September 21, 2015

"Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen."

An old Mort Sahl joke, quoted in a NYT piece by Lee Siegel titled "Welcome to the Age of the Unfunny Joke."

Siegel, who's about to publish a biography of Groucho Marx, has observations like: "The laughter, if it comes, is a new kind of laughter: a satisfying release, but also distracted by an undercurrent of hard fact. In that sense, humor today is a continuing assault, or insurrection."

How far into the past do we need to go to find humor that wasn't interwoven with real-life things thing disturb us? Freud had that figured out in 1905.

Siegel ought to have to give us evidence that there was an earlier era when jokes had no "undercurrent of hard fact," when people giggled over jokes that did not relate to the troubles of real life. To the extent that Siegel is saying that many of today's real-life-related jokes aren't funny, there have always been unfunny jokes.

Maybe his point is: These days, we feel social pressure to accept and act appreciative of unfunny comedy that makes reference to subject matter that we believe we're supposed to take seriously. In the older era, the jokes about disturbing subjects gave us release, and that's why we laughed. In the new era, there's no release from anxiety. The laughter is the manifestation of anxiety about being seen as good people who care about the serious things we understand we're supposed to care about.

31 comments:

David Begley said...

You want an unfunny joke?

The Clintons back in the White House.

rehajm said...

comedian: An entertainer whose act is designed to make an audience laugh.

An unfunny comedian is something else. Political operative, for example.

Scott said...

A flaw in Siegel's article is that he fails to mention the phenomenon of South Park. It is crass and offensive, and cathartic, and extremely funny.

Yet the opener for season 19, "Stunning and Brave" (where the new school principal mercilessly bullies students who don't consider Caitlyn Jenner a hero) has a muted ending that is ultimately a little depressing. I wonder if Trey Parker and Matt Stone are growing weary of the culture wars.

tim in vermont said...

I knew the Emmies were going to get partisan as soon as Susan Lynch appeared in the opening, I only had to wait seconds for my suspicions to be confirmed.

I didn't watch any of it after that, what is the point? It was obvious where it was going.

Bill R said...

"How far into the past do we need to go to find humor that wasn't interwoven with real-life things thing disturb us?"

Well you would have to go back further than this. It's a Jewish proverb that goes back several centuries at least.

"If the rich could pay the poor to die for them, the poor could make a nice living."

EDH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EDH said...

I think the sophisticated, understated humor in Sahl's joke is about liberal denial and their ability to write the narrative: they too have "stolen" their possessions, at least to the same extent as they accuse conservatives, but liberals aren't honest about it.

It's only by redefining their means of acquisition as good fortune rather than theft that liberals -- perhaps "unworthy" but not criminally culpable like conservatives -- receive their self-anointed absolution yet still get to keep that which they don't "deserve".

Bay Area Guy said...

The Left, particularly the feminist left, just isn't funny. They view the world through an odd, embittered lens that sees only macro-injustice and micro-agressions. This is not surprising since they've been convinced that: (a) men are oppressors and (b) babies are the chains of such oppression.

One day they will scrutinize all the Marx Brothers films with their jaundiced eyes and declare them racist (no blacks), homophobic (no gays) and sexist (too many slurs and improper physical contact with Ms. Dumont).

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

It was maybe 1980 when I was in a retail shop in NYC that sold "punk" fashion stuff.

There was a T-shirt that had a drawing of Brian Jones on it, with the words: "Under water my guitar sounds like laughter."

Instead of releasing anxiety, in me it provoked anxiety, and to this very day I still haven't figured out whether I think it's funny or not.

Laslo Spatula said...

"There was a T-shirt that had a drawing of Brian Jones on it, with the words: "Under water my guitar sounds like laughter."

I want that shirt.

I am Laslo.

tim in vermont said...

@Eric, maybe you are like my old boss, who freaked out thinking about those guys stuck in that submarine at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, beyond rescue, a few years back.

I think the T-Shirt sounds pretty funny myself.

oleh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laslo Spatula said...

"These days, we feel social pressure to accept and act appreciative of unfunny comedy that makes reference to subject matter that we believe we're supposed to take seriously."

I'm sure there is a Stephen Colbert 'Late Night' clip or two for that.

In fact, I might have seen them here.

I am Laslo.

buwaya puti said...

The Three Stooges were brilliant and almost entirely independent of reality. Laurel&Hardy were much more tied to social commentary, of a sort, as of course Charlie Chaplin.
The Stooges also worked extremely well cross-culturally. In Asian markets their old shorts played very well in the early days of TV.
Much the same as Jackie Chan crossed over in the other direction.
There is plenty of scope for humor independent of topical references or particularistic anxieties.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

That explains why Bill Maher has never been funny.

William said...

In the Iliad, Thersites was an ugly, deformed man who made fun of Agamemnon. He was the first stand up comic. He got some good laughs at Agamemnon's expense. But Ulysses topped him, by the simple expedient of striking Thersites' hunchback with his staff and threatening to flog him if he again made fun of the King. It caused many peals of laughter throughout the encampment. Physical comedy always tops verbal humor. We should get back to basics.

Anonymous said...

Liberals like the Clintons, and the Obamas? They are not worthy because they use their power to appropriate their possessions from taxpayers, not earning them thru hard work.

Matt said...

I am just going to put this link here as it has a strong undercurrent of hard fact...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4a6YdNmK77k

David said...

Gallows humor has a long and noble history. It works for societies as well as individuals.

tim in vermont said...

These days, we feel social pressure to accept and act appreciative of unfunny comedy that makes reference to subject matter that we believe we're supposed to take seriously

You mean like the opening monologue of the Emmies last night? Naah!

tim in vermont said...

Hah! Emmies ratings down 20% from last year. Couldn't have anything to do with pissing off a large portion of the audience in the first couple minutes!

http://www.thewrap.com/emmys-early-ratings-overnight-fox-down-20-percent-andy-samberg/

Anonymous said...

I never ever found Mort Sahl funny, ever. And I wanted to enjoy him, he was on a list of approved entertainers for young liberals to enjoy. People were always being added or dropped from the list but Sahl was a perennial. To me he was like PBS's Capitol Steps or that old liberal piano player, whose name I cannot recall and is not worth looking up, another PBS denizen, smug and smarmy and not the least bit entertaining.

I'm so glad I don't watch TV anymore yet am saddened by the thought that it still means so much to so many people.

Sebastian said...

"The laughter is the manifestation of anxiety about being seen as good people"

It often is. Or at least as craving for acceptance.

But Progressivism has evolved to dispense with laughter. Why make the effort if a mere sneer will do?

MisterBuddwing said...

To me he was like PBS's Capitol Steps or that old liberal piano player, whose name I cannot recall and is not worth looking up

Mark Russell? I think he has his moments. But when it comes to liberal piano playing comedians, I don't think anyone tops Tom Lehrer.

mikee said...

I, for one, recall the fabulously funny codpiece jokes that go on for pages in Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. The author skewers fashion, politics, social standing, sexuality, wealth and occupation, using a mere clothing accessory as a weapon.

Humor has not changed much, nor progressed much, from that era to this.

Thank goodness, because I laugh at progressives, not with them, and that is more fun than they have laughing dutifully at their unfunny insults of all others.

Gusty Winds said...

I knew the Emmies were going to get partisan as soon as Susan Lynch appeared in the opening, I only had to wait seconds for my suspicions to be confirmed.

Andy Samberg just pandered to the Hollywood audience in the hall with his Trump joke etc...Hollywood cliché...

No one will ever top Ricky Gervais. He pounced on the Hollywood elite in attendance for the entertainment of the viewers at home, and exposed them all as thin skinned douchebags.

Gusty Winds said...

EDH said...perhaps "unworthy" but not criminally culpable like conservatives -- receive their self-anointed absolution yet still get to keep that which they don't "deserve".

I remember watching some idiot being interviewed at an Occupy Wall Street event, and he was stating his opposition to "private" property. The interviewer asked him if he was willing to share or give away the $800 IPAD in his hands and he responded...

"This is personal property, not private property."

I miss the comedy and intellectual demolition derby of OWS. That was all comedy. Remember the snapping for approval, and the Animal Farm committees that ended up walking on two legs?

Good stuff.

n.n said...

Projection is the second stage of sanctimonious hypocrisy.

JAORE said...

There is no joy, no unrestrained laughter in the humor of the left.*

There is only hesitation while searching the room to assure you are interpreting the signals correctly so you can join in the (restrained) tittering.


* Only the mildest of exaggeration.

William Chadwick said...

And by "stolen" Sahl undoubtedly meant "earned honestly" (i.e., sans force or fraud). Not real-world stolen, like "liberal" State-f*ckers like to do with other people's money.

Moneyrunner said...

Conservatives have possessions Liberals have not shared yet. What's mine is mine, what's your is negotiable.