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    Thursday, September 21, 2006

    The Funniness Epidemic

    I was -- I don't know if this predictable or surprising -- a very serious child. It caused me a great deal of misery, more often from my family than from my peers. My uncles would lovingly torment me; I would be utterly crushed or riled. Perhaps this is the literal-mindedness that characterizes children's approach to external influences. Regardless of the source, my seriousness (distinguished from other children in that it tended to lack playfulness, not just an inability to grasp humor) isolated me. Even as I became less serious, or at least less exclusively serious, "seriousness" remained a crucial criteria in evaluating other people's worth. Someone who "couldn't be serious" didn't belong in my social milieu. Similarly, I can't stand blogs that never get meaty or serious and comedy that doesn't have a bit of an underbite leaves me cold. It's not that one cannot be funny and earn my respect. It's that one must be able to carry on a conversation without it. And I find, more and more, there are a great many people that are simply incapable of it.

    So, I read Peter Hyman's The funniness epidemic with interest:

    Must everybody try to be funny these days? Are we now compelled, as a culture, to be comical, no matter the setting or the endeavor? And if so, what on earth gave rise to this troubling idea? ...

    The end result? The guy standing next to you in line at Starbucks sounds like a nondescript sitcom actor that even your TiVo can't stand. ...

    A related cause could be the contemporary avoidance of sincerity. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter's post-9/11 declaration pronouncing the death of irony is, five years later, the misstatement of the millennium. From sneakers to cell-phone ring-tones to rain on your wedding day, everything is ironic. Or, more accurately, everything is sarcastic, the less-literary stepcousin of irony. Unlike irony, sarcasm can be printed on a T-shirt or written into every tenth line of an ESPN newscast with the generic (and easily aped) voice of mocking detachment that is so prevalent today. ...

    What is the upside of being funny? Well, apart from getting noticed, it's safer to hide behind the mask of humor, especially in a culture skeptical of intellectualism. Andrew Stott, an English professor whose academic treatise Comedy explored the philosophy of humor, sees it like this: "Being funny is a means of avoiding scrutiny. It's a deeply concealing activity that invites attention while simultaneously failing to offer any detailed account of oneself. The reason humor is so popular today is that it provides the comfort of intimacy without the horror of actually being intimate." ...

    And, for all of the democracy the Internet engenders, it is possible to have too much vox populi, especially when the populi seem intent on using such tired punch lines and hacky premises.

    I think something that Hyman glides over is that there has been a democratizing cultural shift which specifically takes the shame away from failing at humor. When I was younger, a flopped joke was the height of embarassment. Now, people will at least smile at the dumbest thing. In fact, people seem to prefer bad humor (especially sarcasm of any kind) to regular conversation. One is no longer expected to try at humor, but just to sprinkle half-assed bits of it into all conversation.

    I think it's this lowering of humor standards that has led to the proliferation of "funny people" because there are no longer any consequences.

    (Let me be clear: I do this all the time. In many ways, I would not live up to my own standards of company. I would wish I would shut up. I already do wish I'd shut up.)


    Blogger Sly Civilian said...

    Serious Kids of the World, Unite!

    There are a lot of pictures of me as a youth, looking very grave, utterly unimpressed with the antics of the adults trying to get me to smile.

    For me, it was was often about resistance. Adults would didn't respect me would treat me, like they were used to interacting with kids, as a simpleton and expect my laughter. The "shame of the flopped joke" was one of my tools for making them seem like idiots.

    Yeah, I was (and can be) pretty mean. I don't suffer fools lightly.

    4:44 PM  
    Anonymous petitpoussin said...

    The NYTimes Magazine has a story that comes to the opposite conclusion, based mostly on the Onion and the Daily Show, but also South Park and the Simpsons. I'd be interested to hear what you think...

    5:56 PM  
    Blogger Elizabeth McClung said...

    Since I grew up in a very closely watched religious community, the only way to really use humor was as criticism, usually by saying something completely sincerely with only close associates knowing that you mean the opposite. This does not blog well as writing "I think that sounds like a great idea." actually makes it sounds like you agree - odd that.

    10:42 PM  

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