From the witty and exuberant New York Times best-selling author comes a history of humor—from fart jokes on clay Sumerian tablets all the way up to the latest Twitter memes—that tells the story of how comedy came to rule the modern world.
Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.
Excerpt: Planet Funny
OUR FUNNY CENTURY
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man walks into a sex ed class.
In my defense, I was supposed to be there. It was the first night of “For Boys Only,” a popular four-hour seminar on puberty and sexuality given every month or so at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The class, along with its “For Girls Only” counterpart, is the brainchild of a local nurse who thought parents shouldn’t be outsourcing sex talk with their kids to elementary schools. “This is a relationship-building class,” my registration e-mail told me, “so it will be important to your child to have you attend both sessions. Because class includes interactive exercises for the adult and child, our teachers request that you sit together.” The classes have become so popular locally that they’re virtually a rite of passage for Seattle-area fifth-graders and their helicopter parents, and the program has since spread to Oregon and California.
Retaking sex ed with a roomful of twelve-year-old boys wasn’t my idea of a relaxing Monday evening. To make matters worse, my son, Dylan, discovered a week beforehand that two of his best friends from school had been signed up for the same session. So of course we all had to meet up beforehand for burgers, and then I had to sit through two hours of sex ed with my son’s goofy friends and their dads. Also, right before the class was set to begin, a familiar-looking bearded man walked into the auditorium with his young son and sat down a few rows in front of us. It took me a few minutes to recognize him as longtime NBA coach P. J. Carlesimo. This is in no way relevant to the rest of the story, but you can’t just go to sex class with P. J. Carlesimo and not mention it.
The instructor, Greg Smallidge, was exactly who I expected: a friendly-faced middle-aged white guy with receding brown hair, a vaguely professorial air, and an easel stacked with, I could only assume, the same grisly cross-sections of the human reproductive system that I remembered from fifth grade. But when Smallidge began the class, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was funny! In my day, sex ed wasn’t funny. Maybe the girls’ class was funny? I don’t know, I still have no idea what went on in there. But the boys’ class was only funny unintentionally, like when my friend Glenn asked the teacher, “What if pee comes out instead and you pee inside the lady?” and Mr. Jenkins explained that his wife liked morning sex and even when he really had to go, pee never came out when he ejaculated, and then everyone got incredibly uncomfortable and quiet.
Smallidge was a slow, careful talker, but what I had initially taken for unflappable dullness turned out to be a calculated deadpan, in the vein of Bob Newhart. He introduced the topic of masturbation by saying, “It’s a very personal subject. It’s not like a kid comes home one day and says, ‘You know, I had a rough day at school. I’m going to go up to my room and masturbate for about ten minutes.’ ” He paused and let the laughter build, then added the topper. “ ‘Dad, could you make me a sandwich?’ ”
Later, he asked the room to suggest slang terms for “penis” and jotted down a list on his big drawing pad. Many of the kids had obviously never been given license to yell anatomical slang in a crowded roomful of adults, and they jumped in with gusto, some of them possibly inventing terminology on the spot. “Old one-eyed Mr. Johnson!” shouted a boy two rows back, which I thought was a bit much. The room teetered on the brink of anarchy.I But Smallidge got them back! It was essentially a two-hour stand-up set for the most tentative of audiences, and it was masterful. I felt like applauding at the end.
“It’s like Houdini,” he told me later when I asked him about his crowd work. “How do you get out of this and survive?” Smallidge was a corporate trainer back in the 1990s when a friend at Seattle Public Schools called him out of the blue to see if he’d be interested in teaching puberty classes. He’d been a philosophy major in college and had no background in medicine, psychology, or education. He didn’t even have any kids. “Sure, I’ll do that,” he said. He’s now been a full-time sexuality curriculum guy for more than twenty years.
“It does feel like stand-up comedy,” Smallidge said, but he disagreed with my assumption that “For Boys Only” is a tough room. No one is expecting the instructor in a hospital auditorium to be funny, he explained, so it’s easy to beat low expectations. And he thinks the laughs are what makes it possible to spark real family conversations about sex. When parents come up against issues of sexuality with their kids, he said, the first response is usually discomfort and defensiveness. “But with humor, you don’t have to be defensive for a few minutes, because you’re laughing.”
I told him that my childhood sex ed classes were never funny on purpose. “You could get in trouble for laughing.”
“There’s this one very conservative teacher, he always starts my introduction with, ‘There will be no laughing! You know the rules!’ Because they’ve gone over all the ground rules. ‘I’m going to be watching you!’ Very severe. It’s sort of like having a bad opening act. I’ve got to undo that intro without offending him.”
“Does that guy have a point? Are we giving kids a more casual view of sex because they got dick jokes with their puberty class?”
Smallidge smiled. “Something can be important without being serious,” he said. “That’s what it is for me.”
In the Land of the Comedy Natives
One joke-heavy sex ed class isn’t exactly headline news. My favorite schoolteachers were always the funny ones, and I’m sure that was true in my parents’ and my grandparents’ day as well. But it’s part of a pattern, one that we sometimes fail to notice, the way a frog in simmering water doesn’t notice each degree of temperature change.
Everything is getting funnier.
For millennia of human history, the future belonged to the strong. To the parent who could kill the most calories, in the form of regrettably cute, graceful animals, with rocks and sticks and things made out of rocks and sticks. To the child who could survive the winter or the scarlet fever epidemic. These were success stories.
The Industrial Revolution changed all that. Ideas replaced muscles. A century ago, we believed the future belonged to the efficient, those who had discovered the best ways to streamline a manufacturing process. Fifty years ago, our anointed were the best scientific minds. Slide rules and engineering know-how weren’t just going to defeat Communism, they were eventually going to get us into flying cars and domed underwater cities.
Today, in a clear sign of evolution totally sliding off the rails, our god is not strength or efficiency or even innovation, but funny. Funniness.
If you assume that all modern institutions have always been as joke filled as they are now, you’re part of the problem—and probably part of the rising generation. A 2012 Nielsen survey found that 88 percent of millennials say that their sense of humor is how they define themselves. Sixty-three percent of them would rather be stuck in an elevator with a favorite comedian than with their sports or music heroes. “We called them Comedy Natives,” MTV research executive Tanya Giles told the New York Times. She’s now the general manager at Comedy Central. “Comedy is so central to who they are, the way they connect with other people, the way they get ahead in the world. One big takeaway is that unlike previous generations, humor, and not music, is their number one form of self-expression.”
Comedy, in other words, is no longer just a vehicle for selling nightclub drinks or ad time, something people passively consume because it’s an “easier sit” than drama. More and more, we actively seek it out. We’re connoisseurs. Instead of dozing off to a single late-night monologue, we stream highlights the next day from six or seven different late-night shows, assembling our own comedy SportsCenter. Instead of relistening to the same album or two by a favorite comedian, we use newer media like Twitter and podcasts to check in on them weekly or daily or even hourly. Instead of quoting the occasional comedy catchphrase with pals at work, we can consult Frinkiac, an online Simpsons search engine stocked with three million screengrabs, which will produce a Simpsons meme for almost any occasion. (Just found out your boss is out of the office this Friday? Time for a quick “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!”) Being this kind of obsessive comedy geek is now an avocation, and an increasingly mainstream one.
When everyone starts to turn into a comedy expert, very specific comic tropes and references can start to invade real life in surprising ways. The Kazakhstani government took out a four-page ad in the New York Times to rebut Sacha Baron Cohen’s roasting of the Central Asian republic in his movie Borat. (“Nothing disturbing happens to me here,” enthused a Turkish architect quoted in the puff piece.) Professional football players like Von Miller and Lance Moore have been flagged and fined for reenacting the touchdown dance of Hingle McCringleberry, a character from a Key and Peele sketch, in actual NFL games.II In 2011, Australian morning show host Karl Stefanovic, given a few minutes to interview the Dalai Lama, even tried to tell the Tibetan spiritual leader the classic joke about the Dalai Lama walking into a pizza shop. “Make me one with everything!” is the punch line. His Holiness just stared at Stefanovic blankly.
The most shocking comedy/reality crossover came in 2014, when Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg announced they were making The Interview, about two tabloid TV journalists who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The premise didn’t feel particularly edgy to me; it was a comfy throwback to the days when Leslie Nielsen would reenact Three Stooges smack-fights with Ayatollah Khomeini and Muammar Gaddafi in a Naked Gun movie, or Saddam Hussein would show up on South Park. You could even go back fifty years earlier. When Robert Benchley published a silly faux interview with Benito Mussolini, or Bugs Bunny terrorized Hitler and Goering, no one was actually afraid the dictators in question would seek revenge on comedy writers. (Even in the case of Charlie Chaplin’s celebrated The Great Dictator, an international smash hit, there’s no firm evidence that Hitler ever even saw it.)
But this time, things couldn’t have gone more differently. Six months before The Interview’s planned release, North Korea’s state-run media called the still-in-production movie “the most blatant act of terrorism and war” and vowed “merciless” retaliation. It was one thing to blow up the leader of North Korea in a fiery helicopter explosion onscreen, but now the moviemakers began to get cold feet: what if the carnage spilled over into real life? Sony asked Rogen and Goldberg if they’d consider rewriting the ending so Kim would survive. They refused, but writer Dan Sterling worried openly about his silly screenplay leading to “some kind of humanitarian disaster.” “I would be horrified,” he said. When North Korea threatened terrorist attacks at theaters that screened The Interview, Sony canceled its wide release in favor of a digital rollout—and was criticized by President Obama for capitulating to terrorism. In the end, the only real casualty of the threats turned out to be Sony cochair Amy Pascal, who stepped down after a massive data dump, almost certainly coordinated by North Korean hackers, revealed months of embarrassing studio secrets.
It was a rude awakening to open the newspaper one morning and realize that James Franco and Seth Rogen would probably be appearing in my kids’ and grandkids’ history textbooks. (That was the best case. Worst case was North Korea getting a missile that could reach the Pacific Northwest, and my kids and grandkids not existing to read history textbooks.) Stern, saber-rattling statements between two nuclear powers, followed by one of the biggest acts of cyberterrorism in history, had been provoked by a goofy stoner comedy. It was all almost as unfunny as the movie itself turned out to be.
What changed between The Great Dictator and The Interview? Sure, you could chalk it up to the unprecedented paranoia and strategic chaos practiced by the North Korean regime. But the real takeaway is that Kim probably wasn’t wrong. North Korea has always survived by trading on larger countries’ perception of its government as dangerous and unpredictable. Seth Rogen’s painting “Supreme Leader” as a buffoon and then blowing him up for big movie laffs might have a real effect on how long his regime will last.
Today, we’re savvy enough about the influence of comedy that we take it very, very seriously. Just ask Seth Rogen and James Franco, who were issued hulking round-the-clock studio bodyguards in 2014. Just ask advertisers paying five million dollars to show a goofy, cameo-filled comedy sketch during a Super Bowl time-out. Just ask ordinary people who have lost their jobs when the wrong joke attempt went viral on Twitter. Just ask the staff of Charlie Hebdo.
Comedians: Is There Anything They Can’t Do?
But in the main, it’s a good time to be in the business of being funny. Comedians, accustomed to their longtime roles of put-upon underdogs and insecure sideline snarkers, are adjusting slowly to their growing prestige. They should look to the United Kingdom, which got here first. In Britain, comedians are certified public intellectuals. The British have a whole TV genre that we don’t: erudite panel shows on which quick-witted punsters with posh Oxbridge educations try to dazzle Stephen Fry or a Stephen Fry equivalent with their knowledge of current events and general knowledge. In 2008, Lancashire stand-up Jim Bowen made headlines for going onstage at a London comedy club and doing a full act of fourth-century Roman jokes, not a gambit you’re likely to see on Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents anytime soon.III Or take the former members of Monty Python: Michael Palin is a past president of the Royal Geographical Society who has explored the poles and directed documentaries on World War I and Matisse. Terry Jones, an avid medievalist, tried to solve the death of Chaucer in a 2003 book. John Cleese has a species of lemur named after him, for his conservation work in Madagascar. In American post-comedy life, the closest thing we have to this is Steve Martin, who is now a passable banjo player.
But this is changing! Writing a book or two of funny essays is now a virtual requirement of comedy legitimacy and led to seven-figure publishing advances for hot commodities like Tina Fey, Aziz Ansari, and Lena Dunham. This isn’t a venerable trend in American publishing; it really only goes back to Jerry Seinfeld’s 1993 bestseller SeinLanguage. Around the same time, we started putting legendary comedians on postage stamps: Jack Benny, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello in 1991, then Bob Hope, Groucho, and Burns and Allen in 2009. Gloria Steinem and Amy Schumer started hanging out together at comedy clubs—and why not? They’re both feminist icons. The unlikeliest comedy hangers-on were the fabulously good-looking ones. Celebrities like Jon Hamm and Justin Timberlake were among the biggest sex symbols in the world, but they were tired of lounging on beaches with supermodels. What they really wanted to do, apparently, was hang out with comedians! Only a Funny or Die director telling them how great that improv was on the last take would fill the comedy-shaped hole inside of them. It was the exact reverse of generations past, when an alpha dog like Frank Sinatra might let one comedy goofball—a Joey Bishop, say—join his gang. In 2014, Esquire even began a monthly feature where a rotating series of comedians were pressed into service as advice columnists. After all, is there a demographic more stereotypically famed for having their lives together than stand-up comics? Ask a comedian; they always know what to do.
And once comedy is done fixing your love life and roommate troubles, why not put it to work on public policy? The rise in comedy prestige was most notable on late-night TV, where a stand-up veteran like Jon Stewart, someone you might have seen on cable in 1992 telling jokes about “Just Say No” ads in a black leather jacket, acquired the moral authority of an éminence grise during his sixteen-year tenure on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. He was the closest thing millennials had to a Walter Cronkite, and his mere proximity had the power to create similarly endowed acolytes, a Legion of Substitute Stewarts that grew to include Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and Samantha Bee. Stewart knew that hosting an MTV talk show in the early Clinton era wasn’t exactly the same journalistic training as covering the London Blitz, like Edward R. Murrow had, and was always the first to remind commentators that he was a comedian, not a reporter. But this was mostly just a (pretty transparent) way to preempt criticism. Stewart’s influence among young people was sometimes overstated in the press,IV but in 2014, 12 percent of the country told Pew Research that they got their news from The Daily Show, roughly the same reach as USA Today. When you’re a news source for as many people as the country’s top-circulation newspaper, you’re effectively a journalist, whether that’s how you imagine your résumé or not. “My Comedy Channel Is Fox News. My News Channel Is Comedy Central,” read the popular bumper sticker.
This change is often framed as a decline of traditional media, but to my mind, the real story was the new legitimacy and relevance of comedy. In the late sixties, when the Smothers Brothers were doing the edgiest, counterculture-friendliest comedy on TV, the network still carped about every joke that mentioned Vietnam, the most important news story of the day. (Pete Seeger was censored for singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a folk song that didn’t even mention Vietnam.) It’s not always remembered today that Tom and Dick Smothers lost their battle with CBS’s Program Practices division: the show was repeatedly neutered and then, in 1969, abruptly canceled. That cemented the TV status quo for decades: jokes should not have a viewpoint on serious things. The rule worked mostly because the viewership was fine with keeping its news and its comedy in separate time slots. Satire just wasn’t a mass-culture phenomenon; as George Kaufman famously said, it “closes on Saturday night.”
That was all upended in the Daily Show era, when a comedy host could do an eight-minute tirade against the Iraq War, full of moral outrage—at a time when even the New York Times was banging the drum about Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction—and keep the full support of his network and his audience. In fact, they loved him for it. He was free to layer the editorial commentary in silly pop culture asides (when George Bush called Saddam Hussein “a deceiver, a liar, a torturer, and a murderer,” Stewart asked if he was also “a picker, a grinner, a lover, and a sinner”) and puns (“Mess O’Potamia!” read the chyron) without anyone asking if war was too serious a subject for that sort of thing. He could even snipe at his own network. When President Bush said that the arguments over Iraq were like “a rerun of a bad movie, and I’m not interested in watching it,” Stewart noted that, by an amazing coincidence, that was also the official slogan of Comedy Central. Instead of getting fired like the Smothers Brothers, he became the highest-paid performer on television.V Bush’s successor secretly summoned Stewart to the White House twice to consult on policy, and petitioners tried to draft him to run for president himself in 2016.
Jon Stewart’s vehement protesting-too-much that he was “just a comic” was always a reminder that he knew how influential his voice was. The Daily Show take on a policy matter or media skirmish could determine the opinion of millions of people, the same way Fox News’s official line could. Was it any wonder that jokes began to receive more scrutiny and Monday-morning quarterbacking than ever before? It wasn’t enough to be funny; every joke was held to strict ethical standards of fairness, civility, compassion. And why not? This was now serious business; comedy could quite literally change the world.
The Magic Spell of Khlebnikov
How did we get to this point? Our gradual descent into nonstop comedy started in the early decades of the twentieth century, and I’m going to blame it all on one man: an eccentric Russian futurist poet named Velimir Khlebnikov. The futurists, as the name of their movement implied, were young artists besotted with the speed and dynamism and violence of mechanized modernity, and eager to replace the tired old art of the past with experimental new forms in their new century. The most famous poem of the futurist movement is probably “Incantation by Laughter,” which Khlebnikov wrote in 1909 while he was (nominally) studying mathematics at a Saint Petersburg university. It’s a series of escalating nonsense riffs on the Russian word smekh, meaning “laughter.” An English translation might look something like this:
O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!
You who laugh with laughs, you who laugh it up laughishly
O, laugh out laugheringly
O, belaughable laughterhood—the laughter of laughering laughers!
O, unlaugh it outlaughingly, belaughering laughists!
Uplaugh, enlaugh, laughlings, laughlings
O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!
I don’t know for sure what was on young Velimir’s mind the day he wrote this poem, but his “Incantation by Laughter” turned out to be a pretty accurate look ahead at the twentieth century, with the simple command “laugh” endlessly branching and innovating into complex new forms, just as comedy itself would. The poem came true.
Am I implying that this little verse, scratched out over coffee and cigarettes in a bohemian Saint Petersburg cellar café, actually was some kind of magic futurist spell, invoking a new century of endlessly escalating laughs? You’d better believe I am. Khlebnikov saw himself as a prophet even as a teenager, and believed that he was destined to decipher the “laws of time” and predict the future. His essays imagine modern urban planning and even the internet with some accuracy, and he earned great fame for having predicted, in a 1912 pamphlet, the “fall of a state” in 1917—the year of the Russian Revolution. So why not make him a prophet of comedy as well? The secret history of the twentieth century is, after all, largely a history of humor. The old gods were dead, and what was left to us was the laughter of laughering laughers.
Let’s be clear: this was not a complete break with the past. People have always made jokes, and most of them went unrecorded. But the culture of which jokes we tell, and when, and why, does change. Comedy’s like any art form; it evolves over time. Yesterday’s jokes influence today’s, and if today’s seem funnier, it’s largely because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
The funnying-up of modern life has mostly been an organic and imperceptibly slow process, like a glacier inching toward the sea. But sometimes there are watershed moments on a cliff where the ice cracks all at once, and everyone on the cruise ship claps and the landscape in a certain place is changed forever. The glacier just doesn’t flow back uphill.
April 9, 1917—seven years after Khlebnikov published his incantation—was such a date. On that day, New York’s Society of Independent Artists rejected an entry for its first annual exhibit, a show that was supposed to be open to all artists. Unbeknownst to most of them, the sculpture had been submitted by one of the society’s own board members, who later resigned in protest. The artist was Marcel Duchamp, and the work was the first of his “readymade” sculptures of found objects. It was a lavatory urinal, bought from a plumbing supply house, signed with a fanciful “R. Mutt” signature, and laid on its back. Duchamp called it Fountain.
Now, it’s certainly possible to name older works of art that viewers found humor in. Paintings were primarily decor for centuries, and funny canvases sold because television hadn’t been invented. If you’re going to hang something pretty on the wall of your house, why not have a laugh as well?VI That explains those sixteenth-century Arcimboldo portraits where some Saxon elector or naval hero is constructed entirely of fruit and fish, or those Jan Steen tableaux of merry domestic chaos, where chubby children are chasing each other around a table and the dog has just knocked over a platter of something.
But Duchamp’s work was different. It didn’t just have a mildly whimsical air to it; it was a joke, a joke you could “get.” (“Hey, that’s a sideways urinal!”) With works like Fountain and L.H.O.O.Q. (the one where he painted a mustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa), Duchamp didn’t just found the Dada movement. He started an avalanche of art that was incomplete without the laugh: the optical illusions of the surrealists, the soup cans and comic book panels and giant puffy hamburgers of the pop artists, the great pains taken by the photorealists to document something silly like a chrome car bumper or glass Automat window. The old masters still cast a long enough shadow that these new jokes could be powered by surprise at their mild subversion. That was their whole impact. Ha, someone made that? And someone else hung it up in their gallery?
The playful postmodern impulse eventually bled into all the other visual arts—even architecture, where it had been axiomatic since the days of the Bauhaus that function and efficiency were all that mattered. “A house,” Le Corbusier had said, in one of the century’s most depressing pronouncements, “is a machine for living in.” There was only one possible future, and it was going to be defined by the clean, uniform glass-and-steel boxes of the International Style, dammit. It wasn’t until the 1970s that architects woke from their reveries of rectilinear purity, squinted at their blueprints, and started to wonder where the jokes were. And so the pendulum swung back toward the winking neon of Charles Moore and the cheekily ornamented faux casinos of Michael Graves and the rippling titanium currents of Frank Gehry. As fans of John le Carré and James Bond spy fare know, even the British secret service, that least funny of all institutions, now operates out of a bizarrely kitschy postmodern Aztec temple on the Thames that employees call “Legoland.” These new buildings aren’t exactly hilarious, of course; it seems almost beside the point that no one in history has ever lol’ed at the sight of one of them. But it was enough that the architect seemed to have acknowledged that fun exists. As Spy magazine memorably asked, in a 1988 cover package on postmodernism, “For a building, is it funny?”
Muhammad Ali and Other Superheroes
Let’s fast-forward from Marcel Duchamp’s Paris to June 22, 1961. That’s the day a young Cassius Clay did a morning radio interview in Las Vegas alongside the legendary wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner. In response to the host’s questions about his upcoming bout against Duke Sabedong, just the seventh of his fledgling pro career, Clay was confident but restrained, in keeping with his public persona at the time. Then he watched George answer a similar question about his next match, against “Classy” Freddie Blassie. “I’ll kill him! I’ll tear off his arm!” the wrestler fumed. “If this bum beats me, I’ll crawl across the ring and cut off my hair, but it’s not gonna happen, because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world!” Clay was astounded at George’s sheer force of personality and started to see how he could reinvent his persona as a boxer. “Keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous,” Gorgeous George told him later when they met backstage after his wrestling match.
Sports heroes in those days were, almost to a man, not funny. They were sleepy-eyed white dullards with pomaded hair and beer bellies. When athletes got laughs back then, when Jim Thorpe told Gustav V of Sweden, “Thanks, King!” after receiving his Olympic medals or Yogi Berra issued one of his trademark cockeyed aphorisms, like “You can observe a lot just by watching,” those quips were invariably unintentional or apocryphal. Or both, if that’s even possible. It was all so dire that the funniest athlete of the 1930s—you can look this up—was actually Seabiscuit. Compare that to today’s mischievous, smart-aleck sports heroes. The hinge on which that change turned was Gorgeous George strutting down the aisle in a satin robe, accompanied by a rose-water-spritzing valet, and his newest fan Cassius Clay sitting up tall in his seat and seeing an alternate future in his head: the self-aware boasting, the flirting with reporters, the well-rehearsed comic verse, all of it.VII
Every sport didn’t become funny overnight, of course. Even in my day as a young sports fan, everyone knew who the lone joker on the team roster was, the John Kruk or the Deion Sanders or the John Salley, the guy you knew you’d see in a booth someday. It wasn’t like the modern locker room, where everyone is clowning and cheerfully trash-talking and angling for that postretirement analyst job. But every wisecracking modern athlete today of every race has the same model: Muhammad Ali. In 1964, it didn’t immediately endear the cocksure young man to everyone in America, mostly because he was black and Muslim. But in hindsight, you could make a case that Ali was the most influential comedian of the twentieth century, and comedy wasn’t even his day job.
Two months after sports got funny, a similar milestone, also spurred on by a single force of personality, changed another corner of pop culture: the lowly comic book. At the time, superhero comics were in a snoozy decline, still dominated, as they had been for decades, by Superman and Batman and the other square-jawed champions of DC Comics. Superman and Batman weren’t the gritty, mutually suspicious rivals we see today on the big screen; in 1960 they were loyal chums who co-headlined World’s Finest Comics every month. They both had dogs and boy sidekicks and secret clubhouses full of trophies, and planned each other surprise parties and treasure hunts every year for their birthdays.
The wake-up call was the November 8, 1961, publication of The Fantastic Four #1 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the debut of an innovative new superhero line from Marvel Comics. Today, the conventional wisdom about Marvel is that their books took off because their superheroes were, unlike DC’s demigods, human and relatable. The core dynamic of the Fantastic Four was that they weren’t just a super-team but a family, with all the squabbles and growing pains and sentimental “mush” that entails. Spider-Man fought crooks in between long anxious thought balloons about his money troubles, or his sick Aunt May, or the kids who bullied him at his Queens high school. The Mighty Marvel Way was nothing more than grafting soap opera elements onto traditional superhero tropes, and the publisher would successfully stick with that human-interest formula for decades: Iron Man was an alcoholic, Daredevil was blind, the Hulk just wanted to be left alone, the teenage X-Men were battling both their hormones and society’s bigotry. Soon, the rest of the industry was scurrying to catch up.
But what really made those early Marvel comics such a pleasure to read was that, despite all the adolescent angst, they were genuinely funny. For one thing, the heroes themselves were jokers. Ben Grimm, the Fantastic Four’s rocky “Thing,” spent his days in a perpetual vaudeville slow burn at the infuriating antics of his teammate the Human Torch, not to mention the pranks of the “Yancy Streeters,” a gang of roughnecks from his Lower East Side neighborhood. “What a revoltin’ development!” he would complain, in imitation of Jimmy Durante, or maybe William Bendix on The Life of Riley. Peter Parker, the amazing Spider-Man, had an even lighter comic touch, using wisecracks to mask his own teenage insecurities and surprising foes just as often with a snarky put-down as with his trademark webs. “Spider-Man!” Doctor Octopus or whoever would snarl. “Well it’s not Dr. Kildare,” Spidey would reply. Or “I sure ain’t Albert Schweitzer!” Compared to the stodgy dads fighting crime over in DC’s books, these were hip references.
Every issue was narrated in the knowing, irreverent voice of scripter-editor Stan Lee, immediately creating an over-the-top house style that defined Marvel for decades. “Like costume heroes?” Lee asked with a wink in the comic that introduced Spider-Man. “Confidentially, we in the comic mag business refer to them as ‘long underwear characters’!” Marvel fans weren’t just readers—they were in on the gag. This clubby relationship carried over into the letters pages, where Lee answered reader mail personally in an unidentifiable borderline-youthful patois of his own invention, somewhere in between “Greenwich Village hepcat” and “carnival barker.” Every staffer and freelancer got credited with a nickname emphasizing just how fun it must be to goof around in the Marvel bullpen all day: “Smilin’ ” Stan Lee, “Jolly” Jack Kirby, “Cheerful” Chic Stone, “Merry” Marie Severin. Superhero comic books, for the first time in a long time, were actually comic books.
Laughing Through a Mouthful of Tapioca Foam
The dominoes kept falling as the twentieth century neared its end. The same wave of postmodernism that had turned architecture on its ear had long since become the language of fashion as well, with designers regularly praised for their “witty” new collections. With shelter and clothing taken care of, just one basic survival need remained stubbornly unamusing: food. Shout-out to food for providing us with the basic caloric content and nutrients needed to sustain life—but why wasn’t it funnier?
In 1994, chef Ferran Adrià used a million-dollar investment from a Spanish philanthropist to expand and update the kitchen of his popular Catalonian restaurant elBulli. At the same time, he created an in-house “development squad” to focus on R & D for new culinary “concepts and techniques.” The following year, a young Heston Blumenthal bought a run-down sixteenth-century pub in Berkshire and opened a soon-to-be-legendary bistro called the Fat Duck. These two events kick-started the avant-garde cooking movement now called “molecular gastronomy”—using science to prepare foods that no one had ever actually seen before. Not every newly possible dish was a culinary success—just because we have the technology to carbonate gravy or freeze bacon-and-egg ice cream doesn’t mean it’s a great idea—but for the most part, diners were delighted by the movement’s chic novelties. Spherical mango “ravioli” would explode in your mouth like magic bubbles, and intricate little pocket watches of bouillon and gold leaf would melt, Salvador Dalí–style, into glass teapots of soup. The watchword was always surprise. Hey, these look like Oreos, but they’re actually tapas made from black olive dough and sour cream! This mandarin orange is full of chicken liver parfait!
Just like a circus act, an avant-garde food menu is designed to elicit laughter and gasps in alternation—and sometimes in combination. I once had a three-hour dinner at Alinea, Grant Achatz’s outpost of molecular gastronomy on Chicago’s North Side, and the food, though delicious, was completely overshadowed by the showmanship of Achatz’s “dinner as theater.” The very first course, a butternut squash puree, was served inside a block of ice. A thick glass straw was the only utensil provided, so you couldn’t get the puree down without producing a deafening slurping sound designed to draw stares from every other diner in the room. (We were the first table served, and got to enjoy the wave of periodic slurps that circuited the dining room over the next hour.) A hot potato soup was served in a wax cup punctured by a skewer; when the skewer was pulled out, five different cold garnishes would plop into the soup, which you could then down like a shot. Not every dish was slapstick comedy. Some were visual jokes, like the corn/corn-silk/corn-smut combo plated to match a painting hanging in the dining room. Others were semantic, like a “fish and chips” plate where the fish was trout and the chips were . . . crispier trout. Medallions of lamb served with an array of forty-eight different toppings—choose your own adventure!—seemed like a knowing parody of foodie excess. But nothing was over the top like dessert was over the top: first, a helium-filled balloon made of apple taffy that we were told to suck up in one breath, leaving us sticky and squeaky; next, Achatz’s trademark “dark chocolate piñata,” which you scoop off the table after a server freezes and then destroys it in front of you.
Does it sound gimmicky? It was absolutely gimmicky. Funny food can’t literally taste funny. That wouldn’t go over big in a Michelin-starred restaurant. So the humor in high-end cuisine has to come from something incidental to the way a dish tastes, like a surprising texture or the way it’s plated. But even so, Achatz and his peers achieved the apparently impossible: wringing laughs from the simple, metabolically necessary act of eating. And that perception of “added value” helps when you want people to drop four to five hundred dollars apiece on dinner: laughs are included! At Alinea, that price also includes the wine pairing, which of course makes everything seem funnier.
It’s interesting that there doesn’t seem to be a single overarching cultural shift behind the race toward funny. In each of these four case studies, the push for more and more humor was powered by something completely different. In art, it was driven by mechanization. The invention of photography lifted from artists the responsibility of mimicking reality on canvas, and allowed them access to a broader palette of approaches and effects—humor among them. The change in sports came from technology as well, but this time from the invention of modern media culture. Mass media created an instant demand for athletes whose ability to entertain a home audience was just as important as whether they won or lost. The irreverent comic books of the same era were mostly a symptom of the growing cultural influence of youth. Baby boom America had just invented the teenager, and that new market demanded its own light entertainment, with comedic markers that would differentiate it from the routine, serious world of working adults. Funny food at the end of the century felt like something a little more ominous: a decadent sign of the fin de siècle, like Roman elites feasting on roast peacock and hummingbird tongues while civilization collapsed around them. But all these trends eventually converged into one spot: a rising tide of comedy, everywhere we looked.
A Stranger Here Myself
The world that has been delivered to us now seems to have the goal of packing in as many laughs into every second of the day as possible. “There were more jokes written in one minute on the web today than were written in all of the twentieth century,” the Onion’s Joe Randazzo has observed, only halfway joking. Once you start noticing it, funny is everywhere—even the tiniest, dumbest places. The last time I waited on the phone for a corporate conference call to begin, the recorded hold music wasn’t Vivaldi or smooth jazz; it was a faux-earnest novelty ditty about . . . the travails of being placed on hold. “Yes, I’m waiting on this conference call all alone / And I’m on hold, yes I’m on hold . . . I hope it’s not all day!”VIII The yoga studio up the street from my house added a laughter yoga class. The corner drugstore has replaced its “Video Surveillance in Use” security notice with a sign that says “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” The bag of organic dried mangoes sitting on my desk right now has “Tropical Humor!” as a label slogan. Not only has this company decided that the biggest selling point of dried mango snacks is how funny they are, they’ve decided to advertise the fact with a confusing pun!
So life is now a never-ending barrage of little micro-jokes, most so fleeting that they don’t even register. One thing you don’t see much is people wondering if they should make every joke that they can, if there are cases where humor might be pointless or even counterproductive. That kind of introspection usually only happens after a brand makes a joke that it shouldn’t have and gets dragged for it online.IX Online culture in particular seems to demand an even higher comedy quotient than real life. In 2014 I saw a New York Times story about an experimental new technique to save the life of trauma patients by injecting them with freezing salt water and inducing hypothermia—not a particularly hilarious topic, obviously. The headline in the print edition read, “Killing a Patient to Save His Life.” On social media, the headline was, “A Chilling Medical Trial.” Funnier! You have to admit, it’s funnier.
I am not, generationally speaking, a Comedy Native. I’m an immigrant here. I come from a strange, topsy-turvy time when comedy had already acquired its cool cultural cachet, but—if you can imagine such a thing—there wasn’t actually enough of it. We had to hoard what little of it we had on albums and cassettes and videotapes. The very first movie I ever saw on video (Betamax, specifically) was a comedy: Airplane!, at Michael Brewer’s birthday party in third grade.X I grew up rewatching the same worn VHS comedy tapes over and over: Raising Arizona, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, UHF, David Letterman anniversary specials, Tracey Ullman episodes so we could fast-forward to the Simpsons sketches. I snuck Mad magazine home from friends’ houses where it wasn’t contraband. I reread Peanuts treasuries until the pages fell out. We weren’t allowed to stay up late enough for Saturday Night Live for much of my youth, so my brother and I taped it and watched it the following day after church. (Once, my dad got wind at church that Robin Williams’s monologue from the previous night’s show had been particularly saucy, and the tape went missing when we got home. It’s still the only episode from that season that I’ve never seen.) The scarcity of comedy meant that we watched or listened to things until we knew them letter-perfect. To this day, if you need an emergency transcript of anything from This Is Spinal Tap, Monty Python Sings, or the first season of In Living Color, I am your man. To this day, I can’t even hear the word “lemonade” without mentally adding Eddie Murphy’s brief Elvis impression from his Comedian record: “Lemonade! That cool, refreshing drink!” Sometimes people forget Eddie was a great impressionist.
I was a comedy geek. Not a first-generation one—those would be the kids about ten years older than me with George Carlin records and subscriptions to the National Lampoon. But our parents didn’t understand what we were laughing at, so it felt like we were breaking new ground. That was all that mattered.
This is largely hindsight, by the way. I don’t remember ever identifying as a comedy geek at the time. Things were on; you watched them. If they were good, you taped them so you could watch them over and over. But being a funny kid was a big part of my identity, almost as far back as I can remember. Bothering grown-ups with riddles, asking them to explain the jokes you still didn’t understand.XI Do you remember? Making an adult genuinely laugh is a huge thrill when you’re five or six and nobody really pays much attention to you.
I was the Smart Kid too, but it doesn’t take long before reasonably self-aware Smart Kids start to see the ambivalence with which the world regards them, not just peers but adults as well. Funny Kid is a lot less lonely, as identities go. Not everyone can make people laugh, and children figure out pretty quickly who has the knack and egg them on. Not a week goes by when I don’t think about Eric R., the kid in my kindergarten class who leaned over to me during the Pledge of Allegiance on the morning of May 19, 1980, and stage-whispered, “Mount St. Helens blew its penis yesterday!” This is still one of the top four or five funniest jokes I’ve ever heard. As George Carlin pointed out on his Class Clown record, elementary school classrooms are an amazing comedy venue, because “suppressed laughter is the easiest to get.” The research bears out my childhood intuition on the benefits of being the Funny Kid. When psychologists ask fourth-graders to rate their class members on humor and popularity (“classroom social distance” is the nicer way to say this in the literature), the two variables are always closely linked—and the pattern of variances strongly suggests that popularity is predicted by funniness, not the other way around.
If you’ve met a few grade-school Smart Kids–turned–class clowns, or are one yourself, you won’t be surprised to learn that this was also a preemptive measure for me. I wasn’t the biggest kid in class or the best soccer player; I was quiet and full of crippling self-doubt. That’s not a great trade-off. In that situation, where all might be lost for others, at least the Funny Kid can tell jokes. You joke about your own bad haircut. Your bad skin. Your airball. The clothes your mom thought looked “sharp” at Mervyn’s. Tell the joke you fear others might tell about you. It’s a vaccination; you might get cowpox but you probably won’t die of smallpox. You can also deflect by joking about literally anything else: the girls, the teacher, the bully trying to destroy you. As Harry Shearer once said to Marc Maron, “Comedy is controlling the reason people are laughing at you.”
I never went anywhere close to comedy as a profession (see “crippling self-doubt,” above) but I was always in its orbit. Nobody was quicker than me to jump into an argument over the worst “Weekend Update” anchor or the most underrated Judd Apatow movie (Kevin Nealon, Walk Hard, duh).XII And after I became a professional ex–game show contestant and started to write for a living, I suddenly had a little online venue (blogs, then social media) to post things that cracked me up instead of just annoying my family and friends with them. The Internet is a seductive mistress for would-be comedians: personal enough for lots of strangers to tell you how funny they think you are, but impersonal enough that there’s no humiliating silence (or silence-with-a-single-cough) when a joke misses. It’s also a great place to buddy up to comedy writers and performers you have long admired, pretending to be one of the cool kids.
On paper, it seems like the modern funnying-up of America would be a golden age for a guy like me. Who doesn’t like to laugh? Who would rather sit through an earnest, awkward sex ed class than a funny one? Who wants to go back to a time when if there was nothing funny on any of the three TV channels, our only options were a Dave Barry book or Caddyshack on video for the fiftieth time?
And yet, even in the midst of this embarrassment of riches, I have my doubts. In recent years, I have often found myself more bemused than delighted to find an endless stream of jokes everywhere I look, from politics to upscale dining to my kids’ sex education. And it’s made me think seriously about what this change might be doing to our institutions, our social relationships, our very brain chemistry.
Everything is funny now. Shouldn’t we be happier?
Giggling Toward Gomorrah
In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman worried that the trivialities of mass media were going to be the death knell for American culture. In his view, the West had successfully avoided the authoritarian dystopia of 1984 only to embrace the narcotized “soma” culture of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” he wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?” Postman, presciently describing information overload even before the dawn of the Internet, blamed our plight on a glut of celebrity culture, television commercials, and dumbed-down news. He longed for television that would stay in its lane, sticking harmlessly to “junk entertainment.” Couldn’t it leave commerce, news, culture, and education alone?
Decades later, we live in the exact culture Postman predicted. (He died in 2003, having seen his worst fears unfold before his eyes.) But even he underestimated the degree to which the thing that would “amuse us to death” would be amusement itself—laughter, comedy. Life is full of possible trivial distractions, but we have increasingly decided to while away our hours with the funny ones. Reality television is often just the dumbest excesses of Postman’s celebrity culture, now molded into the shape of the classic sitcom. Television commercials once praised products; now that’s almost incidental to telling jokes. On the Internet, with all of human knowledge at last available democratically to all, the most popular aggregation sites are usually topped by short-attention-span laughs: viral memes, TV screengrabs, funny animal videos. The smiling mannequins reading news and making light chitchat about it have been replaced, for millions of people, by actual comedians. If you can’t get one of those comedy-news jobs—if you quit Saturday Night Live in 1995, for example, because you got passed over for the “Weekend Update” desk—you can still become a United States senator for nine years. If you get dropped from your reality show, but the crowds hoot and holler loudly enough at your campaign antics, you can even be elected president.
We are in uncharted waters here. No one really knows how a comedy-first culture might change comedy or culture. I agreed instinctively with Greg Smallidge’s maxim, “Something can be important without being serious,” but that doesn’t mean that nothing should be taken seriously. I object to the nihilism of that, but I also object to the comedy construction. What would be our benchmark for comparison in a world where everything was funny?
My favorite part of Khlebnikov’s “Incantation by Laughter” is the neologism that the translator renders as “laughterhood.” It seems to encompass everything about a culture’s funniness: not just the voice of its comedy, but its social clusters and media and genres and fan bases, its techniques and tropes, its lineage and influence. We don’t really have a word like that in English. But even when they don’t know what to call it, groups always have a laughterhood. Families have one, offices have one, online communities have one, ethnic groups have one. Zoom out and civilizations have one.
This book is an attempt to capture something ineffable: the comic mood of a moment. Today’s jokes aren’t just ubiquitous; they’re also a new breed: faster, weirder, more complex, more self-aware than ever before. How did we get here? How is the new sensibility changing our laughterhood? How is it changing us? It seems to me that these are questions worth asking because we’re not living through just any comic moment, subject to the usual shifting winds of fashion and circumstance. After a century of rising comedy saturation, our present society feels more like a culmination. In the same way that ecological doomsayers predict “peak oil,” a point beyond which decline is inevitable, it may be that we are fast approaching “peak funny,” the singularity of our current dizzying spiral toward never-ending hilarity. There’s something foreboding about all the funny buildings and desserts, the fifty new Twitter jokes per minute on my phone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still laughing, but it feels unsustainable, the same way tourists often feel amid the splendid excess of someplace like Vegas or Dubai. This can’t go on, right?
When someone’s telling a joke, you can usually sense when the punch line is coming.
I. When I asked Smallidge later about this interlude, he asked if he’d also done his “penis opera” bit at that point. “I don’t know if I saw the penis opera,” I replied. “You would remember it,” he said. “Is there actually a singing penis?” I asked eagerly. Reader, there is not a singing penis, just a song about the penis.
II. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele felt so bad about Miller’s $11,000 fine that they wrote a check in that amount to his eye-care charity for children.
III. Did you hear the one about the Kymaean who was selling his house? He carried around one of the building blocks to show what it was like. Boy, those Kymaeans, am I right, folks?
IV. In 2011, the show’s average viewer was forty-one years old. And the evening network news (if you combined all three broadcasts) always drew more than twice as many twentysomething viewers as Jon Stewart did.
V. If you don’t count syndication. Judge Judy made $47 million that year.
VI. Funny art has always been dangerous art, however. The Greek artist Zeuxis is said to have died laughing at his own painting of an old woman who had insisted on posing herself as the goddess Aphrodite.
VII. Even Ali probably didn’t foresee what a weapon his comedic dexterity could be within the ring as well. Would he have been able to knock out Sonny Liston in 1964 if Liston hadn’t been kept infuriated by months of Ali calling him “Big Ugly Bear”? “Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him.”
VIII. The music was such a hit with users of the UberConference conferencing system that the company hired a YouTube-famous band to cover the song in ten different genres, from torch song to rap to samba.
IX. In hindsight, did Cinnabon need to mourn the 2016 death of actress Carrie Fisher with a tweet saluting her signature Princess Leia hairstyle as “the best buns in the galaxy”? I’d argue no.
X. The next time I saw Airplane! at somebody’s house, it was in high school, and the girl’s dad stayed in the room to sternly fast-forward through the scene where Julie Hagerty manually reinflates Otto the autopilot. Seeing fellatio simulated on a smiling inflatable dummy would apparently have been too much for our hair-trigger adolescent hormones to handle.
XI. I distinctly remember my mom having to explain this joke to five-year-old me: “Waiter, this coffee tastes like dirt.” “Well, it was just ground this morning.” Even with the explanation, I thought it was pretty lame and told her so. Kindergartners don’t pull punches.
XII. Once when I was running down a few of my beefs with the first Anchorman, my brother got frustrated enough to say, “Then you just don’t like comedy!” This is seared into my memory as the single most hurtful thing anyone has ever said to me.