In the old days, comedians had to tow a strict line when it came to language and content. In the early Sixties, for example, Lenny Bruce was routinely arrested for using profanity and sexual references in his comedy. In the Seventies, George Carlin made hay with “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” repeating the obscenities over and over for humorous effect. I remember listening to this bit and being scandalized.
At the same time, comedians were allowed to make blatantly racist jokes, and Archie Bunker was everyone’s favorite lovable bigot on TV. Disrespect for women was also totally allowable. Take Jackie Gleason’s catchphrase on The Honeymooners: “One of these days, Alice – to the moon!,” implying that if she didn’t stop her yapping, he’d punch her lights out.
Nowadays, we have seen almost a complete reversal of these late Twentieth Century standards. Chris Rock can stand up and riff about deviant sexual practices using graphic terms, and no one bats an eyelash. Foul-mouthed comedians are a staple of comedy clubs. Even on network television, still a bastion of common decency, characters can use swear words such as “hell” and “damn” and vulgarities such as “bitch” without censure.
Yet on sensitive subjects such as race and sexual harassment, comedians tow a fine line today. And violence, particularly involving shooting, has become verboten in the world of comedy. I was thinking about this recently when I recalled the lines of a humorous Christmas parody written by my brother-in-law a few decades ago. The song describes the nightmare before Christmas when a parent tries to put together a gift using the English-language-challenged user’s manual. One of the verses goes:
O come, o come and pay the man the bail
And ransom captive Da-a-ad from jail
He got so mad he blew a fuse
His rampage through the store was on the news
With today’s reality of mass shooting after mass shooting, I’m not sure we can joke about people “going postal” anymore.
I think that for the most part, this evolution in comedy is a good thing. Making it socially unacceptable to joke about hurting people or to denigrate someone’s race or gender is, overall, a good thing. But our desire to be “politically correct” can sometimes make us humorless.
Humor is, after all, the juxtaposition of the acceptable and the unacceptable, the normal and bizarre, the right and the wrong. Back in the day, when Henny Youngman said, “Take my wife – please!,” it was a corny but tongue-in-cheek dig at the sacrosanct institution of marriage.
When we take ourselves too seriously, we refuse to see the inconsistencies and hypocrises in our and others’ behavior, in our families, and in our institutions. For example, John Mulaney, a favorite comedian of mine, regularly mocks his Catholic upbringing. While I have grown to appreciate my Catholic faith more and more as I’ve grown older, I recognize the exasperation of a young person sitting through what can sometimes feel like the interminable and pointless rituals of the Mass. And I sense a fondness Mulaney has for his experiences even as he makes fun of them.
In the area of comedy, there will always be people who are offended by a particular skit or remark. As much as I am happy to know that spousal abuse is no longer something to joke about, I hope that we don’t completely lose our sense of irony and humor about the ills of our world. A world without comedy is no laughing matter.