Humor

I had no idea I could be dated by my sense of humor. I recently came to terms with reality when the youth group kids told me Seinfeld wasn't funny. What!?! Isn't Seinfeld the height of comedic expression??? So I asked them what they thought was funny. "Scrubs... ha ha, yeah scrubs, I love that show.  It's so random." I gave it a test run. Not so funny. It was then that I realized a new era of humor had emerged, and I had missed the memo. (If you just thought of TPS-reports when I used the word memo, you're tracking.)

I think humor is kind of like music. Every generation has humor trends they follow, and if you are too legit to quit you will know what is acceptably funny and when to go "ooooooaaaaaahhhhhh". (That is the sound my wife made when I was told her the name of a villain in the Tick comic series was Apocalypse Cow. Personally, I laughed just now typing the name into my computer.) But you might wonder, is humor really as trendy as music. Let's take a walk through time, shall we?

In the twenties, thirties and forties lots of famous comedian teams left their mark in the newly invented movie pictures and television. So what was funny back then?

Slapping people and pies to the face. The Three Stooges were one of the most popular comedy teams of their generation.

Slightly more sophisticated, word-plays and puns. This tool of comedy was perfected by Abbott and Costello who are best remembered for their routine "Who is on First." What few people know is that this routine was one of dozens that used exactly the same formula, the straight man talking about something while the "comic" thought he was talking about something else. While much of their comedy centered around playing with language, they also offered much in terms of physical humor as well, plenty of kicks and slaps.

Somewhat simultaneous and later you enter the joke age. You have people like Milton Berle and Bob Hope constantly writing new jokes to keep their audiences entertained. These one-man comics perfected the "art" of setup-punchline.  Jokes made these men wealthy and famous.  Kids tell them now.

In an interview, Bob Newhart, when thinking about becoming a stand-up comic, said he realized the age of jokes had passed. He effectively delivered a new style of comedy, the one-sided conversation. Using a phone as a prop the audience would have to imagine what was happening on the other side of the line. Newhart was the first comedian to put out a comedy record and it went immediately to #1 in the charts. In 1961 he won a Grammy for the album and was named New Artist of the Year. He released a second album and it went to #2. It would have made #1, but his first album still held the top spot. In an age when Sinatra reigned supreme, this was quite a feat. You can still buy these on CD, Button-Down Mind and Button-Down Mind Strikes Back.

Newhart moved the comedy game from jokes to story telling. Bill Cosby perfected it. His DVD Bill Cosby: Himself is still the best stand up I have ever seen.

This brings us to the 80s. Up until now this may seem like an evolution of humor, but the 80s had a way of ruining everything. Somewhere between SNL and Good Morning Vietnam one-liners gained the upper hand.  Enter the "mama" joke and all variety of canned humor even more succinct than the discarded "joke".

Seinfeld came to our rescue.  He didn't tell jokes or stories, and never delivered one-liners.  He brought us "observational" comedy.   The Seinfeld sitcom showed the power of this new form.  But, like everything before it, observational comedy was just the latest formula, and it too has passed.

So what has replaced it?  Scrubs, if I understand the humor at all, has found its formula in the unexpected and the random.  It is not necessarily shock humor, it is just chaos.  This is one of the current trends.  Bring in a lot of stuff that makes no sense whatsoever and you have modern comedy.  Malcom in the Middle used the same formula for kids and Arrested Development was for hipsters.  (I am not a fan of any of these shows, so please inform me if I have misread the humor formula that makes these shows work).  The Office is a little different, offering a new twist by capitalizing on awkward moments.

Even with all the change I think there are a few universal principals of humor.

1. Timing.  In every form of comedy (except perhaps the one liner) timing is crucial.  It is not just saying the right things, or saying them the right way, but delivering at the exact moment that makes a comedian go from common to great.  Why is timing so crucial?  I think it is like hitting the right pitch in music.  You can do everything else right, but if you sing off key you will still be a terrible singer.

2. The unexpected helps.  Most humor is based on causing trauma to the brain by getting it to think multiple thoughts and then sort them all out at once.  For some reason we find this trauma pleasurable.

3. If not unexpected, it must be exquisite.   Even a joke where you know the punch-line can be funny if told in the right way.  Comedy is a delicate balance of subtleties in tone, body language, cantor, and impression.  When done to perfection the performance itself will cause delight even when it has been seen before.

I am sure there is much more to say, but I have found myself intrigued lately at the trends that have developed in comedy.  As a child I thought funny was funny.  But today many people don't find any humor at all in a classic routine like Who's on First, and its not because they don't get it.  It's that word-plays aren't funny anymore (unless their innuendo which seems to have an enduring comedic effect).  This helps explain the difference between American and British humor. We are as different in our comedy tastes as we are in our musical tastes.  There is overlap yes, but we are riding a different trend so their will always be confusion.

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  • Interesting thoughts. The unexpected sort of humor that you describe in Scrubs is pretty much the same deal as Family Guy. They seem to go to great lengths to give you something unexpected.

    I think the awkward humor is another style that’s best seen in the Office, though I think Freaks & Geeks definitely did it before them (and mosts anything Judd Apatow does has that same element of awkwardness–40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and I’d wager Superbad as well [I haven’t seen it yet].

    You can really notice the difference in humor and how much we have changed if you watch things you used to think were funny. We Netflixed Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs and they just weren’t that funny (OK, Pinky and the Brain was decent). I wonder how much of it has to do with humor changing and how much of it has to do with maturing and growing older (poop is only funny to a kindergartner, etc.).

  • (OK, I’m getting into this. One more thought)

    Another curious kind of humor is what I’ll call referential humor. It’s humor that refers to something and is only funny in reference to something else. Parody would be the best example. If you don’t know what they’re parodying, it’s not funny at all. But when you know, it’s funny (Apocalypse Cow/Apocalypse Now).

    This is kind of odd, because it creates a whole type of humor that requires certain knowledge. It could be ‘high-class’ humor because you need to be fairly educated to get all the references, but not always (if it refers to something decidedly low class, for example).

    An especially odd example of referential humor is the way my college friends and I would throw Simpsons quotes into everyday conversation. They were only funny if you knew the quote and its context. If you didn’t, they were nonsensical. And they weren’t even that funny, it was more funny because the original joke was funny and in this new referenced context it still seems funny.

    A similar example would be the inside joke. Usually the initial joke isn’t that funny, but it’s perpetuated by reference and seems to become that much funnier.

    It seems there’s almost an entire class of humor that’s funny just because it refers to something or is oddly familiar (like when one of David Letterman’s jokes bombs and then he just keeps saying it throughout the rest of the show, trying to squeeze a laugh out of it, which he usually does).

  • You may think poop is only funny to a child and I would agree, but if you see the new Oz flick, “Death at a Funeral” you may walk out fearing that poop and some other old formulas are trying to make a comeback. See it and make your own judgment (I just think Oz was better off doing well known voices, ie. Yoda).

    Adam, again, you have hit it on the head. How do you do this? I really am secretly envious of your understanding and observation. I read a book several times and can write, oh, a sentence about it, I watch a movie once and think it was good or bad, you watch the same movie and your throwing themes all over the place. Sorry to hear about the Seinfeld episode. With all that is out there these days, Sarah and I still enjoy curling up to an old Seinfeld episode when we really want to take it easy.

    We have made our way through “Arrested Development” and really liked it. Chaos is a good genre for it, however. We also enjoy watching both the American and British versions of the office and yes, I would agree that the new emerging comedy is the awkward moment. Maybe that evolved out of reality TV. People made fun of that so much and all the dramatic awkward, “real” moments so they just progressed it into their writing and now it’s a screen play. Same old industrialization we’ve all come to love and depend on. Wonderful observations.

  • Man I have to do basic math to even post a comment. You must be trying to restrict freedom of expression in the lower classes 🙂

    Nice post, I can definitely see the generational gap of humor withing my family and even between man an my younger brother. Two words, Napolean Dynamite, I didn’t think it was that funny but Joseph did. Now Tommy Boy is hilarious but not so much for my Grandmother.

    Though being homeschooled I was exposed to Bill Cosby at a young age and still think he is very funny. Generation has a lot to do with it but I think it has more to do with the humor you are exposed to growing up.

  • Kevin,
    You made me laugh because you immediately sensed what I had left out. I thought about mentioning parody, specifically Mel Brooks or Leslie Neilsen, but I decided parody didn’t fit the “trend” theme I was working on. Charlie Chaplin did parody and how many installments of Scary Movie or its derivatives have we seen lately? Even Pinkie and the Brain was mostly parody.
    I think your right about referential humor as well. That was meant to go in my short list of universal principals, that there is something funny about bringing up something several times in different settings, but I must have gotten tired and forgot. Letterman is the perfect example.
    There is a maturing process from young to old, but I think that runs alongside the humor trends. Is poop any less vulgar than sex? Each can get a laugh from the right age bracket, but it still must be clothed in the current trend to work.

  • Amira

    Adam! Try Jasper Carrot. Absolutely hilarious and , at least what I know of him, totally clean. From memory, it was all about timing. To the homeschooler, sorry don’t know yuo, but I grew up having to watch Benny Hill, utterly vulgar and sexist. Thankfully, the Bill Cosby show and others came to my rescue!

  • OK, this is old, but since I was at your site commenting I thought I’d throw out another one.

    About a week or two after this post Entertainment Weekly had an article about awkward humor. Very interesting.

    Also, as a side note, I think it’s interesting that Jerry Seinfeld has been trying to do realistic awkward humor, ala the Office. During commercial breaks for the office he’s been doing these promos for his new cartoon, Bee Movie, that try to be the Office of the entertainment world. And they’re awful. Have you seen these? Terrible. I can’t even watch them. It makes me wonder if Jerry Seinfeld is done.

  • Every time I saw one of those teasers you mentioned I became very angry because they are so aweful. Go to quicktime.com and watch the regular trailers for the Bee movie. They redeem those terrible teasers and make the movie seem watchable.

  • I believe true humor is timeless, like as you say, music. It can be generational, but amongst true fans, they’ll always refer back to the original influence.

    In the case of Scrubs, you would have to study Exec. Prod. Bill Lawrence and what he has worked on his Hollywood history.

    Seinfeld does take his cues from Cosby–he’s been quoted as saying that Cosby is his influence time and time again.

    Take what I say with a grain of salt. Afterall, I’m a comedienne. “What do I know?” (lol) Honestly, nothing. I’m still learning this stuff myself.