Saturday, August 22, 2009

Must Comedy Be Funny? Apparently Not...

Prepare to call me curmudgeon, geezer, and worse, but remember: Most of us hate people laughing at them.

Comedians court it.

Is it self-humiliation they seek? Perhaps, but most crave attention and to be liked, and we generally like them.

Do we like them because they let us feel superior?

Some comedians appeal to vanity, others to crasser aspects of human nature, and a new movie’s ads prompted me to think about comedy’s change and what it may mean to society.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie, BRUNO, shows scenes typical of the characters he revels in creating. As in BORAT, there is much humor derived from inappropriate behavior and awkward social situations. Confronting people with absurdity and laughing at their confusion is a standard ploy. A good deal of it is mean-spirited, intended to belittle the real-life gay Austrian TV host on which Cohen based his BrĂ¼no character.

Mean-spirited, belittling comedy is not funny in the sense that gain at others’ cost is not humane. It’s a form of usury, a coining of draconian interest burdens on small investments of innocence. Some find this witty, and claim wit is always mean but I disagree, wit being merely intelligence. It is a tool to be applied with, without, or even against kindness.

Comedy need not be gentle to remain compassionate, just as comedy is not wit even as it stems from it. Silliness is the harmless part of the ridiculous, for example. Hurting feelings and exposing weakness is the harsh part. It’s fine if focused on the powerful, especially the evil. They ask for it. It is sick, though, when focused on the weak, harmless, or innocent.

That’s where Cohen goes, gleefully. He minces and prances in order to bully and hurt lesser people who are not in on the joke.

Comedy’s function is to reduce us all to basic humanity. It provides insight and lets us identify with others we might otherwise find strange or distant. What Cohen does accomplishes the opposite by demonizing and setting up as figures of fun the defenseless and the hapless.

He kicks whomever is down and puts down anyone he can, all for a cheap laugh that reveals nothing more than a sadist’s enjoyment of cruelty.

Jim Carrey’s absurd Pet Detective is afforded dignity and humanity. The Three Stooges puncture snobbery and pretension. The Great Dictator reduced Hitler to a laughable idiot, which lessened his dark power and broke the spell he otherwise cast. The Little Tramp could not win but never gave up or lost optimism.

All these are admirable.

The TV show JACKASS, Cohen, and much contemporary comedy is mean and callous, harsh and corrosive, serving no higher purpose -- it functions against humanity, lessens it. It is an exercise in self-hating misanthropy.

Even Twain and Bierce, in their often hilarious misanthropy, never struck at the good or the innocent. They punctured sanctimony and perfidy, revealing hypocrisy and stripping poseurs of their stolen robes.

Today’s worse comedy stomps on puppies, kittens, and baby seals in a desperate attempt to move beyond comedy styles it considers stale. It revels in atrocity because it is offensive, then laughs at our horror, at our being appalled. It is scornful of anything worthwhile in us, all the good, all the innocent. Those are dismissed as Emo and social suicide. Showing weakness is the last thing any of them would dare do, and all once held lofty and worthy is now sneered at.

In the great enemy sense, it is quite literally Satanic comedy, but calling it that would be a drama-queen’s indulgence, so call it vile and be anagrammatically insouciant.

That’d be witty, at least.

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