Thursday, March 08, 2018

Stand-Up Comedy and Sitcoms

Sitcoms used to be a thing. It would be a skit in a room where on cue, there would be recorded laughter to remind you that what you just heard was supposed to be funny. This Pavlovian programming then "progressed" to repetitive infantile clown tunes when a joke was cracked.

During the last decade or so, stand up comedy has become quite popular. There is a guy (or rarely, a woman) wearing not-too-smart clothing (because they have to be relatable) on the stage weaving in rehearsed routines in between remarking on the audience and quipping about some recent events.

In India, there are special "laughter" shows on TV.  Navjot Sidhu or Kapil Sharma or the AIB shows try relentlessly and desperately to make you laugh.  You wonder if you are weird for not finding their jokes funny.  In humor, "trying" is always trying too hard.  A joke or anecdote weaved in a conversation is a very different beast than a show whose very raison d'ĂȘtre is to crack one joke after another.

There is also the phenomenon of well-dressed sarcastic news coverage called "late night commentators" pandering to their audience and making fun of easily targeted celebrities (Trump has been a God's gift to these) or social classes (usually men and conservatives). Examples are Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Jimmy Fallon, ...

Due to what I can only consider a quirk of constitution, I have rarely if ever found them worthy of my time. They are in a position of power where they can make fun of somebody, usually by mimicry or exaggeration or cherry-picking out-of-context quotes) to millions of people, and the other has no way of responding. I consider these shows vulgar and low-brow. Their target audience is the educated middle classes, which is somewhat informed about what is going on the world but is only too keen to be schooled in what is deplorable and what is admirable, what is regressive and what is progressive, what is urbane/hip and what is gauche.

My introduction to sitcoms was when I watched a few episodes of Seinfeld or Friends, and I might have seen some ancient replays of "Small Wonder" and The Bill Cosby show. My introduction to stand up comedy was watching a few clips of Russell Peters and George Carlin. I think both George Carlin and Mr Peters are quite skilled and I admired their felicity and expressions. But for some reason, I never became a fan. Sarcasm is witty and entertaining but generally simplistic. It pokes fun at others, and even sometimes aspects of one's own identity, as a form of fashion. It is a mistake to regard a quip by a professional comedian as an insight. You might say "But nobody makes that mistake!" You'd be surprised at people who are influenced by these comedians and forward their clips as persuasive arguments for something that they believe in already.

I guess my primary negation about these shows stems from their pandering nature. A comedian is in the business to make money. He will only make jokes that are going to not make him unpopular. A book by Voltaire, Jonathan Switf or Oscar Wilde was published without much regard to its royalties. The aim was social commentary, not agreeableness or entertainment. A comedian has to make sure he offers "value for money" in these days of art as a form of consumption. If you are paying $100 for an hour of laughter, he better not make you feel bad by poking fun at a holy cow or by making a politically incorrect joke.

The stand-up comedians are to real humor what Andrea Bocelli is to Opera. The popular, easily-digestible, ticketed version of an art form. People go to these shows to "unwind". One cannot these shows to really provoke or inspire deeper thoughts.

Perhaps they are similar in vein to most things on sale these days. A relief to counter the tedium in most people's lives. I think I understand why people watch The Big Bang Theory instead of a discussion about cosmology. Such stuff is "comfort food" for the brain. Just like comfort food is to make you feel good, and is not really meant for nourishment or health, such shows are for entertainment, not for edification.

I guess a "need" for unwinding and entertainment as a persistent, chronic feature of modern life is what I rebel against. People are paying others to make them laugh. I can't be the only one who sees the tragedy of this.

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