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Comedy out for the count

Where have all the funny people gone, wonders Luca Moretti.

Illustration by Maria Mellos. Illustration by Maria Mellos.
Illustration by Maria Mellos.
Illustration by Maria Mellos.

Know that you are reading an article by a man who can tell you everything about a joke but is never funny. The mind obsessed with comedy notes variations in cadence and diction, appreciates pauses in time as feelings rather than interval lengths, and remains vigilant to unoriginal appropriation. Appreciate then, dear reader, what torture it must be to perceive the world with such a mind, and yet be totally incapable of making people laugh.

My fixation started young. Like all obsessives I discovered that first delights yielded more pleasure than later discoveries. Comparing it to a drug addiction would be the kind of easy journalism that, like vomit, is easy to come up with but quite hard to swallow, but what, am I trying to win the Pulitzer here?

John Cleese has declared that the Golden Age of comedy is over. So is my experience-dulled appreciation, or is it symptomatic of a decline in film and television comedy? Comparisons with the past are affected by a trick of perception that flattens all previous periods to a single entity and lays its bounty next to the present day’s apparently paltry offerings. Nonetheless, to make a statement so subjective that it verges on meaningless, in the past five years no Australian or British television show or film by a new talent has been significant or uproariously funny. That statement can be extended to the last decade if Chris Lilley is excluded. Compare this with the start of the noughties which gave us The Office, the politically incorrect panto Little Britain, Black Books and the Chaser’s best work CNNNN.

Some of the ABC’s offerings last year, including Upper Middle Bogan and Wednesday Night Fever never threatened to be anything more than mundane; slow runners from a stud that produced the Working Dog team (The Late Show, Frontline, The Castle, The Dish, The Hollowmen), The Games and Kath and Kim. In Britain the BBC is little better. Jennifer Saunders, who booked a spot in the pantheon with French and Saunders and took up residence in perpetuity with Absolutely Fabulous, has criticised the broadcaster’s temerity with funds and new talent. The best British talent is kept occupied by umpteen cheap quiz shows, which provoke particularly ephemeral laughs from jokes no one remembers half an hour after hearing them. Meanwhile the movie industry produces franchise behemoths and comedies of almost virtuosic vulgarity and vapidity.

Comedy doesn’t have to make you think, but satire relies on you having done so at some point. And it may be that the world is less comprehensible than it was when visionary comics like Monty Python or Woody Allen first emerged. Cultural, educational, and social experiences of the audience for comedy have become so splintered that it may be impossible to engage a large audience with material that relies on common understandings as Allen’s jokes about his Judaism or Python’s ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ did. Perhaps deferential post-war attitudes towards the state, church, and class society created a gulf between institutions’ public perception and reality which could be evinced and exploited by shows like Beyond the Fringe. Or maybe so many of us have adopted irony in matters of speech, taste and opinion where once conviction and belief predominated that we evade capture as easy satirical targets.

In Australia our comedy is also less distinct due to the subjugation of the vernacular. Australian comedy once luxuriated in an inventive, coarse dialect. Think of all of Barry Humphries’ creations, be they the pretentious Dame Edna or the priapic Les Patterson and Barry McKenzie. National argot distinguishes comedy but national tastes diverge in other ways. Comedy is one of few areas in which intelligent people will leap to judgements about groups’ tastes and qualities. People will say flippantly, “Germans have no sense of humour”, or, “Americans don’t get irony”. Undoubtedly television shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Girls have dispelled that Anglo-Australian criticism; if this is a recent development its origins may be geo-political. All jokes have some kind of butt; most involve a loser. British comedies (Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Alan Partridge) made the loser the protagonist, whereas the non-Jewish, American protagonist was a smart alec who had most things going for them (think Hawkeye in MASH). This reflected the relative positions of these two cultures. The British, enduring decline, were inured to failure, and their comedy was more complex for it. Ascendant Americans were disinclined to identify with anyone other than a winner.

But now the foremost contemporary American practitioner is Louis C.K, whose work consists of subversive observations and social unease. Obsessed with the strangeness of reality, C.K. repeatedly returns to bodily decay, like Dali or Goya. Perhaps almost a decade of American angst and the prospect of national decline have produced a sizeable demographic ready to identify with the loser. As enjoyable as this kind of tenuous supposition is, I feel duty-bound to note that unorthodox American shows are probably the result of cable networks making niche markets profitable.

An array of media will not produce excellence by itself. Lasting comedy is created by writers and comics that have time to develop their work with financial support. This is why there are so few genuinely brilliant blogs and a quick look down your Facebook news feed provides proof positive for Ricky Gervais’ dictum that sarcasm isn’t the lowest form of wit, the pun is.

Laughter is the most human noise; it is the exhaust of consciousness. A joke momentarily frees us, and a great one can do so repeatedly. I hope to one day watch a new film of the hilarity and density of Life of Brian, the comedic equivalent to an archaeological dig with layers of satire, surrealism, and silliness. There is no formula for that kind of work but we can celebrate our established greats (Coogan, Minchin, David, Rivers, Gervais, Moran), support the development of comic talent and insist that no subject be verboten for jokes. The alternative is a situation like that in which I find myself during a recurrent nightmare. I’m in a room atop a staircase at Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1980. Stephen Fry, holding a pipe, has just finished reading a recently discovered washing machine instructional brochure by Yeats (“turning and turning in the widening gyre, the whites lack all intensity, while the smalls are filled with god only knows what”), Hugh Laurie looks on admiringly as Emma Thompson extemporises an Oscars acceptance speech by Mrs Thatcher. And when she sits down it’s my turn, and I know I have nothing funny to say.

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