The Comedy Generation Gap

This is going to get rambly.

I forced myself to watch all of Mel Brook’s History of the World Par 1.  Every time someone mentions a classic movie I haven’t seen I put it on my queue and they sort of randomly show up whenever.  Trying to be culturally literate and all.  I’ve been wanting to pontificate on two things that I never got around to, and this movie seemed like a good locus for doing so.   First is the concept of the generation gap, and the other is the aesthetics of comedy. 

Brass tacks: Mel Brooks sucks.  He. Is. Terrible.  His jokes are all sophomoric… no, more like gradeschool level, Laffy Taffy wrapper quality.  Obvious, over the top, derivative, boring.  So bad it’s embarrassing. 
Ok, that’s my opinion.  Not fact.  I guess.   I remember seeing his movie Space Balls when I was in my low teens, and finding it hilarious.  I saw it again a couple years ago and could hardly get through it.  See the paragraph above.  I wonder if people who find his movies funny only do so because they saw them when they were young.  It’s a tempting theory since it mirrors my OWN personal experience with his work.  But I doubt this could be the case because several of his movies are continually put on lists of ‘classics’ by critics.  So clearly, there is some element in there that is good in some way that is simply invisible to me.  Or perhaps they are listed because of the influence they had rather than any intrinsic merit they contain.  I like this idea a lot more. 

It’s easy to get all hoity-toity about aesthetics, presuming that my own opinion must be a pretty darn good one.  But when it comes to humor it’s a lot harder for me to justify, since so many of the things that make me laugh out loud are, let’s see… obvious, over the top, and derivative.  When I look at a painting or photography or video game or film or novel, I can break elements down, trace lines of thought, track creativity, interesting combinations, analyze influences, and hold it up to the accepted best-practices of art.  Contrast, balance, composition, juxtaposition, etc.  Humor seems so much slipperier.  In general I love absurd and juxtaposition-based humor.  Monty Python had a big influence on me I think. 
In a pathetic attempt to understand why I like what I like, and don’t like what I don’t in the realm of comedy I’m going to dissect a couple moments that stick out to me.

The Muppet Movie (1979)

I love this movie.  Grew up with it.  Rainbow Connection makes me so happy.  The Muppets are constantly playing on puns.  There is a throw-away joke that must have taken the prop department several days to pull off.  Examining a map while driving Kermit tells Fozzie to take a left at the fork in the road.  Cut to the car driving past a literal 10 foot tall fork sticking out of the road.  Get it?  Of course you do.  

And I don’t find this obnoxious like I would in a Mel Brooks movie, and I think I know why.  It’s the tone of the film.  In a Muppet movie you have fuzzy puppets doing heartwarming things, and so the childish pun humor tonally matches. 

Space Balls (1987)

The villain Dark Helmet oversees his troops who are searching for the good guys by “combing the desert”.  In another prop-department challenge, they cut to a group dragging a gigantic comb across the sand.  Get it?  Well maybe you don’t.  So to be absolutely certain, we get the lines: “Are we being too literal?”  “No  you fool.  We were told to comb the desert so we’re combing it!”  Juuuust to make sure you understand that it’s a visual pun.

Unlike the Muppet movies, Mel Brook’s movies are always crass, full of sex jokes, bodily functions in lieu of actual jokes, and racial/sexual slurs.  Things that are just inappropriate for children who, I would assume, would be the primary demographic for visual pun jokes.  So the tones clash.  Somehow this is different than juxtaposition, but I can’t articulate how yet.  Being a spoof movie, the characters all have names that sound like Star Wars characters, but silly.  Dark Helmet instead of Darth Vader, Pizza the Hut instead of Jabba the Hutt. 

And this leads me to a connection I need to explore more.  Mel Brooks was at his height at the same time Mad magazine was: the 70’s.  This name parody thing seemed to be more mainstream back then.  It birthed Weird Al, one of my childhood heroes, and creator of a movie I still laugh out loud while watching.  (UHF)  Weird Al, Mad magazine, and Mel Brooks all have this spoof name thing in common.  And the spoof name thing is… not funny.  It is only theoretically funny because it subverts (usually in the least interesting way) a known brand, character, name, etc.  If you didn’t know who Darth Vader was, and you heard about the character Dark Helmet you would have no idea that it was supposed to be funny.  Weird Al’s parody songs succeed or fail based on how internally coherent they are.  If his songs were just the titles, then Like a Surgeon would not be funny even if you were familiar with Like a Virgin. 
I think satire works when it comments on the structure the drives the surface incidentals.  And it fails if it simply swaps skins, merely referencing a more popular artifact.  Or rather, it becomes a throw-away piece if it’s simply referencing other things.  Because as those things fade quickly from the public consciousness it loses it’s only connection to substance.  It’s a parasitical artifact, rather than a symbiotic one.  I think satire can be healthy for media because the process of exposing the tropes and mechanics tends to push culture-makers to mix those mechanics up in an attempt to stay a step ahead of the satirists (and critics).  But when it’s lazy, it’s simply a leach off of popular culture, creating cynicism without adding anything of value.  Don’t get me wrong.  I loves me some cynicism.  But there’s gotta be limits.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

King Arthur is confronted by The Black Knight who will not let him pass (for no apparent reason).  A ridiculous sword fight ensues, during which Arthur progressively lops off the Black Knights limbs.  What would otherwise be a gristly, disturbing scene is rendered hilarious by the attitude and dialog for The Black Knight.  He’s got a real go-getter attitude.  When Arthur cuts off both his arms and points out that fact, the Knight retorts “It’s just a flesh wound!”  and when he has been reduced to a quadriplegic he continues to bluster: “I’ll bite your leg off!”

I’m sure this scene is disturbing and distasteful to many.  And therefore not funny to them.  As a side note I should mention that I’m fairly desensitized to fictional violence.  Probably not any more than most in my demographic.  I mean on a scale where 1 is being horrified by the violence in Bambi, and 10 where you’re laughing in glee while watching Saw or Human Centipede, I’m probably an 8.  But maybe I just picked a bad example to examine since the violence muddies the waters…  let me pick another scene from the same movie.  

So here we have an enchanter that King Arthur comes across.  He is demonstrating his powers by making rocks explode.  Why?  We don’t know.  There’s ambiguity here.  And this is where Monty Python generally shines.  They will start a gag with an ambiguous thing, subtly making the viewer wonder if it’s an accident, then slowly push it and push it until at some point it hits purposeful absurdity.  And there are layers.  The fireworks Tim keeps shooting come at more and more inappropriate times, revealing them as simply a way he is pathetically showing off.  The other layer is his affected speech.  He plays it almost straight at first, sounding gruff and mysterious, matching his appearance.  His dour demeanor causing an awkward, stilted conversation with the King and his Knights.  Then, again gradually, his performance becomes more and more eccentric, transforming his character, subverting the trope of the wise sage that he appeared to be at first. 

I could keep going, breaking down the scene, pontificating on it more, examining the interplay between the actors, the visual elements, editing, etc.  But I’ll leave it at that.  My point in showing some differences between this scene, and the others listed above is to provide evidence that 1. Mel Brooks is  a hack. And 2. Funniness may be in the eye of the beholder, but there are still basic aesthetic criteria you can point to in order to make a case for some things being funnier than others.  Symmetry, subtlety, juxtaposition, pacing, etc.  But just like other artistic endeavors, some very good art can be strongly disliked by many.  No matter how great an opera is, I just won’t like it.  I can learn all about WHY it has artistic merit, but I still won’t like it.  And no matter how good your argument is that my favorite gothic doom metal band is poor art, I will still love it. 

So with that established, I want to talk about the generation gap and comedy.  So I’ll talk about the generation gap now.  As I understand it, the concept of the generation gap came about in the 1960’s as a result of the rapidly changing culture and technology.  Further compounding the problem are our age-segregating institutions such as schools and retirement homes.  We spend the vast majority of our lives almost exclusively with people around our age.  As technology and culture changes have been increasing in pace, the gaps are coming faster and more intensely.  One way the dominant (aggregate) culture deals with this is with post-modernism: a way to digest the vast array of worldviews and attitudes coming from so many directions.  I feel like this melting-pot of values really came into its own in the 1990’s, but that’s probably just because that’s when I started being aware of the broader world around me.  Anyway, those born during the 90’s didn’t have the same amount of something I’ll call groundedness that my generation born in the 70’s had.  And by extension, people born earlier had more of than my generation.  By groundedness I mean a sort of entrenched worldview that is taken as the fabric of reality.  An unquestioned set of assumptions about the world, life, etc.  As post-modernism took root it has changed the groundedness. 

As an aside I want to contrast my take on post-modernism, with that of Francis Schaeffer and his legacy of thought that has captivated the evangelical Christian sector.  (That’s the view I was raised with.)  That view (as I perceived it, which may be a total distortion) sort of sees it as an alien influence from academia, a demonic deception designed to corrupt society.  My current view is that it’s just the natural evolution of a system forced to reconcile the sheer amount of data, cultural influences and ideas, multiple authorities, increased specialization, etc. that our current information-saturated society has.  I can’t think of any other way to keep a workable society without a totalitarian cutting-off of competing ideas.  (Chinese internet censors, middle eastern religious violence, and such.)  So I really don’t have a problem with post-modernism.  Some of it annoys me, and I love other parts of it.  Especially the impulse to attempt understanding and love for those of radically different backgrounds.  Ok, done with that aside.

So I think those raised in the more post-modern groundless mode are forced to cope with all the conflicting data, authorities, etc. with one of two options, and often both.  First is to go tribal.  That is: find a niche of like-minded people and spend all your time with them, ignoring the outside world as much as possible.  The other impulse is to just swim in the sea of ideas, which can seem terrifying to those who are used to the solid ground of the certainty that comes with being grounded in a traditional worldview, but exhilarating and fun for those who aren’t.  And I think the continual juxtaposition naturally leads to a specific kind of humor disposition.  And it’s been coalescing over the past 20 years or so, and in the last 5 years hit the point where I’m not sure where it can go from here.  Kind of like: once we hit Black Metal I don’t think there is any way to make scarier, darker, uglier music.  At least I haven’t heard any in the past 15 or 20 years since it’s been around.  So with juxtaposition-based humor, I mentioned Monty Python as an example of that.  But their amount of juxtaposition is mild by comparison with what has been coming out the past 5 years or so. 

This piece makes me think of the general trajectory that the avant-guard of comedy has been taking over the past couple decades.  It starts with a narrative, but by the end descends into madness:  (Lots of cartoon blood)

Here’s something I think most people around my generation or younger will find funny, and most older than me will not.

Here is a cartoon that most people wouldn’t make it past a couple minutes.  But I’ll bet if your 40 or older your chances of getting through it are next to zero.  (Warning: graphic cartoon violence)

This is not some fringe thing, it’s a multi-season show on Cartoon Network.  And like I said earlier, I don’t think you can get any more abstract without abandoning narrative altogether.  At which point I think you lose all cultural impact, except by potentially influencing the less abstract artists in some tertiary way. 

When I survey the modern trends in comedy I see it this way: early 1900’s featured a lot of slapstick.  People falling down, falling off things, getting hit in the head, etc.  Charlie Chaplain was the king of this kind of comedy.  There is still plenty of this around, but mostly in kids entertainment, and apparently mandatory to happen at least once in every romantic comedy so that it can be in the previews. Then another wave for which I would point to Jerry Lewis as the archetype was the funny faces/voices phase.  Crossing the eyes, talking in high pitched, silly ways.  Still sort of around… a bit.  I think the only guy still doing this shtick is Martin Short, and he’s pretty old now.  Jim Carrey pulled this into the 90’s, but kinda left it there… where it belongs.  And then this latest wave is the move toward the random, the abstract, the juxtaposition.  And this is where I’m seeing a generation gap.  I know very few people over 50 who ‘get’ this kind of comedy.  Which is not a judgment against them at all.  In fact, I think it demonstrates a strength that groundedness brings: that is a stronger sense of aesthetic standards.  If you watched the videos above you may have noticed, that besides their randomness, they all feature really ugly (I’d say bad, but mostly on purpose) art.  In comedy, that’s not a problem.  But I think that it’s not a coincidence that this style of humor tends to favor the ugly.  Also, I have no idea where I was going with that and I’ve run out of steam so I’m going to wrap this pointless exercise up.
My last thought is to take what I’m observing with this comedy generation gap currently, and project it into the future.  What kind of comedy will the next generation love that we won’t ‘get’?  Will it cycle like fashion?  Will they start loving slapstick and find our random abstract comedy extremely un-funny?  I’m guessing that if the dominant philosophy dictates the comedic disposition, then that will be the key.  From the Post-Enlightenment slapstick, to the Modern facial mugging, to the Post-Modern abstract juxtaposition; the next wave of humor will be dictated by how our culture finally synthesizes the new global reality that our species is  currently fumbling with.


kiwiburner said…
This is a very well constructed post - I hope it has found a decent-sized audience. I'm glad you made it from Space Balls to Tim and Eric, too. (I had exactly the same experience with rewatching Space Balls in my 20s.. it wasn't just cringe-inducing, or tune-out-inducing, I really felt like throwing my TV out the window.)

One thing I'm currently struggling with is meme culture. Things like the hamster dance were hilarious in the 1990s when noone knew what to make of them, but every hollywood film, man and his cat now has his own meme which litter message boards (GW2 forums led me to researching "knowyourmeme"), and I'm starting to feel (at the tender age of 28) a little left behind by it all... I share your excitement for the future of comedy, but I feel like I'm going to need to have a kid just to keep up with it :D (Know your son has been going through a rough time, but I wonder whether you get any clues about the future of comedy from him?)
Anonymous said…
Well written. I'm over 50 and the over the top violence just loses me. Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz both do nothing for me. For me, that is pretty much the line. Everybody else I hang out with think they are hilarious. Meanwhile the conversation, and situations in The Avengers was hilarious to me. Black Widow as the 'victim' getting the phone call when it turns out she is in charge with complete disdain for her captors was funny. Juxtaposition. Yes the Hulk smacking Thor slapstick was funny to me, as was the smackdown of Loki. In both those it was the sudden unexpected change that set it up.

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