By Ryan Uytdewilligen
Have you squirmed in your seat from painfully bad comedy or something that seemed off colour or in bad taste? I would think so considering everyone generally has a sense of humor that’s unique to them. With so many comedy options, it’s safe to say that it can’t all appeal to everyone. But after watching the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special, I was in awe of my favorite comedians and the incredible show that kept the laughs coming all night. A plethora of opinions soon followed; I heard comments ranging from how unfunny they’ve become to how distasteful they were. But as previously mentioned, comedy ranges and some people like me were happy with how funny the show was.
So it just goes to show you that there is a broad range of thought when it comes to specific comedy; but where does it come from? Time, age, location, and personality all have to play a role. What gets me is how the comedy stylings have changed over the years and what we find acceptable now. Being a fan of the humor of the 1970’s, I typically stand alone when it comes to my age group who either find it offensive or just humorless. But it works both ways when it comes to my opinions on what they like. There is no universally loved comedian or style, but looking back, it’s interesting to see how time and place affected what we find funny.
Starting out in the silent eras, the greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had nothing but their limbs and funny expressions to convey a joke. Today, that humor is not as relevant because of the preferred and available use of sound. When sound was invented for the moving pictures, Cary Grant screwball comedies like His Girl Friday (1940) where the characters talked a mile a minute proved to be a hit. Then we get to comedy teams like Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis who could put on shows with songs, dances, and rehearsed routines. Nothing was offensive, just pure fun escapism.
But for decades, comedy has been used to satirize and skewer daily current events. When television became widely available, variety shows were unique in that they could keep up with the ever-changing world and parodying life, like in Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. This paved the way for late night talk shows and people like Jack Paar and Johnny Carson delivering funny and topical monologues. But this was television and meant for families, so nothing could be too daring or out of hand that could upset young viewers. Some audiences craved edgier comedy that didn’t play it safe, opening doors for comedians and platforms to fill the void. Comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and The Smothers Brothers rose to fame with topical stand up humor that was full of expletives, sexual subject matter, and challenges towards government. While a lot of people became fans of this changing times kind of comedy, others were offended, going as far as taking Lenny Bruce to trial for obscenity.
That brings us to the 1970’s when sketch shows ranked supreme and standup comedy was a massive form of entertainment. People like Steve Martin and Richard Pryor tickled people’s funny bones while shows like Laugh In and SNL became epicenters of comedic free speech. Britain had Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Canada had Second City Television; every place had its reflective comedy variety show. But as we look back to that period, we can see that a lot of current taboo topics were what was popular. Comedians could throw around the “N” word like nobody’s business, even on network shows like All in the Family. Then there were comedy films like the game changing gross out comedy Animal House (1978) that featured a scene where a student debates whether he should take advantage of a drunk girl at a party. As for women in comedy, it was thought of as a man’s industry. Female comedians like Joan Rivers and Carol Burnett succeeded, but typically couldn’t joke about the same things men could.
Flash forward past the eighties and nineties where we saw the rein of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and hundreds of sitcoms to make us laugh – we can start to see that what we are able to talk about has severely changed. We live in the 21st century where the fear of upsetting or offending anybody is a comedian’s main concern (or censor). Classics like Eddie Murphy’s homophobic stand up routine on his Delirious special would never fly today. While progression is all well and good, comedy is still essentially an opinion based view of an issue. As we learned with the terrible Hebdo shootings in France over their controversial satirical magazine, freedom of speech can lead to unimaginable consequences. It should come down to the type of comedy and if we’re laughing at someone or with someone. As soon as it’s at someone’s expense, the joke becomes a type of bullying.
The world has changed a lot when it comes to acceptance and what bullying is. Minorities who may have been the butt of a joke in previous years have pushed for acceptance and change which they have slowly started to obtain. So now in the world of comedy, we have more outlets than we ever had before. From Youtube, sketch comedy shows, stand ups, and a million other sources, there is bound to be something we like. There are also a million different places to voice your opinion. There were no message boards or blogs two decades ago to tell a comedian or show that they were hurtful or unfunny, it was up to critics or the harsh sound of boos to do that. Now, if someone finds something offensive, they can get their opinion out with a click of a button.
Now, women dominate comedy with stars like Tina Fey and Amy Schumer gracing stage and screen. Louis CK is one of the most popular stand ups of all time. Pundits like Jon Stewart deliver commentaries while classic shows like Saturday Night Live still go strong. In the end, it just all depends on the person and if comedic music, routines, sketch, or even comic strips is their thing. Culture does play a part as I’ve seen many Americans dislike British dry wit and vice versa. Really it’s a person’s values and views in today’s society that has the ultimate say in what we find funny. Maybe you found something funny when you were younger but don’t anymore… was that because of maturation or a change in society’s morals? Comedy typically doesn’t age well because of constant changes in acceptance and even technology when it comes to the silent era’s case. It’s hard to judge previous comedy on being offensive or mean spirited – it is a product of its time and we can’t change the past. I say if it’s not attacking those who can’t defend themselves or shouldn’t have to, go ahead and laugh.
Title photo: Jerry Seinfeld, Oakland, CA by Thomas Hawk used under CC License