Comedy and the Death of God

By: Joshua Glenn
August 4, 2009

Bob-Newhart-The-Windmills-Are-475373

Hey, PhD students looking for a thesis topic — here’s a freebie. These sketchy notes are inspired by a B&N.com review of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice, by HiLobrow.com friend James Parker.

Parker writes:

The ’60s, of course, were a historic low point for humor. I mean humor of the sort enjoyed by people who aren’t a) tenured or b) high, the sort defined by William James as “common sense, dancing.” Categories, hierarchies, proprieties, the basic intuitions of mankind as to its own status and destiny — those things on which humor has traditionally depended were suddenly up in the air, and while there was plenty of inane and liberated laughter to be heard, the sound of the authentic assenting chuckle, of the joke being solidly got, almost died away.

It’s difficult to disagree. Particularly if you agree with me that the Sixties (not to be confused with the 1960s) ran from 1964-73. It’s difficult to disagree, anyway, when you think of humorists whose sensibilities were formed during the Sixties; humorists already in their prime — that is, in their 30s and 40s — during the Sixties are another story.

The following members of the Postmodern Generation were in their 30s and 40s during the Sixties: Johnny Carson, Art Buchwald, Jerry Lewis (who made brilliant movies in the late Fifties, then stopped in ’64 — more evidence that my periodization scheme is correct), Don Rickles, Mel Brooks (whose great movies, with the exception of The Producers, begin in ’74 — more evidence), Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Jackie Mason, Dick Gregory, Carol Burnett, Stan Freberg; the Mad Magazine folks (Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Don Martin); plus Jules Feiffer, Tom Wolfe. Humorous novelists? Philip K. Dick (in spots), John Barth (sometimes), Donald Barthelme (ditto), Philip Roth (for sure).

The Postmoderns incorporated the death of comedy into their work. (Art Spiegelman said, of Mad Magazine: “The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically… ‘Think for yourselves, kids.'”) Collectively, they’re like Nietzsche’s madman who announces in the public square that God is dead. After them, everyone is doing humor in the void.

mad+1968

What Parker says about Pynchon is, by and large, true of humorists who were in their 20s and 30s in the Sixties:

Was everything meaningful, or nothing at all? Ah, that was the gag, the cosmic put-on, expressible only via cracked puns and the smirk of satori. Pynchon danced upon this pinhead with an insistent nimbleness: whose fictional world signified more compulsively and indiscriminately than his, the significance itself being quite beside the point? The quasi-allegorical names (Floyd Haruspex, Dichotomy Jones, Dr Whitewhale — to make up a few in the Pynchonian vein), the veiled acronymic entities (WASTE, IGLOO) that might be gangs or priesthoods or think-tanks, the omnivore’s digressions into science and pop culture, the fluorescent landscape, the sense of bottomless and undiscoverable conspiracy — for a setup this elaborate, no earthly, or indeed celestial, punch line was possible.

The following humorists are members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation, which is to say they were in their 20s and 30s in the Sixties: George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, the National Lampoon gang (Tony Hendra, Michael O’Donoghue, Chris Miller). Novelists whom I consider funny: Don DeLillo, John Kennedy Toole, Kesey (heavy handed), Pynchon, McGuane, and Hunter S. Thompson. Other funny people from this generation: Woody Allen, R. Crumb, Abbie Hoffman, George W.S. Trow, Bob Dylan. Alan Arkin.

Infamous 1973 <em>National Lampoon</em> — last gasp of the Sixties
Infamous 1973 National Lampoon — last gasp of the Sixties

Interestingly enough, Anti-Anti novelists like DeLillo, Kesey, Wambaugh, Pynchon, McGuane, Toole, and Thompson are more hopeful than are certain members of the Postmodern generation — like Updike and Cormac McCarthy (neither of whom is postmodernist). More hopeful, that is, about the possibility of a radically improved social order or American way of life emerging at some point, even if they’re (understandably) unwilling to articulate what that order might look like, except in negative ways. Many Postmoderns lack (and mock/mourn) the virile can-do spirit of some of their immediate predecessors; and their protagonists are beset with anxiety-provoking tensions, uncertainties, paradoxes that can never be resolved. It’s the kind of thing that makes Woody Allen, say, funnier than Jules Feiffer.

And what of Boomer humorists, who — more than anyone — had their sensibilities formed by the Sixties? They tend very much to the fey and absurdist and bleakly satirical: David Lynch, Bill Griffith, underground cartoonists, John Carpenter, David Byrne, Andy Kaufman, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Martin. The original Saturday Night Live cast. Wacky Packages. But of course Parker’s pronunciamento doesn’t include the Boomers, who were in their teens and 20s during the Sixties — that is, they were in the audience.

***

HUMORISTS at HILOBROW: Michael O’Donoghue | Jemaine Clement | Andy Kaufman | Danny Kaye | George Ade | Jimmy Durante | Jack Benny | Aziz Ansari | Don Rickles | Godfrey Cambridge | Eric Idle | David Cross | Stewart Lee | Samuel Beckett | Jerry Lewis | Joanna Lumley | Jerome K. Jerome | Phil Silvers | Edward Lear | Tony Hancock | George Carlin | Stephen Colbert | Tina Fey | Keith Allen | Russell Brand | Michael Cera | Stan Laurel | Ricky Gervais | Gilda Radner | Larry David | Chris Pontius | Dave Chappelle | Jimmy Finlayson | Paul Reubens | Peter Sellers | Buster Keaton | Flann O’Brien | Lenny Bruce | Sacha Baron Cohen | Steve Coogan | PG Wodehouse | A.J. Liebling | Curly Howard | Fran Lebowitz | Charlie Kaufman | Stephen Merchant | Richard Pryor | James Thurber | Bill Hicks | ALSO: Comedy and the Death of God

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What do you think?

  1. Dude, I love the fresh post, but I feel the argument slipping out of my brain’s clumsy grasp; it’s too subtle for me! I don’t have sufficient knowledge of half or more of the comics, novelists, and cartoonists you instance to call their differences adequately to mind. It’s like my language only has two color terms, and you’ve just handed me the whole box of crayolas. I’d love some examples of work that get at the shifts you’re talking about. Via youtube &c., a color wheel of postwar humor? Also, there’s stuff in some of the manifesto work we’ve done about kinds of laughter (hollow, bitter, &c.); how does this map onto that?

  2. Much as we’d like to be free of the cultural dictates of our predecessors, there are some things we should keep! Laughing at the void/in a void is one of them, the dual nature of Absurd/absurd. Existentialism is funny! Nietzsche, Joseph Beuys – hilarious. Srsly. I am less concerned with the taxonomy than the idea that humor is, or can be, a potent philosophical tool, which may be old news in some quarters but is still new news in others.

  3. Well, like I said, these are just notes toward a thesis. I’m hoping someone else will write it, and provide all the examples. I did grow up with my father’s comedy albums and books — Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce. And I educated myself at the Harvard Square Cinema, as a teenager, watching endless triple features of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and Peter Sellers movies. And the novels I most enjoy are funny ones, you already know that. But I’m not a scholar of this stuff, just an amateur enthusiast!

    I (think I) agree with James Parker and William James (the James Gang) that most humour is “common sense, dancing.” Highbrow and Lowbrow together define common sense, or to quote James Parker, “categories, hierarchies, proprieties, the basic intuitions of mankind as to its own status and destiny.” Most (though not all) comedy until midcentury was pretty much this sort of thing.

    Then comedy slowly started to go anti-highbrow, and anti-lowbrow, and even nobrow. In 1941-45, while hiding from the Nazis, Samuel Beckett wrote “Watt,” in which the servant Erskine philosophizes about three types of unhumorous laughter. “The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! — so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs — silence please — at that which is unhappy.”

    Right! The intellectual Anti-Lowbrow laughs hollowly (snobbishly, snarkily) at Low Middlebrow, whose sentimental, cobbled-together worldview is bogus. And the ethical Anti-Highbrow laughs bitterly (reverse-snobbishly) at High Middlebrow, which so earnestly tries to uplift the lowbrows.

    National Lampoon was all about mocking the High Middlebrows — the intellectuals and their fads, including their slumming forays into lowbrow culture. Don DeLillo poking fun at the American Studies scholars in the supermarket (“White Noise”) is an example of this kind of humor. Woody Allen’s first movies are a satirical catalog of High Middlebrow cultural fads. Naturally, the audience for this sort of thing is a High Middlebrow audience. Interesting to think of these humorists as practicing an ethical, not intellectual brand of comedy, but I think that’s right.

    The Fifties were more about intellectual comedy, generally — mocking not intellectuals, that is, but the low-middlebrow culture which was so triumphant in that era. (Disney being the main example; before Aunt Oprah we had Uncle Walt.) Low Middlebrow is all about calculating cuteness, pseudo-eccentricity, and advertised individuality; its entertainments are commodified, quaint, cutesy. This is the sort of culture that Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, and Mad Magazine torpedoed with their grotesqueries. Philip K. Dick regarded Disney and Barbie dolls and the like with politicized gnostic horror; so did T.W. Adorno — as evidence by his line about how duped Americans “call for Mickey Rooney in preference to the tragic Garbo, for Donald Duck instead of Betty Boop.” Now, there was a guy able to distinguish between homemade, eccentric lowbrow cultural products (charming) and the low-middlebrow culture industry’s creepy output.

    Whence the mirthless laugh? Call it: Nobrow. (Which is uncannily close to Hilobrow, about which form of humor I’m not going to say anything yet.) Beckett was writing proleptically, because although Jarry, Breton (who edited a collection of “black humor”), and a handful of others were nobrow (or hilobrow) humorists, “humour noir” didn’t go mainstream until the Seventies. That was the Boomers’ brand of humor — but Nobrow is so easily adopted and coopted by Middlebrow. Just look at what’s happened to Steve Martin and Bill Murray. John Belushi and Andy Kaufman, in no small part because they died young, are their generation’s avatars of Nobrow.

    So Beckett, in the Forties, was predicting the generationally specific humor styles of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. Amazing!

  4. There’s a distinct lack of ladies on the list — is it because women had fewer opportunities to be taken, well, not seriously per se, but to be experienced as comedians?

    The only woman in my dad’s collection of comedy from that era was Anna Russell, and she’s very specialized; you have to be familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan to get why her parody is so spot-on.

  5. I think the short answer is yes, Sara.

    There were women members of the Saturday Night Live cast, of course, and there was Laugh-In. Diane Keaton, Madeline Kahn, etc., if you want to list actresses in funny movies. I do mention Burnett.

    Take a look at this list, readers, and see if you want to champion someone on it as an important Sixties humorist.

    My father liked Nichols & May quite a bit — but their act never did much for me.

  6. Anna Russell sounds fun. Next stop, YouTube.

    Nichols/May = High Middlebrow?

    And Josh, you *are* a scholar of this stuff. 20th century American comedy needs its Greil Marcus.

  7. I do think Nichols is mostly middlebrow – esp. his directing work. Carnal Knowledge (maybe Peggy will tell me I’m wrong about this one?), Regarding Henry, stuff like that. You can learn a lot about Middlebrow, actually, by watching his movies.

    I wouldn’t want to write this thesis, Matthew, because to analyze comedy is to destroy it, right?

  8. Frank Tashlin probably deserves more credit for the media satire you’re attributing to Jerry Lewis.

    You seem to elide past The Producers because it’s inconvenient for your theory, but it’s a key text to sixties comedy.

    I don’t disagree with the general point that James Parker makes about the assault on hierarchies depriving sixties comedy of leverage. But I think you’re unfairly limiting the scope to American work.

    British comedy in the sixties was vital, particularly the generation influenced The Goon Show: Beyond the Fringe, all the pre-Monty Python projects that employed Cleese, Idle, Palin et al. (The Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show, Do Not Adjust Your Set [which had the Bonzo Dog Band for musical interludes], How to Irritate People). These were all the direct heirs of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers.

    Sellers is an enormously important figure in sixties comedy. (It was his patronage which got The Producers released.)

    Back to the International point, I’d also nominate Shohei Imamura’s sixties film The Pornographers (1966).

    Though it could be argued that Britain and Japan were both still beholden to notions of propriety later into the sixties than was true of the U.S.

    As for the question of women in comedy in the sixties, my general impression is that the evolution of women’s rights through that era was so fraught that it didn’t seem funny.

    Comedy in the fifties and sixties is much more sexist than it was in the forties and thirties. (The weird sexual politics in sitcoms like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie are direct middlebrow responses. The deep need to suppress female power *because* it diminishes male authority.)

    This is true into the seventies as well. I think what I notice is that you see talented women comic actors who are slotted into a small niches in the sixties and seventies, who would have been huge stars in the thirties and forties. I’m thinking particularly of Madelaine Kahn and Carol Kane who had the chops to be Carole Lombard/Claudette Colbert/Barbara Stanwyck (screwball edition) level stars.

  9. “to analyze comedy is to destroy it, right?”

    never!

    where the middlebrow palters, the hilobrow rushes in, unafraid to analyze comedy, criticize music, dance about architecture, ride bicycles with his fish, all that shit.

  10. Of course you’re right, James! Cursed Middlebrow — always finding a way to make us critics internalize arguments against the very possibility of criticism.

  11. PS: David and Luc make good points, and I thought I’d replied. But I don’t see my comment here! Another time, then…

  12. Thanks for this. The question you seem to offer is regarding the boomer humorists – those ‘in the audience’ during the 60s. I think your tenuously-offered thesis seems to hold true to the extent see here…

    The absurdity explored by Kaufman, Steve Martin’s stand-up, and early SNL cast members like Murray & Belushi (Akyroyd’s carnival-barker-like qualities something distinguishing in a cast that seems to have been known in retrospect more for its whirlwinds like Belushi) does seem to nod to this idea.

    The high pitch of the absurdity they took on is a sort of dense smoke screen- the more inscrutable, the more one wondered who they “really are.”

    The mind hypothesizes: the comedic outlook at the time may’ve been relatively bleak, growing up in a place where the familiar was being undermined (humor’s usual battle) culturally, already – perhaps sending some of their lances tilting towards life and logic itself, the “third-way” of absurdity.

  13. Addendum- Agreed with DavidS about the significance of British humor in the 60’s. I’m anything but a scholar in it, but it did seem to ‘break out’ during the period, obviously with Monty Python, but the (as mentioned) Sellers and satirist Peter Cook (who, when satirizing PM Macmillian during an early show, spotted him in the audience, “departed from his script and directly attacked him verbally.”)

  14. We recently ran an item on the influential Anti-Anti-Utopian humorist Michael O’Donoghue. His books “The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist”, a graphic novel drawn by Frank Springer and published by Grove Press in 1968 (it was first serialized in Evergreen Review), and “The Incredible, Thrilling Adventures of the Rock” (1968) are very much about poking fun at High Middlebrow’s affectation of edgy sophistication. O’Donoghue falls into the Anti-Highbrow camp, which is a particularly fascinating disposition.

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