> DISCLAIMER: This post doesn’t answer the question from the title. It’s just me, rambling about comedy. Basically…
This is a question I asked myself after finally watching a sitcom I actually enjoyed. (More about the sitcom later on). I rarely watch sitcoms or comedies these days, because I often find them too silly to be actually funny. And I almost never read funny books (the closest to that are Terry Pratchett’s books). And I sometimes watch some funny tv shows, but I mostly just want to rewatch those I’ve seen before.
Why is this? Are the comedies nowadays really not that good, or am I the problem? The thing is, even some comedies which I found funny before are not as funny to me anymore. Did I become too old and bitter? I hope not, I’m only 26. XD
As I thought about this, I asked myself what comedies and sitcoms I liked and why. What makes me laugh? And I realised that I liked a bitter kind of humour, humour that actually has something to say. And these things can vary. The most obvious one is social commentary. Now, I know what you are thinking (okay, not really, but some of you might be thinking this): Does humour really have to be socially aware to be funny? Shouldn’t the main point of humour be to relax and just not think about the millions of problems our world faces? And you would be right to ask that. But, if you think about the origin of comedy, it was always, at least a little bit, a social comentary.
If we want to go to the very origin of comedy, it would probably be the Ancient Greek theatre. Humour certainly existed before Ancient Greece, but they were the first who put some rules on how comedy should look like, and are the ones who basically invented drama. Those Greek comedies were often satirical, even political. Even religion was not left out, and sometimes the myths were changed and incorporated in comedies. One of the rules which stayed to this day is that all comedies end happily, and the conflicts are resolved.
In the Middle Ages, comedy as it once was disappeared. Theatre completely changed, and was reduced to religious and biblical stagings, and on the other hand on mistrels and troubadurs who travelled and entertained. But something else took its place as main entertainment and escape from everyday problems – carnivals. Carnivals were the time when everything was allowed. The poorest peasant could pretend to be a king. Carnivals destroyed social rules and constructs, but at the same time they affirmed those same roles. How? Well, canivals made people’s everyday lives more bearable. They were allowed to make fun of the people above them, only to return to their own social role afterwards. Carnivals were a form or regulation at the same time as they were a form of entertainment. They also created typical (or stock) characters, which remained a part of comedy to this day, just in their more modern roles. It’s basically impossible to not have society influence comedy.
Now we come to the Rennaissance and commedia dell’ arte, which coexisted with erudite comedy which followed the ancient rules. Commedia dell’ arte was based on the stock characters and the actors’ improvisation. The stock characters were easily recognized because they wore the same clothes and some of them had masks. This is something we have today – typical characters. And this is something that, in my opinion, good comedy should use in an intersting way. Good comedy should not accept the typical characters, but play with them. I guess that originality is also something that makes a piece of art (or entertainment) good. And originality doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from every single trope. It means using what we know in a unique way.
Commedia dell’ arte was very popular, which means it wasn’t boring to people even though it always had the same types of charactes. It usually satirized recent events, often some local scandals, and that’s what made it entertaining. At this point I will stop with the history of comedy, and say that this is something that definitely makes comedy a good one – being current. This leads to the sitcom I actually enjoyed recently. (Yes, I’m finally getting there!) Master of None is created by Aziz Ansari (who also plays the main role) and Alan Yang. It deals with recent issues, such as race and multiculturality. It talks about subjects people actually face today. For example, it commented on the treatment of women in a way which I rarely see in TV shows – by using the actual arguments of women that I’d read many times online but never saw being validated like this. The main character Dev and his male friends are completely oblivious to some things women go though almost every day. This was stressed by Dev complaining that he had a horrible night out and mentioning some quite petty things in comparison to what the women he was talking to went through – she was followed by a man to her apartment. (And bonus points for the stalker guy exclaiming: “Oh, come on, let the nice guy win for once!” This “nice guy” thing really has to be talked about.) Master of None uses fresh subjects and fresh jokes, while also making a social commentary. It doesn’t use real-life issues just to make a joke and then validate the status quo. It actually makes you think about those issues and gives validation to them.
But can a show that is recent be truly good if it’s not funny some ten, twenty, fifty years in the future? Seinfeld is a sitcom I enjoy so much, even today, though it was based on (then) recent events. I guess some topics are always relevant and some things (sadly) never change. So, yes, there’s a risk of becoming dated. And, sometimes, only time can tell if this will happen. Seinfeld points out certain small social pet peeves and problems that happen to everyone, and which in a certain way won’t change that quickly. I also want to add that this is a problem with Shakespeare, too. He’s taken too seriously! But Shakespeare wrote for the people. Even his tragedies have humour and, yes, sex jokes. The thing is, he uses the language of his own time, so those jokes go unnoticed. And no one is really looking for jokes when reading Shakespeare, because that’s not how he’s taught. I think it’s a missed opportunity… Of course, explaining jokes doesn’t make them funny, but making students aware of the context can be quite interesting. Can something be truly timeless, anyway? Especially humour?
Maybe we should consider some older tv shows, the ones that could be described as “timeless”, and one of them is certainly Blackadder. The humour in this show can be a bit dark, so maybe not for everyone, but I think it will never get old. Why? Because it’s mostly based on witty dialogue and wordplay. It’s also set in different periods in history, and it makes fun of certain historical figures. It plays with our expectations when it comes to those people. Another similar example is ‘Allo ‘Allo! which manages to make one of the darkest periods of history funny.
But, is it necessary for humour to be timeless to be good? I’m actually not sure. I guess, in the end of the day, what’s important is that we have something that makes us laugh. So, what do you find funny? Which books, films, and tv shows made you laugh, and why?
- If you are interested in Renaissance carnivals and the grotesque, I suggest reading Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin.
- Ancient History Encyclopedia is a nice introduction to the antiquity, and here’s a link to the entry about Ancient Greek Comedy.
- An article about commedia dell’ arte and stock characters.