Whither Humor After Kathy Griffin?

Whither Humor After Kathy Griffin?
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

About a year ago I wrote a piece for National Review about how political correctness (PC) is destroying comedy. Almost overnight, comics like Amy Schumer, Chelsea Handler, and Sarah Silverman (I started to type “Schulman,” a thoroughly understandable Freudian slip) had lost their senses of humor and started pontificating ignorantly about politics.

Lena Dunham, never funny in the first place, had become the face of TV comedy not by cracking good jokes but by convincing at least some viewers that there was something amusing about her singular combination of privileged narcissism and PC posturing. Even Howard Stern had been (largely) tamed. Kathy Griffin’s recent stunt, of course, was obviously inspired by her fellow comediennes’ turn to vapid virtue signaling.

Arguably, it was John Stewart who got this ball rolling, reducing TV comedy to glib PC snark. The small screen is now crowded with Stewart’s second-rate copycats – Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee – for whom “wit” means directing a sneer and an eye-roll at Trump & co. The same goes for standups like Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho, whose so-called comedy routines might well have been written by the same folks who scripted the “re-education” classes during China’s Cultural Revolution.

All this is a betrayal of one of the richest and most underappreciated cultural troves in human history – namely, American humor. Hemingway famously said that all of modern American literature had its roots in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It could just as easily be said that modern American humor, too, begins with Twain.

Try to read pre-Twain American humorists. Or, for that matter, pre-Twain humor throughout human history. Looking back now at most centuries-old comic works, we can sometimes figure out what’s supposed to be risible, and sometimes not. But even when the laugh lines are identifiable, they rarely crack us up today. Humor doesn’t translate easily, whether from language to language or from one historical era to another.

Yes, if produced properly, the farces of Aristophanes and the comedies of Shakespeare can provoke giggles even today; Plautus made the hilarity of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum possible, but so did Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim, who figured out how to make second century B.C. Roman farce work on 1960s Broadway; and Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale and Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe still draw real chuckles.

But for authentic, reliable, gut-busting laughs, there’s something about the humor of one’s own time and place that’s unique – and that’s a key distinction between great comedy on the one hand, and on the other, great art, literature, and music, the cliché about which is that the greater it is, the more timeless it is likely to be.

With humor, not necessarily. Case in point: I’ve discovered that some of the early to mid twentieth century comic artists who helped shape my own sense of humor – such as W.C. Fields and Abbott and Costello (in their TV series, not their movies) – very often fail to impress younger generations. I revered Bob Hope’s pre-1960s movies (the subtitle of his 2014 biography described him as “Entertainer of the Century”); yet he’s all but fallen off the map.

I was too young for Martin & Lewis, but just the right age for Jerry Lewis’s best solo movies, above all The Nutty Professor (1963); but virtually nobody under fifty cares about him. Does anybody today even remember the name of Max Shulman, whose books I reread endlessly as a kid, guffawing constantly? Other beloved staples of my childhood – The Honeymooners, The Odd Couple (the TV series, not the movie), The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Sanford and Sonare today considered classics, although recently, when I tried to turn a thirty-something on to MTM, he didn’t so much as smile: he found the humor hopelessly creaky. I was shocked.

Then again, some comedy stars of my youth were lost on me, too. Bill Cosby, before his scandal, was revered, but his low-key whimsy bored me. So did the quaint drollery of Red Skelton, Jonathan Winters, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway – all, as it happens, born in the Midwest. On the other hand, I adored Rodney Dangerfield on the The Tonight Show, vividly remember being bowled away by Robert Klein’s stand-up when a high-school friend lent me his first LP (I never imagined somebody could be so funny at such length), and laughed riotously at Andrew Dice Clay, who, though denounced as crudely sexist, racist, and so forth, could be recognized by any halfway savvy listener as a master of highly self-aware, over-the-top parody.

While I bow with respect (and affection) to film masterpieces ranging from Some Like It Hot to Tootsie to Groundhog Day, they don’t make me ache with laughter in the way I do when viewing Mel Brooks’s original The Producers and several of Woody Allen’s early pictures (plus some later ones: unlike most, I find Hollywood Ending hilarious).

Nora Ephron, who in her youth contributed snappy columns to Esquire that I used to reread constantly (laughing anew every time), went on to make charming, often touching films that had moments of merriment but all of which were marred, to some extent, by the same kind of reflexive, out-of-left-field politics that have ruined Amy Schumer et al. It took me a while to warm up to Seinfeld, which, curiously enough, I only came to appreciate – and, eventually, adore – after leaving New York. Later, I embraced Curb Your Enthusiasm from the git-go.

Surely my own #1 comic influences are Howard Stern, whom I started listening to religiously shortly after he began at WNBC radio in 1982, and his various sidekicks over the years – notably Robin Quivers, Fred Norris, Jackie Martling, Billy West, and Artie Lange.

My job, then as now, was writing critically about serious matters. Starting the day with Stern & co., who mercilessly mocked — with fearless and unfiltered irreverence — absolutely everything on the national scene that was held sacred by the cultural elite, helped me to be brave, to be blunt, to eschew self-censorship, to view even the darkest things through an absurdist lens, and to respond to opprobrium with a jest.

That Stern has somewhat distanced himself, in recent years, from the kind of japery that made him so valuable – and from other practitioners thereof – and has joined the shallow, self-important Hamptons and Malibu social circles that used to be a target of his raillery has demoralized millions who grew up on his non-stop ridicule.

I kicked off this piece with the charge that PC is destroying comedy. It is. Yet there remain oases of fun. The majestically madcap Sam Kinison is dead, but sheer brazenness lives on in the person of Gilbert Gottfried. Patrice O’Neal, who drew belly laughs by starting out with an utterly unique, deeply thought through, if (in many ways) outré perspective on life and by figuring out where the humor lay in it, has left us, alas, but Doug Stanhope, who in his own brilliant way does much the same thing, is better than ever. Norm Macdonald, maybe the best of the best, can shape and build a quietly uproarious routine with the expertise of a great composer creating a symphony.

Many of the comics associated with the late lamented Comedy Central series Tough Crowd – notably Dave Attell, Colin Quinn, Nick DiPaolo, Jim Norton, and Greg Giraldo – responded to PC, which even then (2002-2004) was starting to overshadow comedy, with un-PC perspectives that they articulated with exuberant wit, and all of them except the late lamented Giraldo are still going strong. (I would add to this roster Judy Gold, who was terrific back then, but who has since become a shrill PC mouthpiece.)

The one comic hero of mine whom I’ve actually interacted with personally is the erudite, lightning-quick Dennis Miller, who, interviewing me once on his radio show, suggested that my life in Norway was steeped in luxury. “Are you kidding?” I replied. “I live like a young Emile Zola.” He actually laughed. He got it. It made my month.

My line, a reference to the opening scene of the 1937 movie The Life of Emile Zola, in which the impoverished budding French author, played by Paul Muni, freezes his tochis off in a garret, had come to me out of the blue, and I knew Miller, a one-man encyclopedia of culture, high and low, would get it, even if none of his listeners did.

If there are any attributes that today’s best comics – or at least the ones who make me laugh the most – share, it’s these: They’re smart. They abhor hack jokes and the mindless points of view from which hack jokes spring. They don’t uncritically buy the MSM line on anything. Their top priority isn’t telling audiences what they want to hear but to come up with an unexpected insight that yields a laugh.

The last thing they want is to perform to a theater full of lockstep leftist lapdogs, like the morons who show up for Bill Maher’s Real Time to roar at easy jabs at Trump. When confronted with PC barriers, the first instinct of these truly first-rate comics is to knock them down. Surely they all cringed when the Saturday Night Live cast responded to the end of Obama’s presidency with a treacly, comedy-free chorus of “To Sir, with Love” (the theme song of a sappy 1967 movie in which tough white British schoolkids learn to love their black teacher, played by Sidney Poitier).

To the best comics, jeering unsparingly at that kind of inane, mawkish leader-worship is at the very top of their job description. They’re individuals – that most American of all things to be – who reject groupthink, choosing, instead, nobly and with significant artistic purpose, to stare into the dark heart of the human condition and to work out an original and funny way of giving it the bird.

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