Watching a few of those old sit coms on cable the other day I was struck by how unfunny I now regarded shows that I thought were hilarious when they were new. The canned laughter seemed to be in the wrong places, and soon became so grating that I soon had to concede that I should no longer seek entertainment in that form.
Reflecting on this in bed, I wondered whether it is my sense of humour that has changed, or is it America’s, or am I imagining this and nothing has changed? So, giving up on sleep, I turned on the TV and on came the Letterman Show. The crowd goes wild as he enters the theatre and the whistles and screams continue as he attempts to get out his opening one-liners. I pay close attention to his words and it is all I can do to find some mild irony or satire, certainly insufficient to raise a smile in me. But the signs are clearly urging the audience to applaud because Dave is getting an ovation that would do credit to an opera star. I turn off the TV and sink into a depressing reflection that I have grown into an old fart who no longer shares the mainstream sense of humour.
I think sense of humour is a personal thing and no doubt it varies with mood, age, and life’s experience. I think also it is well established that it varies markedly from country to country, even in the English-speaking world. The old paradigm was that British humour was subtle, dry, and strongly influenced by class and status, whereas Americans find most funny things that are obvious: farce, and even slap-stick.
I think we are now conditioned to reward anyone who tries to amuse us with wild applause, cheering, and whistling. To do otherwise is rude and ungrateful, even if it is honest. Sadly, I think we de-valuing real humour to the extent that we are forgetting what it is. After all, who can define “funny”. I can’t, but (like most art) I know it when I hear, or see, it.
Like many others, I howled with delight at the Monty Python productions. Here was something new. Features like The Life of Brian" and “the Holy Grail” allowed you fill in much of the background from your own knowledge of history and religion. The shockingly, sacrilegious, and profane antics that would otherwise have been deeply offensive became nothing more than good humoured satire. The willingness to touch a raw nerve with “Always look on the bright side of life” was deeply shocking for Christians but hardly sacrilegious in intent. Michael Palin’s every sperm is sacred is the most cutting criticism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception imaginable. And yet it is done in such an innocent good humoured manner that few could take offence, not even the most conservative Archbishops. Could they ever really make the case that the sentiments expressed are not true?
But such brilliance is rare, and the mediocre crap that is now thrown at us in bulk in the name of comedy by the film and television industry deserves to be rejected until it gets better. Writing Comedy, like tragedy, is an ancient professional craft that can cope with technology and the new media, provided that the market for it is not eroded by willing acceptance of substituted mediocrity.
Is this an elitist view? Is the unsophisticated humour of ordinary folks just as valid as the intelligent undergraduate Monty Pythonesque form? My point is that humour is personal, transient, and fragile. We should relax and enjoy without analysing it: but don’t praise it if you think it is bad. Ignore the implied applause signs.
So what tickles your funny bone?
Has it changed over the years?
Is making humour a declining skill?
What is you favourite ethnic humour? (e.g German: “my dog has no nose”)
Should we withhold appreciation of unfunny attempts?
Tell us your favourite joke, and why you find it so funny.
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