Comedy Criticism: Is It Possible?

This morning, on his Facebook page, Chris White asked the following question: “There is really a stunning lack of thoughtful comedy criticism in America. Anyone have a theory as to why?” Being both a theory geek and a comedy geek, I tried to provide a few reasons why. Here’s my reply:

“First, it’s intimidating to attempt criticism of this sort when the very artifacts of the medium itself have such a short shelf life. Jokes are contextual and temporal, and even premises of some movies and sketches are sometimes based in something that’s here one minute, gone the next.

Second, criticism sometimes seems useless in the face of what comedians would say is the only criticism that matters: the laughter of the audience. Orwell once said something to the effect of “there is no argument by which one can defend a poem. A poem defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.” Perhaps the same thing applies to comedy: there is no argument by which one can defend (or criticize) a joke/premise/sketch/movie, etc. A joke defends itself by getting laughs, period. And perhaps here’s the best place to cart out that old saw about how analyzing a joke is like dissecting a frog.

Third, “criticism” implies a theoretical and historical understanding of the genre, and that’s damned hard to come by. I’ve got plenty of books on the history and theory of comedy on my bookshelf, and you don’t bring these with you to the beach. Let’s also add here how most audiences (and even comedians, God love ‘em) are woefully ignorant of the history of the genre they are confronting or working in. Bill Maher should send a royalty check to Mort Sahl every time he opens his mouth, since Mort invented what he’s doing, but I’m not sure Maher’s audiences, or even Maher, knows that. A lot of us grew up on (and still annoy each other to this day with quotes from) Monty Python, but how many of us know that, before the Pythons came along, post-War British satire sprang fully formed from the minds of people like Spike Milligan and Peter Cook the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus? Criticism implies placing the work of today within this context, and because of the temporal aspect of this medium, sometimes just doesn’t seem worth it or all that useful. This is not to say that I, personally, being the geek that I am, wouldn’t mind reading (or even crafting myself) a historical perspective on comedy, one that tries to answer a question most of us have asked: why are certain things/perspectives/genres funny in one historical place and time, and nowhere else? Why do Mark Twain/Laurel and Hardy/Preston Sturges last, while vaudeville doesn’t? This is also the kind of thing that comedy criticism could answer, but sadly, probably won’t get around to.”

Any additional comments, thoughts? Any reasons I’m forgetting? I welcome your comments.


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5 responses to “Comedy Criticism: Is It Possible?

  1. Dawn E.

    Very thoughtful Shawn. The comparison to comedy and poetry seem to me to be spot-on. My history of comedy seems confined to Lysistrata–what I learned in college. And then, I seem to jump to the 20th century and only know a few early figures and the rest are resigned to what I’ve grown-up with. I recently watched a documentary on African-American comedians on HBO–but it seemed a little skewed but the interviews were interesting. Have you seen it? Curious to know what your take on it is. You should write an informed history–I would buy it and read it.

    • Shawn Westfall

      Dawn — haven’t seen the documentary, but I’ll definitely look for it.

      What I do find interesting about the relationship between comedy’s lengthy history and contemporary products is how frequently writers have been turning back to Shakespeare and Johnsson and other classical literature for comedic inspiration. “Ten Things I Hate About You” is an updated version of “Taming of the Shrew,” for example, and all those Jane Austen fans immediately recognized “Clueless” as a re-envisioning of “Emma.”

  2. Dave Rockwell

    I would clarify comedy is tied not only to the moment but also to cultural history. For example, despite that fact the Napoleon is no longer politically viable, specifically noted as “long DEAD”, we continue to taunt him about his height. The truth of the matter of his height is secondary to our delight in knocking the image of a powerful figure down a peg. Improv comics need do nothing more than slide their hands in their imaginary vests and drop to their knees to have people rolling in the aisles during a show (in context for the game or scene they are doing). Is anti-Napoleonic sentiment driving our populist humor agenda? No, getting at “the man” though veiled attacks on iconoclastic figures is driving factor in the laugh.

    This argument does seem to hint at the possibility for criticism of comedy. However the value of this activity is suspect (and probably should be applied to movies as well). You dutifully note that criticism of comedy is “useless in the face of what comedians would say is the only criticism that matters: the laughter of the audience.” Comedy is really in relationship between the comedian and the audience. Criticism of the comedy itself runs the risk of indicting the audience themselves. I think we’ve all seen a comic that we didn’t think was funny but who seems to truly connect with his/her audience in a way that was counter to our thoughts on the performance. Either everyone else in the room is stupid (not impossible) or the context of the performance just isn’t in line with our expectations for entertainment.

    The true and lasting criticism of comedy is probably best shown directly in how it impacts the audience in their attitudes and attendance. Culturally, if a need is being addressed, it will draw its own fan base and get its own message out. Even if that message is “Dudes be crazy” or a geopolitical message that takes “the man” down a peg.

    Look at timeless comedy and you probably have the area of the genre that is most open to true intellectual criticism and debate. Otherwise it probably best to let comedy just be comedy. In that context, we should invert Sigmund Freud’s quote that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” to remind us that “sometimes a cigar is a dick joke”. Comedy in the end will critique itself.

    • Shawn Westfall

      Dave, you’re right about the audience being implicated in criticism, but that’s the way it’s always been, no matter what the genre. Eliot said the function of a critic is to refine or correct the taste and sensibilities of his or her age, which implies that the critic has weighed his age’s tastes in the balance and found them wanting. So a critic of comedy would be doing something that isn’t really all that different from what art/literature/music critics are doing.

      I’m not, however, saying I don’t agree with you about the limits of criticism in comedy. There are some. It’s difficult to deny the pleasure of laughter, no matter how much a “critic” may disagree intellectually with what an audience is laughing at. That said, I think that you’re on to something when you talk about the the timeless comedy. It takes a critical sensibility, I think, to identify not only that timelessness, but also why its remained timeless–which implies understanding the historical context you talk about in your first paragraph. A critic could then survey the comedic landscape of today and see any analogies between the comedic past and the comedic present, and then parse the nuanced way the current scene is updating old genres. I’d find that useful, and I think others would, too.

  3. Shawn Westfall

    Over on his FB page, Chris replied:

    If you’re accepting comedy as an “art,” then laughter alone isn’t a good metric. A lot of people like Ke$ha, but it’s not “good music.”

    Isn’t the value in criticism helping people to a) choose from a diverse marketplace and b) get maximum enjoyment out of their time? If people are spending hours to watch a show or $40 to see someone in a theater, it’s surprising to me that there isn’t more substantial analysis of stand-up.

    I think part of the problem might be the wide gap between afficionados and casual consumers. If you watch enough comedy and you start to recognize patterns, you appreciate that many “hilarious” people aren’t actually that originial or interesting; they become less funny to you. If you go to see only two shows a year, then you really don’t care if what you’re seeing is “the best.”

    I followed up with the following:

    @ Chris I think you’re absolutely spot-on when about the value of this kind of criticism. And you’re right again about the casual consumer v aficianado. I think people forget that in most cases critics of a certain genre start out as fans. I mean, what was Lester Bangs if not the most passionate fan of rock music who ever lived masquerading as a writer for “Creem?” He took rock music seriously, and if he leveled any adversarial criticism or disapprobation at the bands he wrote about, it was because he felt *they* didn’t take it seriously. But another reason just occurred to me: again, we’re dealing with comedians, and who wants to start blogging about why Comedian X sucks or why Comedian Y is underestimated or why Comedian A is actually doing something unprecedented that no one’s paying attention to him and he’s not getting any laughs? I mean, who wants to enter that nest of vipers? What’s the old saying about getting upset with newspaper editors? That you don’t get into arguments with people who buy ink by the barrel? Well, by turn, its probably not advisable to get into a pissing contest with someone who has frequent access to a microphone and for whom animus acts as a motivator. Hell, I basically articulated what I believed would be the comedians’ point of view in my initial reply and I get a sarcastic clap from Jake Young, comedian (hi, Jake). So we should give serious consideration to another reason: life’s too damned short to go around pissing off every comedian in the country just to be comedy’s biggest fan.

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