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.