There’s a moment in ‘Nob and Nobility’ from Blackadder the Third in which Blackadder walks into the pantry and angrily kicks the cat. When questioned why, Blackadder remarks that “It is the way of the world, Baldrick – the abused always kick downwards. I am annoyed and so I kick the cat, the cat pounces on the mouse, and finally the mouse bites you on the behind… you are last in God’s great chain, Baldrick, unless there’s an earwig around here you’d like to victimise.”
It’s a good joke from a very good comedy series of which I am a big fan – what sensible person isn’t? But it also reflects a worrying trend which has been creeping slowly into comedy since the 1980s and is now a source of great annoyance and vexation. Put simply: why are so many modern comedies so mean-spirited? Why do their derive so much of their humour from belittling people who are less fortunate than ourselves? And if this is a problem, what can be done to rectify it?
A Little History (So to Speak)
Of course this is not the only problem you could single out about modern-day comedy. You could talk about the lack of strong political satire, the persistence of outdated attitudes to women, or the constant regurgitation of old comedy films for blatant commercial gain – a trait so prominent that the film industry is rapidly becoming the nostalgia industry. But for the moment let us concentrate on their seeming mean-spiritedness, or as I like to call it, laughing at the little people (and yes, if you thought this was going to be an article about the comedic potential of dwarfs, please read no further).
As I see it, the general trend in most comedy throughout Western civilisation has been to make fun of those in authority – those who are richer than us, more famous than us, more pompous and self-important than us, and perhaps even more misguidedandr stupid than us. It’s a big generalisation, but then again, telling the history of comedy from the first plays of Aristophanes isn’t going to be possible in the space of one article. So for arguments’ sake (and accuracy’s) let’s stick to the last hundred years of popular culture.
Right up to the 1980s, the iconic comedians, comedies and comic characters in film, TV, radio and theatre all directed the humour up the social ladder – making fun of those in authority or higher status. The great comedians of the silent era created characters which were underdogs, lovable rogues or endearingly troubled loners. Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp was always willing to fight against and send up the powers-that-be, whether to protect an orphan or to get the girl. Harold Lloyd’s ‘glasses’ persona was an ambitious go-getter who got up from every fall – even the near-miss involving the clock tower. Even when Laurel and Hardy were at their stupidest, their misunderstandings were endearing: the trouble they gave to the unscrupulous James Finlayson only served to make us like them more.
The influence of the silent era resounds throughout the mid-20th century. Tommy Cooper is funny because he gets it wrong and you love him for it – only for him to demonstrate his real skill, surprising you every time he gets a trick right. Inspector Clouseau may be utterly incompetent, but you have to admire his determination and self-belief even as he ruins Dreyfuss’ life. Eric Sykes, Norman Wisdom, The Frost Report, Pete and Dud, Monty Python, Derek and Clive… the list goes on and on. Even gross-out comedies are part of this trend, with National Lampoon’s Animal House making us root for disgusting, layabout students because they seem a lot more fun and spirited than the wretched Dean Wormer. The same goes for British creations like The Young Ones and Bottom.
And then, somewhere along the line, things changed. You can’t put your finger on a specific film, or show, or character which caused it, but little by little things have been turned on the head and now the little guys exist to be laughed not with, but at.
We take characters who are flawed, well-meaning human beings and we belittle them, humiliate them and downright destroy them because, frankly, they’re pathetic compared to us. Instead of rooting for Steve Carell in Dinner for Schmucks, he exists only so we can feel glad that we don’t know somebody as stupid as that. We don’t watch The Hangover because the characters are endearing; we watch it because they are morons who deserve to be ridiculed. The same goes for Jackass and Dirty Sanchez, and most of the output of Ricky Gervais. How did this happen?
The problem is not that comedy has gotten darker or edgier, because I welcome both of these trends. You need comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets, Dr. Strangelove or Heathers which push the envelope of what you can joke about, and which make you feel uncomfortable. The problem is that the way in which this darkness and edginess has gone from being a means to illuminate political and social injustice to a mechanism for inflating our egos. Twenty years ago we had Bill Hicks; now we have Frankie Boyle.
Click “next” below to see the four things that are wrong with modern-day comedy and how it can be fixed…
This article was first posted on July 24, 2012