A few years ago, I was given a Muppet Show Season 1 DVD. My expectations—or, rather, recollections, since I first met the Muppets back in 1977—was that I’d see a puppet-based variety show that had aged well in some ways and poorly in others. As with all comedic enterprises, tastes change, and the responses I had as a 5-year-old would surely differ from the ones I have today, what with our newer sensitivities to marginalized felt-based communities and my development of an adult prefrontal cortex. Also, I acknowledge that while the Muppets certainly have cross-generational appeal, the 1970s iteration was more squarely aimed at children, with parents merely invited along for the ride.
So with all these caveats priced into my mental ledger, I went in figuring the puppetry would be creative, the musical numbers would be entertaining, and the jokes would be corny. Well, the puppetry was indeed dazzling and the musical numbers were touching, because how can you screw up Miss Piggy and Gonzo backing up Lena Horne? But corny isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe the jokes, though some of Fozzie Bear’s routines would certainly fall into this category: “What has 100 legs and can’t run? Fifty pairs of pants!” But so many of the laugh lines were really not jokes. By which I mean it’s not that they were bad jokes, obvious jokes, or unsubtle jokes—it’s that they didn’t really qualify as jokes at all. They preceded the canned guffaws of the laugh track but the words weren’t only not funny, they were confusing and often incompetently composed. They were joke-like substance, but they were not jokes.
The most egregious examples of failed attempts at humor came in a regular segment called “At the Dance,” in which different Muppets engaged in a setup/punchline form or just quipped. For instance:
Janice: Will you love me forever?
Zoot: I don’t know. Ask me in a million years.
Or George the janitor to Mildred, his dance partner: “You know, the trouble with kids today is that they don’t know what they want. When I was a kid, I never wanted that.”
The Muppets were attempting comedy but failing so often, in such flat-footed ways, that I concluded the show did not have what we would recognize today as professional comedy writers who could fill an entire episode with minimally acceptable material. True, The Muppet Show may not have been striving for anything more than throwaway gags, but if I were to transcribe dialogue from an “At the Dance” segment, you’d be more likely to peg it as lines from a Clifford Odets play than an attempt at variety show comedy.
The fact is the comedies of two generations ago—whether we’re talking about the Muppets or a prime-time sitcom—were much, much less funny than the average comedy product of today, even allowing for changed sensibilities and cultural references. All this week, on my podcast, The Gist, I am examining where comedy is and where it’s going. Hinted at, though never stated in my five episodes examining improv, screenwriting, stand-up, podcasts, and late-night comedy is the observation that we have gotten much funnier as a people: funnier professionally, funnier personally, and funnier societally. This phenomenon isn’t a purely salutary development.
The best comedies of today are light-years ahead of the cream of yesterday’s crop. This year, there are seven nominees for the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, and with the exception of last year’s winner, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, all contain qualities that past winners couldn’t dream of. The craft of Barry, Fleabag, or Russian Doll is unparalleled. The Good Place works as a treatise on religion and a graduate seminar in philosophy. The political insight of Veep is scathing, and the ramshackle lunacy of Schitt’s Creek is thrilling. Contrast the current cavalcade with 1967, when The Monkees won the Emmy for best comedy series, beating out The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart, and Hogan’s Heroes. Of those shows, only Get Smart, co-created by Mel Brooks, was formally daring. The rest seem enormously stilted, especially compared with what was happening in other art forms like movies, visual art, and music in the late ’60s.
In the 1970s, entire nights of TV programming contained zero comedic content. In 1971–72, neither Sunday nor Tuesday nights had any comedic programming, unless you count the John Byner comedy show that aired in August and a Gene Kelly–hosted sketch show called The Funny Side that NBC aired for a few weeks.
We may fondly remember the era’s great sitcoms, like All in the Family and Maude; we may also feel a nostalgic pang for merely good ones like Happy Days. But generally in the 1970s the prime-time laughs were wanting. Sure, Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975, and comedic films, notably from Mel Brooks, did well at the box office, but as a regular presence, comedy was quite limited. The stand-up boom had yet to happen, and while HBO began airing its Young Comedians specials in 1976, a comedy fan would be bereft of actual comedy more nights than not.
In 2018, there were 495 scripted television shows. A breakdown by genre is hard to find, but the Writers Guild of America lists 86 productions that shoot in New York. Of these, 27 could be considered to fall in the comedy genre—which, if extrapolated across the 495 series, indicates that in 2019 there may be as many as 150 writers rooms staffed with comedy writers.
The point isn’t that anyone is watching 150 comedies, it’s that there are 1,000–1,500 professional comedy writers working in television alone, which is an order of magnitude greater than the TV comedy landscape of a generation or two earlier. Do we really have 10 times as many professionally funny Americans? No. We have way more than that. Because in the 1980s there was no Funny or Die, no College Humor, nor the thousands of improv companies yes and–ing their way into ramshackle theater spaces throughout the land.
More comedy content begets more comedy writers, especially since the funny young people of today have options far beyond the few totems of advanced comedic sensibility of yore. There was a time when every driven funny person in America read Mad magazine as a kid, National Lampoon in their teens and 20s, ate up Monty Python, and later watched every episode of The Simpsons. Today an equally or perhaps even more well-rounded young comedy aficionado can watch those classics, but also go to school on episodes of 30 Rock, Key and Peele, and Arrested Development, not to mention crafting their own content on YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. There is a limitless comedy library in everyone’s pockets, offering easy access to almost every funny moment ever filmed, supplemented by the comedy school of thousands of podcasts committing comedy or commenting upon it.
Your average fan of comedy, or—to invoke a phrase that didn’t exist in the lexicon 20 years ago—a comedy nerd, has a graduate program of comedy knowledge at her fingertips, the likes of which a young Judd Apatow, taping Tonight Show sets with an audio tape recorder in his Syosset, New York, home in 1978 could scarcely dream of.
In the process, we all became funnier. But in real life, that extracts a toll. Agreed-upon “bits” and phrases have become ubiquitous; a kind of comic lingua franca has emerged.
References to large adult sons, the answer being with us the whole time, and, hear me out now, sports ball! get a … well not a laugh, but a smile of in-group recognition. Perhaps my churlishness marks me as history’s greatest monster, or … not so much. Well played, spirit animals, reading the room, playing the long game, and dumpster fires abound. The Mossad did Epstein, Trump did Harambe, see what I did there? Asking for a friend. The presumption of constant whimsy becomes rote.
Are these locutions simply the modern equivalent of the cigar-miming Groucho impression? Are they merely an updated version of every boy in my summer program at Cornell quoting every line from Fletch? Does noting that “the world comes at you pretty fast” up one’s worth as a wit from a D+ to a C-? Having come to a shared agreement that Die Hard is a Christmas movie and a hot dog is a sandwich are sources of, if not laughter, at least a whimsical tongue-in-cheek interest—is that progress? Is this sensibility much different in scale from Letterman-era “irony”? Are rhetorical questions not a personality? I think these repeated lines, and the consensus agreement of their worth, say something. It says we have a baseline comic sensibility that is detached, sarcastic, and shared, but not actually surprising. The agreed-upon humor of the age has the downside of being agreed upon. Laughter is an involuntary response. So, by having signed off on a memorandum of comedic understanding, we’re contradicting the basic processes of actual laughter. Without surprise, there can be no comedy.
And surprise carries risks. Maybe this is why, at a time when comedy is clearly flourishing, cancel culture is being visited upon stand-up comedians who transgress. There are many, many reasons why comedians are being subjected to criticism, fair and unfair, but this is also the kind of oppo research that you’d see on a political campaign. Last week, Shane Gillis, a stand-up who was tapped to be a new cast member of Saturday Night Live, was vetted and discovered to have participated in numerous podcasts and YouTube shows where he made ethnic jokes, including multiple uses of the slur chinks, and to have adopted a stereotypical accent. There was no deeper point or comment being made by use of the slurs, and so his time on SNL ended before it even began.
Like most targets of cancel culture, comedians aren’t usually stripped of their jobs or livelihoods, though that occasionally happens. They are publicly censured, not literally censored. Debate and discussion of jokes is fine, indeed, it is the liberal impulse, but it’s also true that there is a cost to the near-constant paroxysms of outrage over comedy that frequently end with illiberal calls for silencing. To cite some examples of illiberal cancelling: Comedian Dina Hashem was threatened and lost gigs for joking about murdered rapper XXXTentacion; Nimesh Patel had his microphone cut by student organizers at Columbia University because they thought his jokes about race and sexual identity lacked nuance; Marvel Studios originally dropped James Gunn as director of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 after insensitive old tweets were publicized by right-wing activists; Kevin Hart stepped down as Oscars host over protests about old tweets and routines that many considered homophobic.*
Of course, not every punchline is funny or unracist simply by being in the category of attempted joke. Indeed, I don’t really understand what the humor was in Hart’s bits, though the crowd seemed to love it. But the mobs should put down their pitchforks and shepherd’s crooks long enough to consider that comedy is an art form that relies on experimentation, and that comedians aren’t elected officials.
What a time: Jokes are everywhere, as is an insistence that humor offers comfort and uplift, or should only target Trump officials, Logan Paul, or other easy targets of derision. Even the TV shows exemplifying our comedic flourishing, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or The Good Place are based on a fundamental embrace of comedic sentiment in line with the proper progressive attitudes. The protagonists of Fleabag or Russian Doll are complicated, but they’re also charming and charismatic, and when they make mistakes, usually involving the partners they sleep with or the substances they ingest, it is not confrontational television. All the 2019 Emmy nominees for best comedy series are exquisite and hilarious, but they don’t challenge our beliefs. Not really.
Not that best comedy series nominees of the past, like The Flintstones, Batman, and The Beverly Hillbillies, were challenging. But if the current sensibilities were imposed on prior eras, I can think of scads of worthy brilliant material that would never fly, among them: Monty Python’s “Lumberjack” song, Richard Pryor’s word-association test on SNL, the Dudley Moore and Peter Cook albums recorded as Derek and Clive, and many of George Carlin’s musings on topics like the evolution of language from crippled to handicapable.
Comedy is flourishing, so long as it’s nourishing. Uplift is in, putdowns are out—just ask the dying institution of the Dunk Tank Clown. We have bountiful and diverse comedic voices, but also a reluctance to be discomfited by jokes. Let’s not overstate the chill. Every night at the Comedy Cellar, three of the five comics onstage will announce they’re going to touch the third rail, then do it, and usually get a laugh. Anthony Jeselnik is an enormously successful stand-up who does not seem cowed by the veto of the crowd—yet. Sarah Silverman acknowledges that her original persona is not suited to the current time, but she does not seem censored or silent. In the first 15 minutes of his podcast Black on the Air, Larry Wilmore provides insight without fear or favor. These non-canceled practitioners of provocative comedy suggest there is a way to search out the third rail with more caution than they had to deploy even 10 years ago. At the same time, it seems like there is a comedic auto-da-fé every week. The laughs come copiously for the lines that land; the punishment comes swifter for lines that are crossed.
Correction, Sept. 18, 2019: An earlier version of this piece misstated that the Oscars “jettisoned” Kevin Hart as host of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony. In fact, Hart withdrew after protests.