Comedy Dies of Old Age

Comedy has the shortest shelf-life of any entertainment genre.

Going back to watch a lot of Adam Sandler movies as an adult is a painful experience. You can remember watching them as a kid and laughing your ass off, only to go back to it as an adult and cringe the whole way through. The jokes don’t land. At all. You might write it off as just saying “Oh, it’s a comedy. I get the jokes. It isn’t funny anymore.”

But then you’ll watch that horror film that scared you as a kid, and still have a good time. Maybe it’s as scary as it was the day you saw it. Maybe it’s so cheesy you can’t help but laugh at — or even with — it. But, whatever the case may be, that survives the test of time.

So why can’t comedy?

It’s true even for comedies you catch a little too late. Watch an old comedy from the 80s or 70s. Or, worse, earlier. You find either most of the jokes are all that funny or a good deal of the jokes are just kinda unpleasant.

That’s not to say no comedies survive. Mel Brooks’s films survive the test of time. Airplane is a classic. Oddly enough, a lot of horror-comedies still hold up. And slapstick has an eternal shelf life even if most of it is repetitious.

But the vast majority don’t. And the reason for that, I believe, is simple: we grew up.

Sophomoric Humor

A well-timed joke is funny. Sometimes.

Comedy is a tough nut to crack because what is funny one year might not be funny next year. We see this with the proliferation of the internet meme. Overexposure to a concept can leave people bored of it. They want to move onto the next thing, and the next thing is always there a second before you tell your joke based on the old thing.

Dated pop culture references date a story. Given a few years, they lose all relevance.

Consider the “parody movies” craze of the 00s. Scary Movie, when it came out, was pretty stupid then. Its target audience was either too young or too uninformed to realize the movie it satirized, Scream, was already a satire. But to many, it had some funny jokes. Some quotable lines.

Given several sequels and several imitators, however, everyone for years thought all you needed to make a good parody was to dress people up in bad costumes and make references to whatever was trending in the pre-Twitter age. Put Juno and The Hulk together. Make a thirty-year-old play Harry Potter. Make Leonidas kick bald Brittney Spears around.

Does any of that sound very funny today in 2019? Well, no. It wasn’t funny ten years ago, either.

I use bad satire to highlight a problem: as time passes, humor shifts. Pop culture references fade. What is “trending” fades.

Truly immortal stories have more to it than just a bad joke. The comedies that survive have more to them than just good jokes. The reason why people watch Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore years later is because there is a story behind the gags, and the gags themselves are pretty timeless. Again, mostly slapstick and word play. Meg Ryan’s romantic-comedies are still watched today because there’s a romance to it. Evil Dead II is one of the funniest films of all time because it’s also a good horror film.

The elements that keep good comedy alive for years isn’t the comedy. It’s what lies below the surface because those dramatic elements age better than the humor.

But you’re probably thinking “Okay. Let’s just get rid of the pop culture crap. That’s the stuff that ages. The stuff that tries to ‘trend’.” Not making a smart phone joke should keep a joke relevant.

Well, that’s the thing. Pop culture isn’t the only thing that changes as time goes on. Acceptable targets of humor changes, too.

Punching Down

Comedy that survives attacks the status quo. More specifically, those in charge. It laughs at the rich and out-of-touch. It laughs at those who attack and hurt people. It laughs at the established norms.

Airplane is a great comedy in part because it shows how stupid everyone in charge is. Arthur shows how out of touch and miserable the rich can be. Blazing Saddles combats racism and bigotry. The Producers makes one of the worst forces of evil in the 20th Century look ridiculous.

Adam Sandler films, for the most part, bully marginalized folks and makes fun of mental conditions.

Good comedy punches upward. Cheap comedy punches down. It’s the same reason why it’s hard to stand up to bullies — yet so much more rewarding — while it’s easy to pick on someone smaller than you, even if people lose respect for you if you do it.

You find many comedies, both in the past and now, target people the creators feel are unusual in some way, poking fun at them for their oddities. Look at these people. Look how weird they are. Look at how unlike us they are. And laugh. Laugh at them.

I recently rewatched 50 First Dates with some family, and all of us remembered it as being one of Sandler’s better comedies. While the prospect of Drew Barrymore’s character waking up to find herself pregnant was a little disturbing, a lot of the romance did feel sentimental enough to sway us over.

But then they made jokes.

A lot of the jokes clash with Sandler’s attempts at sentimentalism by punching down. Punching down at people who have wet dreams. Punching down at people who get gender reassignment surgery. Punching down at people with brain disabilities. 10 Second Tom may be a fairly memorable character, but what are you laughing at when you laugh at that scene? You’re laughing at a character suffering severe brain trauma.

I’m not saying any of the humor offended me. It’s hard to offend me with film. I watch hardcore horror. But I didn’t find it particularly funny, either. Because our society has moved on to a point where many of us just have normalized these things. They are no longer the other — as they should never have been. In fact, many of us have even grown up to realize we’re a PART of that otherness, and we think to ourselves “Was…I laughing at myself as a kid?”

Jokes that reinforce gender stereotypes can be harmful, because it establishes the idea that not acting like a man or a woman is silly. Jokes about fat peope are bad, because of course you’d laugh at fat people—I mean, look at how fat they are.

All this makes people feel like the other. And these people, as they grow up, will tell you they don’t find it funny. If you’re close minded, you’ll never listen. If you aren’t, you’ll ask yourself “Okay, wait, was I upsetting this person I care about with this joke?” And, if you do — and if enough people ask that question enough over years — people stop finding those jokes funny.

The Ultimate Example

Let’s take this to an extreme.

Tom and Jerry features a character called Mammy Two Shoes. She’s an overweight black woman with a dramatic, over-done voice. Anyone watching it today recognizes this as the “Mammy” stereotype: a common racist stereotype created to make African-American women look stupid and clumsy. Even when this was “well-intentioned,” it was racist. And people today recognize it as racist.

But what’s the difference between a Mammy and 10 Second Tom? Both are extreme stereotypes designed to make a certain marginalized person look ridiculous.

Let’s take it to an even bigger extreme.

The Merchant of Venice features the character Shylock, a greedy Jewish money lender who threatens to carve out a pound of flesh from a character indebted to him should the debt between them go unpaid. It is telling that most modern renditions of Shakespeare’s “problem comedy” goes to lengths to re-contextualize Shylock away from the “greedy Jew” and more to a sympathetic target of misery.

Of course, it’s possible Shakespeare’s comedy is an example of punching upward in such a subtle and brilliant way that modern audiences didn’t understand. After all, who is the real villain of The Merchant of Venice? The poor money lender or the rich merchants who go to him, sign a contract, and then try to weasel their way out of the terms they set? Who is the real villain? The man who spat on Shylock only to beg for money, or the target of bigotry who finds a chance to get revenge?

There is a great like from Merchant of Venice I wish to quote to you. Until the mid-20th Century, this speech was often presented as a villainous rant, but to a modern audience, the line contains a very different message:

What was once in some performances played for laughs, is here played for dramatic pain.

I am not saying The Merchant of Venice is a flawless play or that its role in antisemitic history is forgiven. But I am saying that the text of the play presents the aristocracy as ridiculous, and the text of the play presents the Jewish characters as victims of their behavior.

And this is why comedy has a terrible shelf life. There is only so much time that a joke can remain funny before it becomes a painful reminder of bigotry past and bigotry continued to the very day. In the end, that which was once funny curdles, and the dramatic gravitas beneath the surface becomes potent.