I go through these weird periods of obsession. Just various and sundry odd things that I think about constantly for about six months at a time and then move on to the next. It’s one of my less charming quirks. Lately I’ve been kind of preoccupied with comedy. Which felt new and exciting and different until I realized that this has happened before. It’s not amnesia or anything. I mean, I hope not. If I’ve got selective cultural amnesia, you’d think I would at least do myself the courtesy of forgetting about the Bush administration. Or Chumbawamba.
When I was a kid, it was the 1980′s. Which, in America, was the heart of the standup comedy boom, back before all those folks got their own sitcoms. My family’s somewhat musically inclined, so when we got cable we watched a lot of VH1 (which, if you’ll recall your prehistory, actually stands for Video Hits One, from those dinosaur days of honest-to-God music videos, or short films set to music for those of you who really don’t know). VH1 had a lot of standup stuff in their lineup back in the day, and aired a lot of weird comedy shows. This is before reality television, you understand. Also, HBO had a shit ton of comedy going on back then. Whole marathons of one-hour standup specials on the weekends. So, there was comedy in my house, whether I was paying it much attention or not.
Around about high school I started listening to comedy albums pretty heavily. I had Steve Martin and George Carlin on vinyl. Although, to my discredit, that was probably just because I really love vinyl. And then came Bill Hicks. Oh, how I fell ass-over-teakettle in love with Bill Hicks. I can recite his Philosophy album word for word. When you’re that age, you tend to glom on to people who express ideas that are similar to your own, especially when your ideas are what make you feel really out of place in your community. You know, like how it feels being smart and skeptical in a small, Christian, southern town. I also had a pretty intense love for Janeane Garofalo. Smart, snarky, pretty brunette with glasses and a successful career telling people exactly what she thought? That is definitely role model material. Also Daria. I think I may actually be Daria. But I’m not sure. There was some other weird comedy shit going on in the 90′s, too, though I don’t think I was quite old enough to have a lot of it on my radar. The State, Kids in the Hall, Mad TV, Mr. Show. That transition from traditional standup to alternative comedy was a strange time. (If I were just a couple of years older, I’d be a much cooler person. I got the ass end of the 90′s, honestly.)
Fast forward to this winter, when I was trapped indoors and decided to start this blog just to get the writery demons out of my head. Through a weird chain of events and link-clicking on the interwebs, I found myself listening to a lot of comedy again. Obviously my tastes have changed since my high school comedy obsession period. But why? That’s what’s been tickling the old brain buttons lately. And now I’m trapped in this hideous tangle of existential comedy questions. What is funny? Why is it funny? And why are things that I found funny fifteen years ago not funny anymore (putting aside the obvious fact that teenagers are sociopaths)?
It’s so subjective and weird, the idea of comedy. The things that I find funny are exactly the kinds of things that shouldn’t be funny. Religion, politics, human behavior. These are heavy, heady issues, right? I’m not making that up, am I? To be able to take those things and our psychological or cultural reactions to them, turn them over, show us how they work and why they’re fucked up, and then laugh about it – I’m not sure that normal humans do that. But through some mutation in the awesome gland we’ve evolved to a point as a species where we have comics to show us how. And thank the giggle gods, because if you can’t laugh at yourself you’re fucking useless, frankly. I do this whole tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecation thing because I have low self-esteem due to years of systematic bullying and social isolation. And as fun as that is, it’s not turned itself into a marketable skill. Comedians are ninjas at exactly that, at analyzing their own behavior and the foibles of others. Really neurotic mirrors for society, these people. The good ones, at least.
Alright, alright, that’s not true. Let’s not be one-sided here. I guess this is still America. You’ve got to pander to the masses. Which is how that collection of redneck-exploiting idiots made a bajillion dollars off of “Git ‘er done” and other cerebral quips, and that racist jackass with the puppets is still going strong. Representing the majority is important, too. How else are most of these people supposed to make any money? Comedy is hard. It’s a stupid hard life that they choose for themselves, living out of a suitcase for the sake of inviting rejection from strangers night after night. I salute the balls it takes to do that, for real. I just think that a lot of it is not funny. That’s kind of my point. I don’t think fart jokes are funny, either. Or slapstick. But somebody does, which is why that shit still gets made. Contrarily, when comedians from the other end of the spectrum get close to some touchy subject like God or abortion or (every few years) an election they get told by the vast majority that they’re going to burn in some special hell for commie pinko atheist scum (what does “pinko” even mean, you guys, seriously?). The American masses are so easily offended when you try to pet their sacred cows. It’s like (in comedy as well as every other arena) there are two Americas: a smaller one living in the huge, overarching shadow of the other, struggling to get by with just our logic and secular humanism. And down here in the Neverwhere gloom we few still think Bill Hicks is a goddamned genius. Bring on the hatemail, I’m totally ready.