leaders in everything from General Electric to the White House and Congress. Everything.


  10. Add a Grammy Award for Matt, Trey and Bobby! Best Musical Theater Album!