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.