January 29, 2010 Jill

Omri MarcusOmri Marcus has quite a brilliant piece in the Huffington Post about comedy in the digital age:

Some things have not changed so far, so it’s safe to assume that they will remain unchanged. The laws of the classic joke, a setup that brings you into the world of the joke and preps you in a certain direction (“I bought some batteries…”) and a punch which surprises the listener and in fact lets him understand that the assumption he had made upon hearing the setup was incorrect (“…but they weren’t included so I had to buy them again” — Steven Wright). It worked for Shakespeare, it worked for Chaplin, it worked for Seinfeld–and it will probably continue to work in the future. The fact that it used to be clowns who told “jokes” or “stories,” whereas now they’re called stand-up comedians and make “observations,” hasn’t actually changed the basic technique. In the world of new media too, for all the developments it has brought about, there are no new techniques for humor, only a refinement of the old ones.

The topics too are likely to remain unchanged: interpersonal relationships, identity, romantic relations, parents, children, work environment. Obviously, the physical expression of these issues will change according to time and location, but then, too, the new images will pass through the filters of humor as soon as we start developing an emotional relationship with them. If we add the issue of new media into the equation, it becomes clear that in a society that is becoming ever more technologically oriented, humor will also increasingly deal with the mediums themselves. This is especially true when the medium itself becomes much more than a channel of information and turns into a status symbol. When Apple made the platform as meaningful as the content that was being transmitted over it, humor too turned more to the platform. (Link)

From a psychological standpoint, laughter is a social experience. Canned laughter is a testament to this fact. The concept of attaching audience laughter to a joke is as daft as it is effective. For years, the convention that reigned supreme was that in order for an audience to laugh, it had to be told where to laugh, and to be made to feel that it was OK to do so. Humor, as has been stated on the American networks, is like that tree falling in the woods: If no one heard the joke, is it really funny? On the other hand, in recent years, in the transition from classic sitcoms to comedy series such as “30 Rock” and “The Office,” there is less and less use of canned laughter. In Generation Y, the consumer implements the social element by forwarding the sketch through his social network, and by doing so, he effectively creates a community of sorts, who are all in on the joke.

Monty Python and Woody Allen base a substantial part of the comedy in their sketches on knowledge shared by both the creators and the audience. Quotes by Freud, Bergman and Plato are a layer of humor that goes by completely unnoticed for people who are not familiar with their writings. As society puts less of an emphasis on the importance of such a single cultural core, we will able to see these influences in comic writing that will be less intellectual. It is important to emphasize that this writing will not be less cultural. The vacuum will be filled by other content, largely commercial or processed. This, by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing. Here is an excellent example from the guys at College Humor who made a parody of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”. I’m not sure Hans Christian Anderson would recognize his creation, but hey–it’s funny.

The cultural reference is simply different. Here’s another example, a parody of the “2 Girls 1 Cup” video, in which Kermit the Frog and Rowlf watch the clip together. The cultural knowledge required here comes from the field of hardcore porn, no less.

You should go read the whole thing because it’s an amazing analysis and valuable information for writers, creators and comedians.  And there are jokes.

Comments (2)

  1. Rich Baldwin

    It’s a good piece, but it does make the assumption that current trends will continue in the same direction – that we’ll want more violent humour, for instance, in the future. We’re just as likely to experience a cultural rejection, and shift in a more conservative direction in the future. In some places this shift is already taking place, so in the future we may end up seeing some really large gaps in what is considered humourous to different groups, just in North America alone.

    What is funny in the future will be things that are conflictual, outside the cultural context of the moment, but only within a certain distance outside societal norms of the times. Benny Hill, for instance, is funny not only because of the slapstick, but because it’s not socially acceptable for dirty old men to chase young women. If society didn’t bat an eye at that sort of activity, Benny Hill would lose a lot of its humour. Alternately if society decided that old men chasing young women was a truly sick and twisted activity then Benny Hill would be generally considered far less funny in that it is at present (assuming of course that society didn’t decide that the best comedy should be sick and twisted). Comedy is a social game where the most succesful jokes both play just within the present rules while suggesting changes to those same rules.

    There is totally a research paper in this . . . I may have to write it.

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