BACK   BACK to the Columnist INDEX ARCHIVE
 
DAN FRENCH has an M.A. in Rhetoric, and a Ph.D. in Media Studies, but don't let that fool you. And he still hasn't mailed us an 8 X 10.

Vist Dan's site, FunnyPlanet.com!
Dan French
Archived

The original "What Works"
"Tom Kenney"

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
TV Development


"Whose Line is it Anyway?"
French's gag in a Quote-A-Crostic!


"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
TV Programming


"Your Showcase Set"
How to craft an L.A.-ready set


"The Clogged Drain of Comedy"
Who belongs on the stage? Comedy in L.A.


"Torture"
Why move to L.A.?


"Good Side/Bad Side"
What does comedy mean to a culture, post-911?


"Management"
What should a manager do?


"Standup on TV"
What does TV want?


"Cash for Words"
Writing for dollars


"Stoking the Joke Machine"
Writing for a living


"Screenwriting for Standup Comics"
Just what it says


"Random Realizations"
Wisdom born of experience


"P.O.V."
Casting Season in L.A.


"Ladies & Gentlemen: A Job"
Working at Best Damn Sports Show Period


"LA Freefall for All"
It happens to everyone: Freefall!


"Hollywood or Bust"
How to change to succeed in L.A.


"How Edgy"
Column #2


"How Hip"
Column #3


"Who Writes Your Stuff?"
Why don't comics ask for help?


"The Art of Standup"
What would we gain by "turning up the art"


"Christmas Wish List"
Holiday column


"Getting Exercised"
A writing exercise


"High Octane"
Road vs. L.A., Monologist vs. Performer


"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
Television Programmers


"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
Television Production and Development


"Castle Breached"
Working at Late Late Show, Network television gig!


"I Like LA"
The third of five columns on writing comedy for money


"Hollywod Carousel"
Between BDSSP and Late Late Show, what I learned




 

Good Side/Bad Side

    Comedy took a hit on Sept. 11. A strange, difficult-to-explain kind of wounding that is going to require some time and intellectual surgery to set right again.

    Not long after the attacks on the World Trade Center, someone cut the power to the mikes. The comedy trains didnít even run.

    It seemed like the culture as a collective said they just didnít want to hear that shit.

    The instant national silence imposed on comedy brings up an essential question, maybe one we donít try to answer when times are good, but which we must if we are to hold on to the free speech rights that let us say whatever we want instead of being reduced to clown makeup and happy puppets.

    The question: What does comedy do for a culture?

    I donít even want to hear the trivial responses, the bullshit clichť that "people need to laugh now more than ever." Thatís trite and untrue. There are times, often long periods of time, when humans donít need to laugh, where laughter is at best immature and hollow and at worst insensitive and inhumane, trivializing and distracting. Do you want a clown sitting next to you at your fatherís funeral, poking you in the ribs and blowing his fucking horn? And Iím not asking for your joke answer, but your real one.

    What does comedy really do for, or to, a culture?

    Neil Postman wrote a book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," in which he argued our entertainment makes us unable to stomach the truly important work of life, that it distracts us from what is important. In this perspective comedians are one of a multitude of voices that crowd into the public forum known as The Media, along with newscasters, politicians, academics, preachers, writers, singers, actors, and whoever else can shoulder their way through the doors and clamor their way to the microphone. In this view, comedians, even well-intentioned comedians, are basically hired by the capitalist system in order to yap in ways that keep the audience happy and stupid, both of which are essential characteristics of a money-flow culture that wants us to buy, not think, to vote for what weíre offered instead of wondering why weíre only offered the same simpering choices year after year. In other words, when we spend most of our time listening to chirpy talk, we donít have the energy or ability to listen to truly penetrating, important talk.

    So comedy harms the culture by distracting us from important activity. Thatís one possibility. And if you look at just how much of their lives and brains that "ordinary" people fill up with media pap, itís a very real possibility.

    On the other hand, Kenneth Burke wrote a book called "Attitudes Toward History" in which he says that comedy is a cultureís greatest achievement. That all cultures strive to get so relaxed and fulfilled that they can take time to indulge and explore their humor. He says also that comedy is the only system that sees through all things without any reverence for what is in its gaze, and because of this it is like linguistic DNA, you canít ever predict what it will create. And he believes that the comic interpretation of life is ultimately the only one that bonds us together, that only comedy is optimistic enough to keep us all off the edge of the abyss.

    So for Burke comedy breaks open untruth, keeps us fluid and searching, keeps us constantly discovering, and encourages us to enjoy each other rather than blame and try to kill each other.

    So which view is true? Comedy with good behind the laughing mask, comedy with bad behind the laughing mask?

    Iíd love to say Burke is truer, because I am in the comic world, but itís more complex than that. Burke wasnít talking about comedy in a media-saturated culture where humor crawls like kudzu onto every living thing, where we hear the Lenoís and Lettermans yapping away within minutes of nearly ever single important political or social event in our world. Burke wasnít defending a comedy that had to keep sponsors happy, or that was edited and super-sold by mega-corporations.

    On the other hand, the proliferation of comedy made possible by a capitalist media is sure to escape even the control of the corporations. Somewhere inside all of this verbal chaos there are good things being said, and if you want to find them you can. Without the media you wouldnít ever have so many options.

    Hereís what I think the answer is, and it again this comes from another writer. A Russian philosopher named Mikhail Bakhtin says in "The Dialogic Imagination" that all human activity is dialogue, that at our core we are simply a conversation going on that will never remain stable or predictable. For Bakhtin, comedy is a voice of response. It grows up and exists in relationship to what already is. Comedy is a response to an individual, or a philosophy, or a worldview, or a culture. It morphs and changes according to who is speaking. No matter what is dominating the airwaves at the moment, comedy is simply awaiting its turn to speak the opposite.

    In this view comedy is ultimately pluralistic, it is necessarily a hodgepodge of good and bad because it will respond to whatever is said, be it good or bad. Comedy thus has limitless variations and multiple functions. Itís an undirected symphony that can be cruel or gentle, barbaric or mannered. It can help or hinder, be artistic or base. You canít predict it because it responds to so many voices.

    So if comedy is a voice of response, itís possible to say that the last decade in America was marked by peace and the end of the cold war, and so comedy has largely been mean-spirited, indulging our darker side, fully licensed to explode taboos and run amok because the culture wasnít haunted or threatened by any immediately looming evil. Because things were settled comedy has been unsettling.

    But what now? What does comedy become now, after the attacks on the WTC?

    The question canít be answered until we see what the culture becomes. If we lurch into a brooding conservativism-- retrenching to core "values," stiffening the military, giving up freedoms, being scared of the boogeyman, wanting the stern father to keep us all in line-- then maybe comedy will soften and weíll see a return of the Cosby-esque sweethearts who make us feel good with their innocence and their life energy.

    If the big media machine keeps rolling along telling us life is good and buy, buy, buy (all those happy, happy commercials), then comics will necessarily have to keep using their black markers to deface the smiles on the billboards.

    Where are my bets?

    Iím betting the "feel good and buy" culture wins again. Itís already trying to win, as George Bush tells us to go on with our normal lives and that the economy is "sound." His people know that if Americans get scared and stop spending we are going to have a very hard time funding the "war against terrorism."

    I have no doubts that comedy will ramp up again, fully and just as disharmoniously as ever. It will be just as open to all voices, both petty and cruel, inane and insightful, ignorant and antagonistic. The consumption culture needs all of that constant banter. It needs people to be distracted and chirpy, and thatís where comics excel.

    And I have no doubt that within all of that swirling, petty talk, there will be comics who will spin out some crystal insight that brings things together and gives us cause to pause and look at what is happening around us in a different way. * *

    Oh, just as an add-on, because I like lists, here are arguments on both sides about whether comedy is a good thing or a bad. Maybe some of these fragments will help you argue with the reactionaries as to why comedy needs to continue, unhindered and free to tell as many "Bush is still an idiot" jokes as it wants. Add in where ye may.

    Good side

  • Comedy encourages honesty, truth; is a truth finder, truth teller
  • Comedy encourages different thought, ideas, new configurations on old stuff
  • Comedy breaks down taboos that repress us in unhealthy ways
  • Comedy attacks power, debunks, satirizes powers that be, mores, morals, structures
  • Comedy encourages change, fluidity
  • Comedy is high art, difficult, complex, interesting
  • Comedy can align with other forms to uplift, inspire
  • People actually listen to comedy
  • Comedy is a way to temporarily escape, or not so temporarily
  • Comedy is deeply human, we have no choice in the matter, weíre going to laugh
  • Comedy keeps capitalism humming
  • Humor is forgiving, social, celebrational, bonding
  • Comedy is inherently trivial, and that is its appeal and genius, it doesnít have to accomplish anything, isnít caught in the modernist dictum that everything must have the illusion of progress, is simple motion, not action; donít mix weightier things in it, or at least donít expect that they are real in the mix
  • Comedy is art; language- based art; play with morality art; play with restrictive energy art
  • Comedy forgives; it doesnít paralyze life by seeing only the serious
  • Comedy is aligned with play, and play is generative

    Bad side

  • Comedy trivializes human experience
  • Professional comedy takes humor out of life and into a capitalized media
  • Comedy makes it hard to believe in anything, be wholehearted, is cynical
  • Comedy gets in the gears, gums up the normal working of the world
  • Comedy is inherently shallow
  • Comedy tears down, isnít much good at building back up
  • Comedy stereotypes, typifies, makes easy judgments
  • Comedy creates psychological distance between us and those we laugh at
  • Temporary escapes are distracting, false, keep us misdirected
  • The village idiot is a scapegoat, the fool is executed for speaking
  • Comedy is low art
  • Comedy doesnít build, it reacts, tears at, disrupts
  • Comedy has no hierarchy of truth, it allows no structure, it is anti-structure
  • Comedy is too easily replicated, too pastiche




  SHECKYmagazine.com HOME Back to the Top