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Why did comedy die? Reader comments
Follow up thoughts and reader feedback
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The Heroes We’re Allowed: which explores the evolving values expressed in stories
Almost 20,000 of you read Why did comedy die? in the few days since it’s been published, thanks mainly to Tyler Cowen who shared it at Marginal Revolution (my “front page of the web”). Someone also posted it on Hacker News (my first HN appearance. I’ve made MR before for this podcast / transcript on Georgian language and history).
I have a confession: I may have been guilty of click-bait. I do think the trend is very clear in film, less clear in TV and hard to measure elsewhere. But an unequivocal Why did comedy die? just made for a better headline. I also thought it was more fun to bite the bullet and equivocate less (in the heading — the piece is fairly caveated throughout). I do think we are living in less funny times.
I’m guessing this piece was popular because 1. It’s about a pop subject and 2. It’s highly qualitive. As I noted in the piece, it’s pretty hard to measure and I came out with a strong view.
Correspondingly, it’s not surprising at all that it garnered strong reactions in favour and against. Probably more in agreement than disagreement, but close. Many people called me some kind of idiot. Maybe.
I’ll include my favourite positive message below, but first here are the most interesting / compelling / cited critiques.
In this (out of cycle) Kvetch:
Criticisms generally fell into these buckets:
There has been a decline in comedy — but for different reasons
There has been no decline — there are still many great comedies (either in different media or films I’ve missed)
There has been no decline — the comedies I mentioned sucked anyway
The 4 best critiques were:
Times are darker and people don’t have so much to joke about. We live in a scarier world with more conflicts
We live in irony-poisoned times
I’m an old man shouting at clouds
1. Times are darker and people don’t have so much to joke about. We live in a scarier world with more conflicts.
I was immediately repulsed by this argument when Noah Smith first proposed it. In my memory the moment of peak Global Crisis was 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And we made a ton of comedy then, including the rise of the Colbert and Jon Stewart. I think there is something about the austere neoconservative Christian revanchist Bush Presidency that made it very easy to mock, even while inspiring genuine concern. The hysteria around Trump seems even more pronounced than what surrounded the Patriot Act, foreign invasions and Guantanamo Bay, and the ability to mock him impossible, because he is already peak ludicrous.
My gut as an ex-Soviet Jew is also that humour is resilient. But I don’t know how to measure humour going back 100+ years, so it’s a hard one to test whether humour follows cycles of prosperity. I guess Soviet humour was pretty grim though.
In support of this critique, if we assume the 80’s then the 90s were a period of comic ascendency, then that does broadly align with peak optimism in the West. So I guess this is plausible, but I’m skeptical.
2. We live in irony-poisoned times
I’m not sure. Maybe. I do like the riff on Community, which I mention in my piece, and is really excellent and still underrated.
In a similar vein, and maybe (?) part of the same milieu are Bojack Horseman, Atlanta, Fleabag which I didn’t mention and which are all excellent. And all of them, like Rick & Morty, are kind of tragi-comedies or surreal comedies that test new, interesting spaces that often genuinely aren’t as funny as they are provocative or tragic. Like this tear-jerker of an ending in Rick & Morty.
Or the Free Churro episode of Bojack, which is effectively just one long monologue. It may be the single best episode of anything ever on TV. Funny, painful, a monologue (who does that??). I think about it all the time.
I guess TV has become more experimental, even as comedy has become more macabre. That seems great to me. But does it come at the expense of actual comedy? Maybe comedy being more macabre is a point in favour of comedy veering off in darker times.
3. I’m an old man shouting at clouds
I mentioned this possibility in the piece: that there is no decline, today’s youth just enjoy different things across different media and I’m not keeping up. I’m also just nostalgic for my youth. Or tastes have changed to leave me behind.
Another form of this critique has been that my taste sucks and that the movies I mentioned weren’t even that good so there has been no decline.
Like I said — plausible!
4. Selection effect
Like with music — you only remember the good ones. You don’t remember the oceans of garbage. Yeah plausibly.
2. Nice feedback
This is probably the nicest piece of reader feedback:
I’m a filmmaker specifically in comedy and with the two indie films we have on the market… none of the distributors and sales wanted the theatrical rights bc “comedy doesn’t sell” in theaters. We did our own theatrical release to 70 theaters and made our investment back. The distributors seemed very lazy and simply want movies they can throw at the world for instant revenue. We did very low budget PnA and it worked. It was easy.
Then same reader, next day:
Thank you! We’re still talking about your article. You sparked the F outta us.
So that’s nice. I’ll plug the dude’s film, I haven’t seen it.
3. Final comments
Others wrote in with more recent recommended comedies I may have missed. I haven’t seen any of these but here they are: Blockers, Game Night, Tag, Booksmart, Everybody Wants Some.
Someone mentioned Knives Out and I recall all the fanfare it got when it came out. I watched it not long ago and was bored to tears. This is exactly the sort of who-gives-a-sh*t film filled with stars that passes for comedy these days.
The essay was definitely movie-oriented, where the trend is strongest, but I couldn’t help it bleeding into TV where a range of the trends were salient.
Anyway, I’m off to finish re-watching The Sopranos, probably the best show ever made. It’s no comedy but the creators match any comic in their sense of humour. Maybe that’s a write up for another time.