The current age of comedy was born in a drug-fueled paroxysm somewhere in the middle 1970’s that birthed such anarchic classics as Animal House, Caddyshack, Airplane and Saturday Night Live’s Samurai Deli. After years of “Please Don’t Eat The Daisies” comedy was suddenly boisterous, rude, inappropriate and out of control. Comedians may never have been funnier but they were also people you’d be terrified to let in your home.
Three decades later, 30 Rock, the tentpole show of Tina Fey, the reigning doyen of the SNL legacy, is home to a parade of drop-by’s by the creme of Hollywood’s liberal elite from Matt Damon to Oprah Winfrey, not to mention Washington’s liberal elite in the person of guest star Al Gore. The effect is to produce a clubby circuit of backslapping and log-rolling guest appearances that runs roughly from the Daily Show to SNL, spilling over off the screen to co-hosting duties at Democratic fundraisers and events for liberal causes. And the comedy itself has morphed from untamed buffoonish anarchy to humor that “makes a point,” evidenced by the many young people who say they get their news from the Daily Show. Today’s comedy is glib, articulate, slick, highly self-absorbed and always on the look out for ways to let the laughs serve a goal that has nothing to do with the show itself.
It is impossible to imagine anyone wanting John Belushi to host an event for their campaign, nor any of the off-kilter, reckless comedy talents of the day. It is impossible to imagine turning to the cast and crew of Caddyshack for their views on global warming or health care reform. But that is where their predecessors have placed themselves.
There is no greater service comedy can perform for society than deflating pomposity, a maneuver usually handled by opposing it with buffoonery. From WC Fields to the Marx Brothers to Rodney Dangerfield and John Belushi, comedians have brought low our stuffed shirts with a long line of well aimed belches. But it’s hard to belch in the face of Dean Wormer while you are making an important point about global warming. The past decade has been widely considered a dark age for film comedy; it is hard to imagine that many of today’s comedies and Hangover rip-offs will be studied and recited a generation from now.
In the end, as with so much, the fault belongs to the Ivy League. Many of those who created the current era came out of Harvard and the Harvard Lampoon, but those early voices in the 1970’s were a very different crop, rebelling from a stuffy blue blood dominated culture rather the meritocratic elite of today. The current generation of Lampoon writers are quintessential overachievers who grade-grubbed and resume stuffed their ways into the prestigious schools, and rather than rebelling against today’s Ivy culture, are its proudest representatives. At Harvard, they chose to diligently study comedy knowing somewhere in their minds that at the end of the rainbow, thanks to the work of their predecessors that today’s Comedy Industrial Complex with its guild minimums provides a very lucrative career path for a glib well-connected Ivy grad. (Sorry to let the cat out of the bag Rob). Of course, not all comedy writers went to Harvard. Rob went to Yale, for instance. But so large are the Lampoon ranks in Hollywood, they can fairly be said to constitute the industry’s largest special interest, dominating all others and so even a UVA grad like Tina Fey ultimately falls under their sway.
But eventually, although they may be following in the footprints of some large clown shoes, the one thing no Harvard graduate can stand for too long is not being taken seriously, and sooner or later comedy was going to have to compromise if it was going to be graced with the talents of the brightest lights of our education system. And so slowly, earnest little messages began to sneak in between the laughs until here were are today. When laughs goes to war with enlightenment, in the end both will lose.