In a bid for the same level of notoriety as Pizza Rat, Melissa McCarthy recently donned her now-signature Sean Spicer costume and hit the streets of New York City in a motorized version of the podium familiar from her serial press secretary skit. By any measure, the stunt is inherently funny — reaching back to comedy’s fundamentals of surprise, daring, slapstick, and the clever act of focusing attention while paradoxically lowering the stakes.
And so it’s a welcome respite from comedy’s grueling recent past, which has fallen into a rut of ideological ritual and deadpan cynicism where the high-end humor of wit and the low-end humor of yuks both once flourished.
The templates that define today’s comedy industry are now so well defined they hardly need review. There’s the flat anti-humor of so much television and film, where one character grinds another’s remarks to a halt with some meta criticism or another, turning the moment into a non-conversation that’s intended to get more laughs the more awkward it gets. Example: the agonizingly stilted and crushingly boring dialogue about one character’s hots for another given pride of place in the trailer for the new “Guardians of the Galaxy” sequel.
Then, there’s the weaponized identitarian performance that has leached its way into the traditional late-night TV format, where Samantha Bee, John Oliver and even Stephen Colbert get their biggest laughs not through actual jokes but by assuaging the identity of their anxious and angry audiences, sometimes through cultural coddling, sometimes simply talking about designated enemies in whatever way it’s imagined those enemies would least like to hear themselves talked about.
Entertainment is entertainment, of course, and to each his or her own. But these kinds of amusement are being confused with humor — oftentimes, it seems, on purpose — and the effect is that Americans are losing conceptual contact with comedy.
Notably, there’s more at work here than the so-called “coarsening of the culture,” or of politics. We’ve known since at least Shakespeare that comedy can get very crude without squeezing out clever jokes, happy endings, or recognizably human characters. Although watered-down postmodern theory, amateur value relativism, and the social disturbance of the Trump presidency clearly factor into pseudo-comic entertainment, they’re probably not at the root of the problem.
To figure out what is, we might look back to Don DeLillo, the grumpy, apocalyptic novelist of the 20th century who saw the Boomers take over American culture from a generational distance. (He was born in 1936.) DeLillo once remarked that the humor in his novels wasn’t “intended to counteract the fear. It’s almost part of it,” he explained. “We ourselves may almost instantaneously use humor to offset a particular moment of discomfort or fear, but this reflex is so deeply woven into the original fear that they almost become the same…