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The Death of Comedy | Inside Higher Ed

Regretfully, I no longer remember the source of advice about how to become a top scholar. Among the instructions:  Avoid the use of punctuation.  Insert paragraph breaks randomly.  Create your own jargon.  Dissect a truly obscure text. Make use of difficult-to=follow extended metaphors irrelevant to the topic. And, of course, regularly sprinkle in French and German phrases and make frequent references to Foucault, Heidegger, and Derrida.

We live in earnest, sober times, and it’s not surprising that few examples of humor appear in Inside Higher Ed or Times Higher Education or The Chronicle.  It’s become all too easy to offend, affront, insult, or hurt someone’s feelings.

Far more surprising is the decline of cinematic comedy.  Humor – slapstick, verbal, satirical, or simply raunchy – was a Hollywood mainstay from the silent era onward.  Indeed, Hollywood has had many golden ages of comedy, from the era of Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd, and Mabel Norman to that of Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, and Mike Myers half a century ago.  Then, we might add Jim Carey, Steve Carell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cameron Dias, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Whoopi Goldberg, Melissa McCarthy, Adam Sandler, Amy Schumer, Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, and Reese Witherspoon to this list.

The dominant forms of comedy on the silver screen vary sharply with the times.  Although there’s a tendency to associate silent comedy with slapstick pratfalls, like pies in the face or slips on banana peels, the greatest comedians of the silent era, like Chaplin and Keaton, derived their humor less from sight gags or physical humor than from characters who find themselves in absurd predicaments or incongruous circumstances that gradually reveal their essential character.  

The advent of sound encouraged verbal humor that involved jokey banter and comic wordplay.  In the face of economic calamity, the major early Depression era comedies tended toward the absurdist, the surreal, and the irreverent. The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Mae West subjected all orthodoxies to comic scorn, from colleges to patriotism, the nation state, and conventional sexual morality.  

The screwball comedies of the later 1930s also featured verbal dueling, sarcasm, and witty dialogue, but now in the service of romance.  In the midst of the Depression, these zany cinematic romances, which often involved a lower-class guy and an heiress, symbolized class reconciliation.

With films like Dr. Strangelove and The Producers, the 1960s saw the advent of black comedy, which treated serious subjects with morbid humor.  Films like Harold and MaudeNetworkHeathers, and Fargo spoke to historical moments when trust in institutions and authority figures was rapidly diminishing, family relationships were growing more problematic and unstable, and working-class life seemed to be unraveling. 

It’s not a coincidence that the 1980s, in particular, saw an extraordinary outpouring of cinematic comedies: Parodies like Airplane! Teen comedies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, with their critique of the adult “machinery of oppression.” Role reversal comedies such as Mr. MomTrading Places, and Coming to America.  Gross-out comedies like Bachelor Party. Comedic cross-country odysseys like National Lampoon’s Vacation. Coming of age comedies, like Risky Business.  Culture clash action comedies including Beverly Hills Cop and Crocodile Dundee. Romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally. Military comedies including Stripes and Private Benjamin.  Fantasy or goofball comedies like Big and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  Supernatural comedies such as Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice.  Animated comedies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sci Fi comedies such as Back to the Future.  During the 1980s, the echo Baby Boom reached movie theaters, and these films spoke to both Baby Boom parents and their children.

Any generalizations about the decline of cinematic comedy inevitably raises the specter of selectivity effects and age bias. We remember the 1950s sex comedies including The Seven Year ItchSome Like It Hot, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but forget the box office bombs: Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and Scared Stiff (with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis).

Still, I doubt anyone would speak of recent woeful comedies, Ghostbusters: AfterlifeJackass ForeverMarry Me, or even Bridesmaids, in the same breath with Animal House or Clueless or Legally Blonde, let alone with The Gold RushHis Girl Friday, or It Happened One Night

So why has there been a decline in screen comedies?  The popular blogger Misha Saul links the demise of gut-busting, laugh out loud cinematic comedies to a shift in the culture and in film economics.  We live, he notes, in “irony-poisoned” times, which render comedy too frivolous and trifling to attract an audience in an era of intense partisanship and political polarization. Sanctimony increasingly replaced comedy, with even parodists like Sacha Baron Cohen gravitating toward doctrinaire politics and late night talk hosts like Stephen Colbert far more politicized than, say, Jay Leno.  

Meanwhile, in its pursuit of the international market, Hollywood has come to believe that only visual spectacle and superheroes, not comedy, appeal to foreign audiences.  Given the high cost of production and marketing, investors prefer franchises, sequels, and potentials blockbusters to the mid-range movies that included comedies.

To Saul’s list, I’d add some other contributors to screen comedy’s decline.  

  • As a genre, comedies tended to be highly gendered.  Despite rare exceptions, like Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard, and Marilyn Monroe, comedy, until recently, was a boys’ club, often centered around a single theme: the threat of emasculation.  Until remarkably recently, those boys were almost exclusively white, with limited appeal to a much more diverse audience.
  • Comedians tend, as they age, to shift toward more serious films, and those with marketing potential, like Jim Carrey and Mike Myers, left the field, and have no interest in driving production of comedies.
  • For half a century, cinematic comedy depended on a very small number of creators.  The successors of Mel Brooks and John Hughes, like Austin Powers’s Myers and Tina Fey, failed to pick up their mantle.
  • Freud regarded humor as an act of aggression, and humorous expressions of resentment and irreverence increasingly produce a backlash that scares off the studios.

At some risk of embarrassment, let me put the decline of screen comedies into perspective.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 study, The Birth of Tragedy, is as much about the decline of classical Athenian culture as it is about the emergence of a particular art form.  In Nietzsche’s eyes, classical Greek tragedy was much more than a form of popular entertainment. It represented an attempt to look “into the abyss of human suffering and affirming it, passionately and joyously affirmed the meaning of their own existence” and find “self-affirmation not in another life, not in a world to come, but in the terror and ecstasy alike celebrated in the performance of tragedies.”  

The death of classical Athenian tragedy, according to Nietzsche, was the product of two far-reaching developments:  The embrace of more naturalistic dramatic forms and the rise of a more rationalistic and optimistic worldview.  These had the effect of sapping such dramatic works of the more mythic elements that had allowed spectators to collectively transcend “the pessimism and nihilism of a fundamentally meaningless world.” 

Famously, Nietzsche wondered whether it was possible, in modern society, to resurrect something like those tragedies in which the entire community could see themselves not as “petty individuals,” but as members of a larger community that could collectively confront the disturbing realities of human existence. 

At the risk of a drawing a rather gross, tactless parallel, I might ask whether something like the classic Hollywood comedies — which did so much to sustain the nation’s morale in times of disruption and upheaval and that profoundly shaped the American self-image – can be reborn.  

Not now, I suspect.  The nutty, the vulgar, the crude, the raunchy, and the politically incorrect raise the specter of complaints and organized protests.  Just ask Dave Chappelle.  It strikes many in Hollywood that the prudent path is to avoid controversy.

Why, you might ask, should anyone except film scholars care about the fate of cinematic comedies?  Because humor is an essential attribute of successful teaching.  Humor is irreverent.  It punctures pretensions, deflates egos, mocks airs and affectations, and scorns certitudes.  More than that, humor makes learning more joyful.  

Humor can, I know, be hurtful and offensive.  Teasing and sarcasm, in particular, can demean and embarrass.  Failed jokes lead students to roll their eyes.

But to scrub humor from the classroom is to make learning less lively, spirited, and playful.  Humor can make the classroom less stressful and anxiety inducing.  It can engage students and contribute to a sense of connection.  

When we erase comedies from the big screen we lose one of cinema’s most enduring joys.  When we excise humor from the classroom, we do something much worse:  We lose our best tool for engaging students and demonstrating that the learning process can and ought to be a source of pleasure.  

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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