Does Good Comedy Have an Expiration Date?
Shakespeare might bore you to tears, but believe it or not, Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the funniest characters of his time. Doozies like, “Cupid is a knavish lad, thus to make poor females mad,” were as funny to them as Borat’s naked hotel chase is to us.
Good humor, like good produce, seems to have an expiration date. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t feel fresh. After all, who wants to bite into a plum that tastes like a tennis ball? It seems strange; isn’t funny always funny? Drama is pretty ageless, but jokes about knickers are not. Why doesn’t comedy last forever?
I recently watched 20th Century, by all accounts an uproarious success when it was released in 1934. The film stars John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe, an eccentric theater producer who single-handedly transforms Carole Lombard, a nobody-showgirl, into Lilly Garland, a somebody-actress. And, of course, they fall in love along the way. But when Lily leaves Oscar to pursue a Hollywood career, he spirals into a career slump.
I’ve heard that Barrymore’s comic genius is obvious. Sure, he has a charmingly dark flamboyance that can be seen in actors who always appear drunk (other people in this category include Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Kline and Kathleen Turner). But I still slept through two-thirds of the movie.
I didn’t understand the majority of the date-specific references, so while the charm was recognizable, it didn’t make me laugh. From the Somersaut Maugham characters to the countless other references alluding to the heydays of theater – “I’m not a Trilby!” – I didn’t catch at least half of the jokes.
Was it the movie itself or was it the fact that this comedy was made for an audience 70 years ago? I Love Lucy was the most successful sitcom of its era, but it’s stale by today’s standards. Seinfeld was extremely innovative in its humor 20 years ago, and while I still laugh at it today, when I look at it honestly, it’s reaching its shelf life. But maybe these styles of comedy must lose their value over time, and that is part and parcel with their comedic value.
Of course, there’s older comedy that still holds up. Night at the Opera is a classic for a reason, as are The Three Stooges. But on a long enough timeline, it’s an extremely rare comedy that can withstand the sands of cultural changes.
Perhaps it’s the sitcom model itself, with its laugh tracks and product placement, that encourages rapid irrelevancy. Future generations will look at Seinfeld the same way we view I Love Lucy: with respect as a cultural institution, but not as a show they love. They simply cannot relate to it. Can only the most broad physical comedy stay relevant for more than a decade?
The situational humor that worked so well in the 1990s seems worn out today. A show revolving around singles in Manhattan deciding what to order in a coffee shop seems less relatable, while singles in Philly getting wasted on the cheapest beer they can find fits more in with today’s audiences expectations and lifestyles. I doubt I’m alone when I say I’d much rather watch this trifecta of comedy–It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, and Kenny fucking Powers– instead of the 1990s Thursday night “Must See TV” lineup of Seinfeld, Friends, and Fraiser.
And a movie like 20th Century, with its plot that revolves around a theater world that no longer exists, is fighting an uphill battle to connect with people born in the age of television and the internet. It had its moments, to be sure, but in the end it just didn’t resonate with me.
Louie might seem as outdated as Shakespeare in a few years, with its cynical recession-era commentary and claustrophobic single-camera style, but I’m looking for an LOL right now, not in 40 years. Though one day, when my kids don’t find Chris Farley stuffed into a tiny life vest as funny as I do, it’s going to break my heart.
Toby Shuster is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.