And Now For Something Completely Different

michael palin stresses comedy’s changing role.

A lot of contemporary comedy seems self-conscious. It’s almost documentary, like ‘The Office.’ That’s a very funny show, but you’re looking at the human condition under stress. The Pythons made the human condition seem like fun.

– Michael Palin, quoted in “On Comedy’s Flying Trapeze,” by Charles McGrath, New York Times

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One can surely find exceptions, but Palin’s comments seem spot on. Comedy was about breaking free ecstatically in the 60s and 70s, whereas contemporary comedy has oddly become the opposite. On “The Office,” “The Daily Show,” and, in deeply ironic mode, “The Colbert Report,” among other programs, comedy has become a call for restraint and common sense.

This isn’t a bad thing. It just is. And it is still funny. But it also has a larger significance.

In the 1960s, laughter marked what John Cleese called, in the New York Times article, “screams of liberation” against the limitations of society. But in a contemporary public culture that sometimes feels as if it has no more limits, less and less structure, and fewer boundaries of civility or standards of decency, comedy is no longer the clarion call for freedom. Goofy satire worthy of Aristophanes no longer does the trick.

In the 60s, the goal was to show that the emperor had no clothes. In the 2000s, when the clothes off various emperors were finally torn off, what we then saw were obscene and indecent abuses of power. And in the last year’s health care debates, we learned that efforts to engage in civic dialogue only resulted in screams of a different sort — not cries of liberation but coordinated efforts at distortion and obstruction.

Comedy becomes a barometer for this situation, but this barometer is a strange one, for it can make the weather as well as measure it. What role comedy will play beyond the Bush years of undisclosed locations, bungled wars, inept governance, and economic meltdown and subterfuge remains to be seen. But it’s not liberation we need anymore. We need something completely different.

So maybe it is good that contemporary comedy seems almost moral, with fish slapping replaced by ironic modes of  fingerwagging. The “screams of liberation” have become dire sighs of exasperation. And once those sighs are exhaled at “the human condition under stress,” perhaps we will be able to breathe again with a bit more ease.

3 thoughts on “And Now For Something Completely Different

  1. Today’s comedy does, rightly I think, seem to be on a mission to inform us of our hyopocrisy, lack of common decency (e.g. jokes about Britney Spears), and the fragile nature of our sureties. It’s a reaction to how conservative and ideological we have become. Comedy does seem to work best when it runs against the grain of dominant culture. …This calls for reading of Daniel Wickberg’s recent intellectual history of humor, perhaps? – TL

  2. Hey Tim,

    For some reason, an older draft of my post remained online instead of the final version. Now updated. Oh well. Such is blogging.

    But even the final draft doesn’t include a mention of Wickberg’s book on the topic. Great recommendation. I remember reading reviews of it when it was published, but need to take a closer look!

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