Whither Humor After Kathy Griffin?
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.