I miss hearing and telling jokes. You went out to lunch and people told funny stories across the table. Same thing at a party. Not all the jokes were so hot. But generally there were laughs, good spirits, and a sense of camaraderie. That’s disappeared.
When is the last time you were at lunch with a group and someone said, “Have you heard any good ones lately?” It was a usual and normal way for people to connect with one another. The strange thing is that this slipped away imperceptibly. It’s gone. And most people don’t realize that it’s not here anymore. Some invisible social-norm-decider is saying,“Don’t tell jokes anymore.”
Basically, stand-up and the idea of what is funny changed from Alan King and Henny Youngman to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, from kid-around-jesters to agitated satirists and social critics.
So what really happened to banish the joke culture? Basically, stand-up and the idea of what is funny changed from Alan King and Henny Youngman to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, from kid-around-jesters to agitated satirists and social critics. Over time, American politics became more raw and divisive and comedy followed that path. Obviously, politics impacts culture. We recently grieved the deaths of Jerry Lewis and Dick Gregory, comics who clearly represented these different styles of comedy.
I don’t mean to romanticize the joke-telling age. There were a lot of bad riddles, knock-knocks, and dirty stories with no point except to bring smut up to the surface. But that was balanced out by stories that were hilarious and somehow telling about the human condition. A round of jokes could relax people and create a climate of warmhearted intimacy and informality. It broke the ice and opened up possibilities of getting into sticky matters. People had permission to show their wacky side. A joke sometimes allowed folks to make a difficult or embarrassing point that was otherwise taboo. Or to show an aspect of themselves they kept hidden—roguishness, intimacy, hostility, affection, eccentricity, among others.
Early on in the 30s and 40s comedy featured radio icons like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, and Red Skelton. There were also Borscht Belt tummlers like Jack Carter, Jackie Miles, Jan Murray, with the early TV Milton Berle thrown in for good measure. Stand-up comedy was a string of quick, bang-bang punch lines and fool-around shtick, without a broader social perspective, and aimed at tickling the rib rather than pricking the mind. There were stories about wives, mothers-in-law, the boss, making out disasters, food, ungrateful children, and silly pitfalls of everyday life. (Many of these would be considered politically incorrect and demeaning now.) Slipping on a banana peel on the sidewalk was a staple of slapstick.
In the 50s and 60s there came mold breakers who saw and unmasked the foibles and injustices of society. Mort Sahl came out of nowhere in his pullover sweater and The New York Times under his arm to ridicule political breaking news. Lenny Bruce pushed the limits on what was acceptable to think about and say on a stage. He crossed over many lines on drugs, sex, religion, politics, and race. Bruce was locked up recurrently by shocked and vindictive cops and had a dramatic and tragic ending fighting for what he saw as his freedom of speech. Those times generated an outcropping of other stand-up political satirizers—Tom Lehrer, Dick Gregory, Nichols and May, Steve Allen, the Smothers Brothers.
Stand-up subsequently expanded further and gained new audiences for hard-hitting criticism, especially the young and rebellious. Think Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Roseanne, and the Saturday Night Live troupe. New venues and media outlets reached widespread viewers. Building on a counterculture base, comedy became more offbeat and dissident. More comics were college-educated, better informed, urbane, and radically inclined.
Moving into the next century, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher became a source of core news information, especially for young people. At the same time though, garden variety stand-up in clubs and at open mikes across the country went downhill, becoming an exercise in crudeness—sex inundated, and non-stop vulgar. Blue, coarse, and dystopian were the name of the game in stand-up—and that also broke into film, TV, theater, and the Internet.
There are few dinner-time family jokes in that. Jack Benny couldn’t have made it through an audition.
So what, indeed, happened to the joke culture we had? In the new climate of comedy, old- fashioned jokes became overshadowed and discarded. Why make people laugh about ordinary things of life when you can stick them in the eye with identity issues, social inequality, and political absurdity.
Sure, there’s more sophistication and social weightiness in the new style of comedy. It has a cutting edge and pushes for greater social awareness. But I really wish the old school had continued and we could have side-by-side comedy forms that include just plain fun and ironic scorn.
By the way, did you hear the joke about the horse with a long face who walked into a bar? That’s me.