What Happens When Once-Beloved Comedy Fails the Test of Time?
One of the most common praises of art — be it music, literature, comedy or anything else — is to refer to it as “timeless.” What people tend to mean by this is that even though a given piece of art was made a long time ago, it’s still enjoyable and relevant to the modern age. That can certainly be true, but if we’re being honest, when it comes to comedy, even the best works are linked to their era in some way or another. Look at any great piece of comedy, and chances are you can find something that you probably wouldn’t see today. Consider The Simpsons; if it were made now, a handful of things would be different. For one thing, if Apu’s character even still existed, he probably wouldn’t be a convenience store owner played by a white guy, and if he was, the show would take a lot of heat for it. Additionally, while “Homer’s Phobia” is one of the show’s funniest episodes, it would be hard to make now for the simple reason that having a character be as ragingly homophobic as Homer is in that episode while still making him the protagonist would likely be extremely uncomfortable. As great as The Simpsons is, it is still ultimately tied to its era.
In spite of those concerns, the show still holds up really well, even if it isn’t truly “timeless.” Sadly, the same cannot be said for all once-beloved comedic works, which begs an important question: what happens when a beloved standup routine or sitcom fails to hold up when judged by modern standards? Specifically, what happens when certain elements of it that were considered acceptable — or at least tolerable — at the time become offensive by modern standards? Can we still enjoy it, and it write it off the worst elements of it as an unfortunate bi-product of its era, or are the flaws so rampant that they spoil the entire thing?
To examine this, there’s a few key examples worth looking at. First off, there’s these always-controversial work of Bill Hicks. Hicks is likely the most beloved cult comedian of all-time. If you read this site on a regular basis, chances are there was a point in your life where someone introduced you to Hicks, and told you that you needed to listen to him because he’d blow your mind, maaaaaan! That happened to me when I was 14, and while it took some getting used to, ultimately, I wound up becoming a huge fan. I laughed hysterically at his bits about the L.A. riots, and about anti-drug commercials. I bought his albums, and I bought a book that featured transcripts of entire sets. As a cranky, disaffected 14-year-old, I had unequivocally drunk the Bill Hicks Kool-Aid.
While my interest in Hicks would wane as time went on — there’s only so much of his comedy that can be explored — I never stopped elevating him in my mind as one of the best and most important comics ever. That’s why it surprised me a few years ago when I noticed that quite a few people really weren’t fans. It often feels like the official stance on Hicks is that he’s still Great and Important, but if you ask people on an individual level, more and more of them were wondering why this guy was propped up so much. It was confusing at first, but the more you dig into his act, the more issues you can find.
For one thing, casual sexism played a major part in Hicks’ act. While he’d spend a lot of time ranting about The System, he seemed to be hell bent on perpetually letting us know that he was, in fact, heterosexual. This manifested itself in Hicks calling himself a “pussyholic,” while often joking about dating women far younger than him. Beyond that, there’s also his routine mocking phone sex hotlines where remarks that “the girl of my dreams doesn’t blow 50 guys a day.” I’ll be honest, ninth grade me thought that joke was hysterical, but in retrospect, it’s hard not to look back on Hicks and notice that as progressive as his rage against the machine was, he had a severe blind spot when it came to talking about women.
And while a lot of the points Hicks make about The System have some truth, he often comes across like a college freshman who just read The Anarchist Cookbook and is hell-bent on telling you how bad everything is. He’s your friend who chastises you for watching cartoons or sports because all those fun things are just distracting you from the horrors of the real world. This friend might have a point, but they lay it on super thick, and that was always a problem with Hicks. His complaints about marketing and the drug war are mostly spot-on, if a bit heavy-handed, but at one point, he rants about the evils of contemporary pop music, and it’s hard not think “Dude, I don’t like New Kids On The Block either, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t evil.” Plus, he had the nerve to rant about George Michael’s “Faith,” which honestly holds up better than a fair amount of his act.
This isn’t to say that Hicks’ work holds no modern relevance; his bit about why children aren’t special is still hilarious, and even if his rants about society’s ills could be a bit overbearing, he still had an admirable fearlessness, and likely had an overall positive effect on comedy. The real problem is that Hicks had been elevated so high for so long that when some of his bits don’t hold up in 2016, it seems like a much more severe mark against it work than it really was. Essentially, Hicks was an important, angry comic who could be a tad heavy-handed, and had an unfortunate tendency towards casual misogyny, but that shouldn’t stop us from enjoying his best work, or the impact he had on comedy.
But while misogynist tendencies were a bug for Hicks, they were a major feature for another beloved deceased comic, Sam Kinison. Kinison’s vitriolic rants were epic, as he told us in no uncertain terms how much he hated his ex-wife, and how much his marriage had destroyed his life. Watching these volatile screeds now is a bit awkward to say the least. On one hand, his incendiary energy is undeniably enjoyable, but at the same time, what he’s actually saying can you feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s not just what he says about women; there’s also his rant where he feels no sympathy for people starving in Somalia because those people should just move to where the food is (note: the way he shouts that line, it actually is kinda funny). Kinison is the ultimate example of a comic who can simultaneously make you laugh while also making you feel bad for laughing.
Whether or not he could exist now is interesting to consider. There’s no doubt that the sexism in his act would catch a lot of flack, but at the same time, Kinison was essentially playing a character. He was a bit like an alternate universe Anthony Jeselnik; while Jeselnik’s schtick is saying the worst things imaginable in the quiet tone of a serial killer, Kinison shouts them like someone who just finally snapped. Basically, Kinison might be able to exist today, but he’d be the subject of the “is this supposed to be ironic, or are we supposed to take it at face value” question that has driven debates about Daniel Tosh and Amy Schumer, among others. In 2016, Kinison’s vitriol can still be pretty funny, but in an “I’m going to hell for laughing at this” sort of way. Which, to be fair, might have been what he was going for the entire time.
Perhaps the most troublesome example of beloved comedy that doesn’t quite hold up these days is that of Eddie Murphy. Delirious and Raw are two of the most important standup specials of the 80s, perhaps even of all-time, and with good reason. Murphy is a manic ball of energy on stage, going through hilarious bit after hilarious bit without any sign of slowing down. And yet, we also have to deal with the homophobia that was rampant in both specials. It would be one thing it had merely been casual use of the f-word; that could likely be written off as “well, that word was more acceptable then,” but what makes it so hard to take now is the genuine homophobia within the bits. It wasn’t just the word, it was the sentiment. When Murphy talks about unwanted attention of gay men, he plays into the biggest driving factor behind homophobia — the idea that homosexuality is a clear and present threat to masculinity.
And yet…there are still a lot of really good bits in both specials. The bit about eating homemade burgers on white bread while everyone else goes to McDonalds still holds up, and Murphy’s general vibe is still masterful. So, there’s the difficult question of how much do we enjoy the good stuff and how much do we condemn the bad stuff. There really isn’t a definitive answer to this question; it depends on how important the funny stuff is, and how rancid the unfunny stuff is. It feels weird to unabashedly enjoy comedy that plays into our most harmful fears about gay people, but it doesn’t feel any better to write off one of the most important comics of his era because some of his material doesn’t hold up. This leaves in search of a happy medium that is perpetually elusive.
One important thing to remember when evaluating this question is that we don’t know how the best comics of the modern era will hold up. It’s easy to condemn the misogyny of Hicks or the homophobia of Murphy now, with the benefit of hindsight, but we have no way of knowing which of our favorite comedians might not look so good 30 years from now. Louis CK’s comedy has been praised endlessly, but it’s quite possible that, say, his bit where he explains why he’d prefer to say the actual n-word instead of saying “the n-word” will seem embarrassing to future generations. It could be something less obvious; maybe a joke from John Oliver’s last show that seemed utterly innocuous to all of us could end up being taboo somewhere down the line. Ultimately, no comedy is timeless, and there’s no telling how the future will respond to the comedy of the present. For now, we can acknowledge why some of the most beloved comedy of the past doesn’t work in 2016, while also appreciating the parts of that still do, and admiring the brilliant comedic timing that made these comics so beloved to begin with.