The Comedy of Degradation, Part One

Generally speaking, those who attempt to define humor in general or tell us why something is humorous end up ruining the joke, as it were. You end up with a stuffy, academic deconstructive analysis that takes all the fun out of funny.

Likewise, people who examine modern popular humor tend to turn to pseudo-psycho-analyses and end up over thinking movie scenes or stand-up routines by assigning deep societal underpinnings and subconscious meanings to poop jokes.

I wish to avoid both those pitfalls as I propose some thoughts about modern humor…so, please let me know if I get off track.

I have a beef with a lot of what passes for ‘funny’ these days.

I believe this goes beyond simple taste and hits upon the very nature of what is considered humorous in our society.

There seems to be a meanness… a viciousness in today’s popular humor that (as far as I can tell) is a new(er) development.

I would call it The Comedy of Degradation and it plays itself out in movies, TV, stand-up comedy as well as in society at large (especially through the internet).

Groucho Marx is generally attributed as the one who said, “Comedy is when you
slip on a banana peel. Tragedy is when I slip on a banana peel”.

Humor has always had that element… to laugh at the misfortune of others. But,
for the most part, this has been against the back-drop of fictional characters. In addition,
while we may be laughing “at” a character’s misfortune there has traditionally also been
a connection we feel for the poor character. Think of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton in
silent movies. We root for their characters to succeed, even as we laugh when they don’t.
Think of poor Wile E. Coyote. At some point we do actually start to wish he would catch
the Road Runner…we feel sorry for him (but still feel alright in chuckling at his ACME-
induced miseries).

That, to me, is the best kind of comedy. One that allows you to laugh at the ridiculous situations the characters get in…while at the same time identifying with the poor, suffering saps – to the point that you are almost laughing at yourself.

This “sap sympathy” is balanced with the self-conscious understanding that you are watching fictional characters. People have always been able to separate what happens on the screen from real life.

But now, the two seem to be getting uncomfortably mixed in “entertainment”.

Now, instead of watching Buster Keaton hanging off a clock tower, we surf the web and watch morons jumping off roofs and screaming in pain when the ground ends up being a little harder than their Mountain Dew’ed brain expected.

Or, worse, unintentional injuries.

There is almost a cottage industry for the video capturing of awful spills, falls, and injuries.

I am guilty of enjoying a little too much TruTV than a decent person probably should.

All this is simply to say, that as a culture, we are losing our ability to care about each other. Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff is given the same place in our minds as watching Joe Schmoe trip down the stairs for real. Who cares if he broke 3 bones? It was funny…right?

The balanced mixture of sympathy and detachment we used to feel towards fictional characters has now become an ambivalent bordering on spiteful attitude we have towards real people. So long as their misfortunes can make us laugh, they are useful to us.

In Part 2, we will look beyond physical humor and briefly highlight the hatred apparent in modern humor and how we fool ourselves into believing it’s acceptable (and evenespecially good for society) by falsely labeling it “satire”.


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