Let’s do a brief thought excercise, shall we?
In the 1930s, when we had a Great Depression going on, all of the following were actively at work in the comedy community: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Frank Capra, Jimmy Durante, Ernst Lubitsch, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Bergen and McCarthy, and Lord knows how many we’re forgetting right now. Though not in their prime, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were still around and making movies. Most of these entertainers were subject to censorship and the U.S. population in 1935 was 127 million.
In the 1950s, when the television became the dominant medium in America, we had Burns and Allen, Steve Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Martin and Lewis, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Billy Wilder, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Phil Silvers and Lord knows how many we’re forgetting. Bob Hope, Henny Youngman and Abbot and Costello had maintained their stride, and many of the earlier stars such as Groucho Marx adapted themselves for television. Even the game shows of the 1950s such as What’s My Line had classic moments of wit and proved highly watchable. All of these artists were subject to extreme censorship and the U.S. population in 1955 was 165 million.
In the 1970s, when downturn and pessimism had returned, the American comedy scene thrived with Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Mel Brooks, Johnny Carson, All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Andy Kaufman, Carol Burnett, Rowan and Martin, MASH, Sanford and Son, WKRP, Bob Newhart, The Odd Couple, Flip Wilson, Taxi, the best Saturday Night Live, Steve Martin, The Muppet Show, and many others. Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Sellers were still around and Billy Crystal, Bill Cosby, and Harold Ramis were getting started. Monty Python was making movies, and many of those names from the 1950s were still hanging around, not to mention others like Phyillis Diller, Jonathan Winters, and Don Rickles. This group was subject to low-to-moderate censorship and the U.S. population in 1975 was 215 million.
Fast forward to 2006. Who do we have working today that can match any of this list? Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Steve Carrell, and Stephen Colbert? Yes. Will Ferrell and Sascha Baron Cohen? Wes Anderson and Adam McKay? Okay, we’ll concede those. David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmell and Conan O’Brien? Definantly. David Foster Wallace and the Sedaris siblings? Okay, but that’s stretching what we’re talking about just a tad. How about some of the better stand-ups like Demetri Martin? Sure…but then what?
Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, and countless other talents have pretty much left relevant comedy for good. The Simpsons is well past its prime, and if one hasn’t noticed, there aren’t very many quality sitcoms on the air right now. Two and a Half Men? That’s it? That’s the best we can do? Pryor, Mitch Hedberg, Bill HIcks, and many others have left us too soon. Bill Murray is hanging on and putting out quality, but opposing him are Robin Williams and Dan Akroyd, who are shells of their former selves.
So who do we have?
Adam flippin’ Sandler?
Dane Cook, a clown whose punchlines rarely stray beyond juvenille fraternity banter?
The overgrown, overacting teenagers on Saturday nights?
Goerge Lopez, Dat Phan, and the hordes of other one-trick ponies who have nothing of value beyond their own race/ethnicity/gender/hair color?
Jamie Kennedy, who poorly rips off bits that have been done ad nauseum, and with a lot more class?
Paula Poundstone, a lackluster one-trick pony AND a convicted sex offender who somehow got her own special on Bravo?
Scary Movie and its millions of brothers and sisters that follow the Airplane!/Naked Gun mold without having any feasible clue why said movies are so funny?
The awkward Howie Mandel poorly improving crappy one-liners on a crappy game show?
Some days we get to talking and we honestly feel George W. Bush is the funniest thing this country has going for it. And that’s not funny at all. It fact, it makes us frown.
The point isn’t that the comedians of today aren’t funny at all. We occaisionally do laugh at many of them. Ellen Degeneres and Adam Sandler can have their moments. Heck, we even laugh at Dane Cook when we’re intoxicated.
The point is this: what we have today known nationally in the entertainment world is a cataclysmic drop from any time period in the 20th century. The airwaves are clogged with more unfunny clowns, hacks whose wit goes no further than vulgarity will take it, and poor stereotype-driven one-trick ponies than ever before. And this is especially sad considering the proliferation of the internet and the fact that our population now exceeds 300 million.
Make no mistake, the state of comedy in America (and possibly the English-speaking world, although the Brits seem to have a few more worthy of note) is ridiculously and unacceptibly poor.
To simply say “there isn’t a Marx/Carlin/Keaton” out there is ridiculous, because simple probability tells us otherwise. Even then, that wouldn’t account for the lack of depth. Why, for example, do all the current really well-known women comics like Carline Rhea fail to hold even a wax bit of a candle to Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball even in the post-feminist movement age?
The next question to ask is: why? Why is this the situation? Why is vapid, petit abruti humor promoted so much that banal idiots wind up with their own shows while people like Dana Carvey are driven off the airwaves to obscurity?
There are a variety of reasons in our view. Briefly, here are some: the corporate conglomorization of media, the proportional (and sometimes qualitative) decline of radio and stage, the lack of clearly defined censorship, producers who must bow to commercial conservatism in order to please the men upstairs, the near-death of the art of comedy writing, bad actors, media proliferation, idiot producers (Eric Idle once said that comedy producers are the least funny people he has ever met), broad corporatization in general, catering to the lucrative 16-year old moron market, and on and on and on and on…