Comedy that takes down the powerful

Interesting piece by Kyle Smith: "Where’s their nerve? Today’s comics mock poop, not the powerful."

’70s comedy ruled from an anti-throne of contempt for authority in all shapes. College deans, student body presidents, Army sergeants and officers, country-club swells, snooty professors and the EPA: Anyone who made it his life’s work to lord it over others got taken down with wit.

When the smoke bombs cleared and the anarchy died, comedy turned inward and became domesticated. It also became smaller.

“The Cosby Show” and Jerry Seinfeld didn’t seek to ridicule those in power. Instead they gave us comfy couch comedy — riffs on family and etiquette and people’s odd little habits.

Now, in the Judd Apatow era, comedy is increasingly marked by two worrying trends: One is a knee-jerk belief, held even by many of the most brilliant comedy writers, that coming up with the biggest, most outlandish gross-out gags is their highest calling.


Today’s comics have abdicated their responsibility to take down the powerful. They tiptoe around President Obama, but comedy has to be fearless.

These days they’re more at ease mocking their social inferiors than going after the high and mighty. Comfortably ensconced inside the castle that Richard Pryor and George Carlin tried to burn down, they drop water balloons on the unspeakable middle-America drones of “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office.”


Even comics who present themselves as the loyal opposition to the political leadership, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, expend most of their effort simply repackaging Democratic Party talking points as jokes. The ’70s hang-’em-all anarchist spirit lives on only in the margins, in a few brave outposts like “South Park.”

Interesting points though I think one could argue that dramatic movies and TV shows have devolved in a similar way too. I think you need to consider the context of the times too. The 70s were responding to the 60s and Watergate which was a very different vibe than the Reagan era stew that Cosby and Seinfeld emerged from. That said, it'd be cool to see more "stick it to the man" comedy.


myq said...

I think the author is wrong about lots of things.

One, I disagree with him about Stewart and Colbert. I think they ARE doing exactly the kind of thing he's saying they're not. Especially Colbert, when he mocked George Bush to George Bush's face. Of course he can't do that exact kind of thing every day, but every day they are doing something, and it's the kind of thing that this guy says "isn't happening"?

Two, he's pointing to a couple movies from the past and comparing them with a couple movies from the present. Yes, Harold Ramis made movies this guy enjoys and Judd Apatow made movies this guy doesn't enjoy, but it's a false comparison, because for every Ramis-era movie that this guy loves, there were hundreds that he probably would have hated. And why is he acting like Apatow is the only guy making entertainment right now? And sure, the Cosby Show and Seinfeld were safe (though Seinfeld was kind of anti-everything in a way, so another point of disagreement there), but also that era gave us Roseanne, which was definitely coming from the right place, at the right people, I think. Not super political necessarily, but the same spirit. The point is, every era has TONS of comedy, so to point at one creator and mark them as indicative of what 'COMEDY' is doing, is entirely simple-minded and wrong-headed.

Three, I think Obama does have a sense of humor and self-awareness. Yes, he's also in charge of killing people with drones and things, and that's got to be rough. Mostly on the dead people, but on Obama as a close second or third or millionth after the dead people. Not to say that people shouldn't be aiming at him because he's the powerful, but back to the point about the Daily Show and such, people ARE taking him to task, holding him accountable, as much as has ever been done.

Four, I think Parks and Rec is also doing a great job of lampooning mainstream status quo social norms, from within, in a way. It's wholesome AND subversive. I think this guy just picked a point he wanted to make and then wrote the article from there (maybe because he doesn't like Obama and he does like Harold Ramis... dude, you could have just written a piece "I am sad about Harold Ramis not making movies anymore"). He's just ignoring things willfully or negligently or ignorantly.

Finally, Matt, how do you feel about THIS statement: "power isn’t cool. Nor is earnestness." There's something, to me, so missing the point. "Cool" isn't one thing. Being cool isn't cool. I think we've come to a place, a place YOU (Matt) argue for a lot, where earnestness IS the ultimate, at least to some.

Political comedy has its place. And so does earnest comedy. If you don't like Judd Apatow, don't watch his movies. But he's not THE MAN. I mean, he's the man if you like his movies. But he's not the man keeping people down with his movies.

That's it for me! I'll be here all week taking down the powerful journalists who think they're taking down the powerful comedians.

Matt Ruby said...

All good points, Myq. I think being anti-authority is cool and I think it's missing from many of today's MOST popular comedy movies but agree there's plenty of it out there (Borat perhaps deserving a mention in this piece too?) and also not every person needs to be fighting for the same thing. If Judd Apatow doesn't wanna make political statements, he shouldn't have to.

myq said...

Agreed. Good point about Borat.

Also, there is a sense in which saying "You MUST speak truth to power or you're doing it wrong" is itself setting up a dogmatic power structure that, by its own logic, deserves to be taken down.

And maybe it's been a while since I've seen it, but is Ghostbusters really more speaking-truth-to-powery than the Daily Show and Colbert?

Anonymous said...

What I love about this article is it goes against the whole "personal comedy" grain. Make no mistake: much of my material is personal, but I've heard so much crap at shows and mics under the banner of it being personal. Because talking about your day has been so much in vogue, there are so many boring anecdotes about bodegas and subways with the punchline "so that happened."

If you are a person who wears their heart on their sleeve, by all means be personal. But don't make it an excuse for (paraphrasing Marc Maron here) smug, detached gossip about immigrant food servers and homeless people. Worry less about being personal, worry more about being funny with an interesting point of view.

-Mo Diggs

myq said...

Mo, I understand what you're saying, but this guy isn't talking about people at the open mic level being personal. He's talking about Judd Apatow.

He says "Ramis, Chase and Murray would never have dreamt of doing a thinly disguised autobiography like This Is 40. They would have asked a) Who cares about my boring, well-heeled existence? and b) If I weren’t me, wouldn’t I hate me? These questions never occurred to Apatow because comedy today is therapy."

It honestly seems like this guy hates himself, and is just projecting.

And while I agree with the assessment that a lot of people starting out might see people being personal masterfully and imitate the being personal without the mastery, number one, that's true of ANYONE starting out, no matter what type of comedy they're trying to accomplish.

And when this guy says "comedy today is therapy," that's just a gross overgeneralization that leaves out tons of other types of comedy that ARE also happening, no?

Certainly, some standup comedy could be seen as therapy-ish (though certainly not all... Brian Regan, Steven Wright, and many others doing many different things are still working), and maybe Apatow's movies are the movie version of that therapy, but isn't the article mainly talking about comedy MOVIES, not standup? Who besides Apatow are making substitute therapy movies? Lots of people? Why is he acting like Apatow is the only guy making comedies?

I'm not saying people shouldn't like the kind of comedy they like, but painting "comedy" with such a broad brush while only pointing out one example repeatedly, seems misguided.


Matt Ruby said...

The media makes it seem like Apatow is the only guy making comedies. See, it's all the media's fault! This media guy should actually be critiquing the media. But alas, the only person to do that well is Jon Stewart, a comedian. And just like that, the tail ate itself.

myq said...

I like it!

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