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We Killed The Joke

Some people wonder if the new trend is killing comedy, but comedy dies every night and twice on Sundays. There’s a difference between Comedy – an eternal thing found in every human society – and comedy – which has trends, fads and crazes.

Focusing in on comedy in the US, the trends in comedy approximately track the decades. They more closely track presidential terms but why God alone knows. After stand up comedy emerged from its precursors in the 60s, the focus in the 70s was on destroying stand up: Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman and many lesser known hacks. TV shows like The Gong Show worked with the concept that a lack of talent could be more interesting than a mediocre talent, movies like The Blues Brothers spent a fortune on wrecking cars and didn’t have a single traditional punchline.

We Killed The Joke

Sam Kinison and others. source

The 80s was the height of the “politically incorrect” era. Comedians have always shouted and hollered, but this was the era in which screaming was itself considered an acceptable punchline. The unofficial leader of this movement was Sam Kinision, though fanboys will be happy to tell you the most talented one was Bill Hicks. I often remember Kinison’s trademark routine centered on the comedic premise that his ex-wife would become uncommunicative when upset, ironically at the precise moment when communication was most desirable. Audiences never failed to get a good chuckle at his classic wry line “She won’t tell you what is wrong … but she’ll tell everybody else!”.

It’s funnier when he says it.

We Killed The Joke

Woah, Lenny you look kind of cool

All this finally brings me to the topic of this ramble, The Simpsons. Comedy fanboy Nathan Rabin called the 90s The Simpsons Decade, though The Mystery Science Theater 30000 Decade would have worked just as well. In the 90s, comedy was all about making you feel not only that you watched something funny but that you participated in making it. Every MST3K viewer has that moment where they think of half a joke about the awful movie on screen and Tom Servo blurts out the second half. Likewise, The Simpsons brought the audience in on the action. A Simpsons Joke isn’t just “funny” in some abstract sense. It’s not Ralph Kramden walking into the room dressed as a robot. No, a Simpsons Joke has Ralph walk in, you recognize him, Ralph walks in the other door, recognizes the other Ralph is a real robot, and the robot starts shooting laser.

We Killed The Joke

Beautiful… and completely out of step.

The Simpsons know that you know how sports episodes go. It makes the jokes you make about them. The goal is always to see the performers from the back – where the writers are looking out at them.

The Simpsons had a famously difficult time adapting to the turn of the century. When you look at a Simpsons clip and see those slick digital colors and clean hi-def outlines, you know you’re not in for a good time. But why, really?

Why was Darryl Strawberry so funny, skip? Clearly he isn’t going to win the 35th Annual Mark Hamil Award for incredible commitment in voice acting. I’ll tell you: Strawberry is funny because the writers are in on the joke. They realize that it’s ridiculous. You realize it’s ridiculous. You are in the writing room pitching blander and blander lines too – which shows good hustle, skip.

All a priori reasoning would lead one to the conclusion that Stefani “Lady Gaga” Germanotti would be funnier than Darryl Strawberry. Why wasn’t she?

Here is one reason: it’s your fault. The millionaires behind The Simpsons have been blaming you for The Simpsons being bad for decades, of course, and it made them millionaires.

Okay, they might not have a point, but I do (if any millionaire simpsons exec is reading – I will trade my point for any positive number of dollars, no matter how small). You kept telling them how funny it was when Homer said “In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!” or how great the deliberately pointless Leonard Nimoy cameo was.

What did you expect them to learn, jerk? How can we expect anything less than Homer talking like a sarcastic Harvard grad and bumbling blue collar man in alternating sentences? Or a pointless episode entirely centered on a celebrity? We have sewn the seeds of incoherence and reaped the fruit of meh.

Okay, this was funny tho:


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19 thoughts on “We Killed The Joke

  1. I dunno about this. I always thought golden age Simpsons were so great because of the ability to work multi-layered comedy into an extremely concise format. Yea there was a bit of restrained 4th wall poking but always with enough respect for the audience’s intelligence to let the jokes speak for themselves. Then like all great shows they ran out of good writers and good ideas for characters that had already been thoroughly explored.

    Except instead of bowing out gracefully like Seinfeld (or maybe, more aptly, Bill Waterston) they let the zombie keep trudging along, and will continue to do so ‘until the show becomes unprofitable.’

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    • Inclined to agree. Early-years Simpsons had different types of humor: you could laugh at Homer doing something boneheaded, or you could laugh because Lisa said something incisive and insightful, or you could laugh at the sheer absurdity of the things it parodied.

      I also think some of the early-years shows had something I would perhaps most refer to as “heart.” I think of the one where Bart thinks he sold his soul, and he worries about “what if some weirdo has it and what is he doing with it?” (And in the end, Lisa buys it back for him, and gives him a little proto-Buddhist lesson….) And it’s just kind of both sweet and funny and it makes you think and some of the stuff that went on was very much like some of the stuff I experienced as a kid, only exaggerated.

      I think either the writers changed and got more cynical (or the staff changed and a more cynical staff came on), or they ran out of ideas at some point.

      I occasionally scan the listings on FXX for which episodes are on. I have certain favorites I love to rewatch, there are others I find missable.

      I think a problem with a lot of things in media these days is that the impulse of those who wield the power is to keep milkin’ that cow until it’s totally dry, and so instead of things ending sort of organically and well, shows persist until the good memories of their early years have largely been overwritten.

      And I admit it, and it makes me sad, but a lot of things I enjoy that end, I wind up going, “I wish it had never ended” but it’s worse when something you enjoyed changes to the point that you look at it and go, “Wow, I remember when this was GOOD.”

      When I was in grad school (mid to late 90s) I was kind of known for my ability to produce a Simpsons quote to fit almost any situation. I can’t do that any more because it’s been years since I watched regularly.

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      • I may have linked to this here before but if you’re a big old school Simpsons nerd you might enjoy it, if nothing else for a trip down memory lane.

        My understanding is that they really thought the show was going to wind down after the 9th season or so but then here we are 20 years later. I’ve found it unwatchable for forever now but I’ll also usually stop on FXX if I see an episode from roughly 1998 or before.

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      • My understanding is that there is a documented turnover in the writers’ room that corresponds with the decline in quality. My personal experience is that the show went from appointment television to something to watch if I had the TV on, and the transition happened pretty quickly. I never went back and analyzed exactly when this was or did a before-and-after comparison. I could imagine doing this if it ever comes up on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but I’m not going to pay extra for it.

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  2. The Simpsons stopped being funny because it was continued for too long. It should have ended after Season 8 or 9. Everything afterwards had its moments but generally sucked because the best writing talent left, the new writers were not good and tended to do exaggerations of what made the Simpsons great, and because they might have run out of ideas.

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    • I think this is about it. One can analyze to death the precise manner in which later Simpsons was (and is) not good, contrasting it with classic Simpsons. But really, is there anything here that requires deep explanation? A show running out of steam and coasting is the norm, especially among comedies. It is the rare exception that cries out for analysis.

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  3. movies like The Blues Brothers spent a fortune on wrecking cars and didn’t have a single traditional punchline.

    We undoubtedly can pick at what constitutes a traditional punchline, but in the meantime, I submit this:

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    • Recent Aretha Franklin tributes made it finally dawn on me that the true purpose of the Blues Brothers was to mock & belite the, at that time, overwhelming fad of disco. It’s of course in the same mileu as the then new and fresh Saturday Night Live(speaking of something that’s possibly gone on too long), but even SNL as far back as its inception was a mix of deconstruction, new construction, and some bog standard vaudeville tropes (as well as Monty Python influences)

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    • Hi, this is the feeble minded author of this garbage article or garbicle.

      A “traditional punchline” has a pause after it so the audience can laugh. You deliver like a punch, I guess. It’s hard to explain in text but try to imagine Jackie Gleason delivering a line like “I can see that.” or “Fix the cigarette lighter.”.

      I should say that The Blues Brothers is my favorite movie. In fact, I think all the comedies & comedians I mentioned were great.

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  4. In related news, I am not feeling it for Disenchanted. There some jokes that earn a small chuckle but they are so far few and far between. The art is cruder.

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      • It gets better at the end, but it’s not a sitcom in the way I think most people are expecting it to be. Not so many jokes. I actually was quite interested by the end not for the humor but for the overall plot, and I think they may have been better served by ditching the Simpsonesque/Futurama-y elements from the very start and going for something fully unique.

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    • Watched the first episode and will never watch another; it was so boring and unfunny and even the things that approached amusing were such hackneyed cliches that I felt a tiny bit bad for Netflix and thought about sending them money as a sort of condolence… because someone with oversight authority must have died mid-flight to let that slip through.

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  5. The Simpsons went downhill went basically, the fans of the show started writing it and got the “continuity” of the show more involved, but even putting that aside, a random episode of even modern Simpson’s is still in the top half of network sitcoms, which is still quite an accomplishment for a show that is 30 years old.

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  6. Comedy is one of those things that strikes me as something that should be a lot easier and a lot more timeless than it is.

    I mean, go back and read Aristophanes. Lysistrata is downright *HILARIOUS*. Hell, even his speech in the Symposium is really funny and insightful before you think about the implications and get really depressed.

    Okay. What’s the second best ancient comedy? Got one? (Lemme guess… is it also written by Aristophanes? So let’s take him off of the table. Without googling, what’s the next really old comedy that you can think of?)

    For me, I’m more or less stuck until I get to Shakespeare. Surely there were comedies between Aristophanes and Shakespeare! That’s a couple millennia between them!

    AND WORSE THAN THAT, SHAKESPEARE ISN’T PARTICULARLY FUNNY

    Punch and Judy is okay, I guess… it’s more that I can see what they’re going for.

    It’s not until Tartuffe or therearounds that we get stuff that is worth the belly laugh. It’s not until Voltaire that we have someone who is worth mentioning in the same breath as Aristophanes, though.

    That’s a hell of a thing.

    And that tells me that my “you’d think comedy would be easier” thought is 100% wrong.

    So with that, I’d wonder more at how in the hell the first 5-6-7 seasons of The Simpsons achieved being as funny as they were. I’m not saying that they’re Voltaire-level timeless, now… they’re likely to be chock full of jokes that are opaque to future generations (“Who is Colonel Klink?”) but, man, comedy is hard.

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    • Cantebury Tales has some pretty raunchy jokes. I’m sure there is also a rich comedic tradition in Chinese literature that is inaccessible to most of us even with a better than average US public school education.

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    • Timeless comedy – that’s a hard one. The essence of comedy is surprise – if you come up with something really funny, it gets done to death and then it’s not surprising.

      Maybe relevant to your observation on Aristophanes’ humour vs Moliere’s vs Shakespeare’s – French theatre of Moliere’s time was heavily influenced by the Greeks, with things like the classical unities of time, action, and place being important. Moliere’s plays in particular did very much keep to the unities. This rather discourages humour of the running-in-and-out-of-doors form.

      English theatre of the same period, including Shakespeare, weren’t much fussed with such things. One thing you’ll consistently observe about the stage design of almost any Shakespeare production (comedy or tragedy) is that it’s very open, and everything on stage is very generic – people are constantly running on stage into “a street in Verona” while the previous lot haven’t even made it off the stage from “a churchyard”, and the same piece of set that was just a mausoleum now is someone’s garden wall.

      So, I think some of it may be that Shakespeare’s scripts aren’t very funny in the same way that Jackie Chan’s scripts aren’t very action-packed – the script provides less of the total information that goes into the jokes.

      I think both Monty Python and the Pink Panther movies have some pretty good humour in them. But (having read 1 Python script and no Pink Panther scripts) I bet the Pink Panther scripts wouldn’t be very funny as reading material, while more comedy remains in the Monty Python scripts as reading material.

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      • Like the scene in As You Like It where Rosalind, dressed as Ganymede, coaches Orlando on how to woo Rosalind. The script isn’t that funny to read – but it can be super funny on stage. The script is brilliantly written as a framework for comic acting.

        I can’t really think of any equivalent of that in Moliere – it just wasn’t his style of comedy.

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    • I dunno, I laugh at the dick jokes in Shakespeare comedies…Though I think is comedies are more comedies in the Aristotelean sense, where it starts out in confusion and ends in order, rather than “ha ha funny,” they are “things are restored to where they should be at the end”

      But yeah, I remember reading Lysistrata in college and laughing. Part of it was the surprise because I think for most people of my time and place, the stereotype was that People of the Past Were Super-Stuffy Prudes Who Didn’t Talk About That. And Boccacio. I remember laughing at the selections from “The Decameron” we read.

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