In Search of Humor

The typical American television comedy series is usually not very funny.  Not that Americans have a lock on unsophisticated comedy writing.  I’ve seen enough British television to know that they can be as clumsy at handling humor as we can.  Writers will try to come up with some vehicle using the usual suspects.  A dim witted male, usually a husband or father, who has a good heart but gets himself into various humiliating situations.  The daffy wife or mother who seems a bit challenged by reality, and children who are nominally smarter than their parents.  If dear old dad is the pratfall victim then the wife is the smart person who rescues him from himself.  The children exist to stick their appointed barbs in him pointing to his lack of smarts or coolness.  If mom is the one who takes the pratfalls then she must appear to be the space cadet who is always innocent of any evil and her daffiness is endearing to all.  Children, in this case are their to assist her daffiness with indulgent logic.  And of course it is the women who are politically liberal and the men who are politically conservative.  I have never seen the reverse, motherhood somehow means liberal mindedness.

On the BBC side of the great pond two of the best sitcoms ever made were Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, both of which took the British government to task for its own inane policies, regulations, rules, and laws.  You had the willing but largely ineffective elected politician trying to cope with a most wily bureaucratic system pitted against one of the most devious public secretaries.  The minister is guided through his day by another public servant, his aide.  Since the department used is the Education Department, the public secretary in head of the civil service staff that runs that department.  the minister is there to make policy and the civil servants are there to turn policy into implementation.  Since the civil servants have been in service longer than the politician they tend to know the rules of the game so much better.  The job of the private secretary or aide is to be the joker in the deck and help his minister occasionally come out ahead.  Of course this is a double edged sword since the private secretary may wish to be elevated to the position of head secretary of the department.  And as we all have read, government is full of scandals, inefficiencies, contrary rules and so forth.  We also have the complexity between individual personalities and their ambitions.  Of course one of the fundamental lessons the audience gains is the importance of checks and balances in government.

We Americans have never had a sitcom that dealt with political issues in a humorous manner.  When we do try to approach any conversation about political issues we are usually treated to a heavy handed bombast.  Archie Bunker and Maude are the two sides of the same coin, mindless belief in being right.  One side tries to ridicule the beliefs of the other not because their beliefs are wrong but because they are not entitled to believe that way.  If one is Jon Stewart then bringing the religious teachings of one religious group on abortion to ridicule it is not that their beliefs are wrong but that they should not believe in opposing aborting.  It is obvious to Stewart that no right thinking person could ever hold such an opinion.  Thus in these types of shows it is the heap of ridicule that matters not whether such ridicule is humorous, that is a given.  But by such an argument one may ridicule the fat, the ugly, and the lame.  Ridicule is not sophistication but a blunt object with which to beat the opposition’s head in.  It only seems funny.

I would vote the old sixties comedy show, Laugh In, as the best of its breed.  Yes, their was a great deal of old jokes and slap stick and yet it was delivered is such a manner to show a great deal of sophistication.  Indeed, Tom and Dick Smothers complained that the television censors always gave Laugh In a pass while holding their comedy hour to a much higher standard.  How could you take all those old jokes and slap stick seriously as anti war protests were woven in?  They must have been joking, right?  Maybe there was much more to that fickle finger of fate that guided that comedy show.  One of the other great comedy shows was the Susan Harris creation, Soap.  While the nation may have been on the seat of their pants to learn who shot JR, Soap was the parody of sitcoms and soap operas mixed together in a thick and creamy lather.  Soap broke the mold and showed us a new way to do sitcom.  Unfortunately oru producers and writers did not learn that lesson.

Finally, I would like to present Dave Allen, the comedy genius who taught so many the value of thinking out of the box when it came to comedy.  He showed how one could make fun of religion, government, intellectuals, and the like without being cruel and unusual.  He didn’t use ridicule to skewer his victims, just the holes in their logic that were plainly seen.  He had a marvelous wit and an ability to convert flaws into fun.  Good night and may your god go with you.

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