Today it was announced that Sid Caesar, the father of Television Comedy, passed away at 95. I wrote this blog a few weeks ago on the Crown Rights blog, but thought it was worthy of reposting in his memory.
Laughter is a strange thing. On one hand, what makes a person laugh varies. Some people find some things funny, yet others do not find the same things as funny. Yet, because we are created in the image of God, everyone laughs. Which begs the question…since man is created in the image of an immutable God, can comedy be objective?
Are some jokes always funny, only varying in laughter as a result of man’s sin nature? Or are some comedy routines always not funny, but still get laughs anyway only as a result of man’s sin nature?
I am not sure I have the answer, and if I did…I’d be a comedian. Asking what is funny, and expecting an objective, universal answer is like asking what makes a video go viral. The one who holds the answer to any of these questions would be a very rich man.
However, not knowing the answers to questions should not stop people from asking the questions. It also shouldn’t stop us from looking for answers.
What is the immutable joke? What is the gag that you could tell before the Trinity and know for certain it would receive a laugh? I have no idea. But I think I know the direction we can look. I also think I know where we shouldn’t look.
Remember the classic shows of old? The clean stuff. The original Three Stooges; I Love Lucy; Laurel and Hardy; or The Little Rascals?
I remember watching these shows as a child with my parents. They originally aired before my parents were born. We loved them! We all laughed. I laughed as one who saw it for the first time, and my parents laughed as if they had seen it for the first time, even though they saw these shows several times growing up.
These comedy legends are legends for a reason. They were funny, and their comedy transcended time and reached multiple generations.
Above is one of my favorite sketches of all time. It was from the Carol Burnett show. I watched this show constantly with my parents as a child when we caught the reruns on Nick at Night. Not too long ago I watched it again and literally laughed out loud, by myself, in front of the computer. In fact I am laughing watching it now as I write this.
There is something about that scene, or Lucy and Ethel making chocolates that transcends time. This is comedy that transcends generations. It’s pure, and somehow speaks to everyone.
But when is the last time you went to a movie, or watched a Saturday Night Live sketch that really made you sick with laughter? It doesn’t happen often today. Today’s laughs are meant to appeal to the flesh-to our sin nature. They appeal to the frat boy mentality of our culture that abhors adults acting like adults.
The day’s popular comedians are products of their culture. Our celebrities make jokes that reflect what their culture thinks is funny. In a sense, today’s comedy is not generational, it’s for a select few. Today’s comedians won’t be remembered forty years from now because their jokes will be seen as typical.
Sure, there will be trendsetters. Those who bravely paved the roads for new comedy. Usually these are the ones who are known for pushing the limits and boundaries on what can be considered funny. This is most always vulgar or crass comedy.
Eddie Murphy, Bill Maher, Chris Rock, and other racy comedians will always have a place in comedy history, but their material will eventually be dated. Sure, those guys will go down as legends. But their comedy will become stale as the years progress because their comedy, which was once shocking, new and different, is now common place.
Immoral comedy may be funny for a season, but it won’t be funny in a post-revival generation. That comedy will be looked down upon and it will be forgotten.
But moral comedy that’s funny because of the inherit nature of “funny” can be timeless.
An example of this comedic division can be seen with Will Ferrell, who has a widely popular character known as Ron Burgundy, whose bulk of jokes range from lewdness to sexist humor. It’s not something everyone can enjoy. I can’t watch Anchorman with my grandparents.
But then, Will Ferrell has another character: Buddy the Elf. The film Elf is by far one of the top Christmas movies ever made, and the most hilarious. It’s been out for ten years now and every Christmas, I get to watch it all over again, as if for the first time with my family. My roommate in college would watch Elf all the time, even when Christmas that year was long gone.
Clean comedy is transcendent. Vulgar, off-color jokes are fleeting and have a much more limited audience and hardly any repeat value.
You would think Hollywood would have figured this out by now. But they haven’t.
To prove this point some more, take comedy legend Bill Cosby, who is known for his stance on comedy purity. His stand up comedy “Himself”, was a record breaker! It led to a hugely popular television series based on the routine, and as a side note is arguably one of the best displays of parental discipline ever seen on television. Now, decades later, Bill Cosby finally has come back to the stage with his comedy central special Far From Finished. Still sitting on a chair, telling widely relatable jokes that are just as enjoyable and hilarious.
There is a transcendence to pure comedy. It lasts lifetimes.
You would think Christians have figured this out by now. But they haven’t.
This is an area in which Christians should have a clear strong hold. If purity in comedy reaches larger audiences and lasts for generations, this should be our thing, but it’s not.
Instead Christian comedians are limited to Thou Shalt Laugh DVD’s on Christian Bookstore shelves. They are not searching out that immutable joke. They are pandering to a narrow audience-much as the adult comics do. Yet another example of Christians thinking too small.
These two extremes, vulgar comedy on the left, and righteous comedy for the Christian family on the far right, has failed to deliver classics because they are equally as narrow in reach.
While the struggling Saturday Night Live writers are forced to bring on guests like Lady GaGa and Miley Cyrus to gain audiences,Christian comedians are lost to the comedy culture.
We’re told no one will buy clean comedy anymore. It was a thing of the past. After all it is called a classic for a reason, right? But if that’s the case how come the classics still sell? The Sound Of Music Live Special broke NBC records as the most viewed non-sporting event in NBC history. Classics still sell. Families still spend money.
When we talk about Christians taking over the culture, we’re often stopped by the sheer impossibility of it all. How can we compete with multi-hundred million dollar film budgets? How do Christians gain a stronghold when up against the Goliath that is pagan Hollywood? Perhaps we just start small. Grab a chair and tell a joke for the entire world to enjoy. After all, we serve a God who laughs, and created man in his image to do the same.
We just need to pursue that immutable joke.
“Comedy has to be based on truth, You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end.” – Sid Caesar