Comedy Is Finally Getting Respect (Is That A Good Thing?)
It’s never been easy being a comic. In the 1950s, comedians were sometimes arrested for what was considered “lewd and obscene” material. In the 1960s, comedians made government naughty lists for their subversive political ideas. In the 1970s, as the comedy boom began taking off, high-profile venues like The Comedy Store refused to even pay gas money to comics who were bringing in crowds. (Today, of course, gas money would be some sweet cash.) But after years of being considered one of the lower arts, comedy is finally getting some high-brow respect.
Take the National Comedy Center -- please! (*rimshot*) Opened in 2018 in Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, New York, the museum devoted to funny stuff has already amassed an impressive collection of comedy artifacts, including the career archives of Carl Reiner, George Carlin’s Grammy Award and handwritten notes, Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, and notes from Joan Rivers on how to handle hecklers. It’s the Smithsonian of slapstick! Heck, even John Mulaney is a fan.
But that’s not the only sign that America has decided that comedy is culturally significant. A slew of new documentaries are telling comics’ life stories in a tone previously reserved for war heroes and Nobel Prize winners:
* George Carlin’s American Dream -- a nearly four-hour opus from director Judd Apatow -- chronicles the life of the furiously funny free-speech advocate over six decades;
* Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind explores the career of a man whose comically hyperactive brain turned against him;
* And Rob Reiner has announced a new documentary about his childhood best friend, comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks.
Clearly, we no longer think of comedians merely as people who spray seltzer down their slacks to take our minds off our worries. In fact, some argue that comedians are our modern-day philosophers. Comic Pete Holmes reluctantly agrees, conceding that “not too many comedians would like to say that because it makes them sound like lofty a**holes. But the truth is, my job is look at everything that’s happening inside and outside of me, and then articulate that.”
Well, that certainly sounds important! It sounds like comedy would do well to embrace this notion -- or does it? The late Norm MacDonald smelled something funny about all of it, which he shares on his posthumous Netflix special, Norm MacDonald: Nothing Special:
Rodney Dangerfield (whose own handwritten notes are on display at the National Comedy Center) would understand why this could be a problem. His whole comic persona was built on the concept that, I’m telling ya, he got no respect. His mother never breastfed him -- she only liked him as a friend. His father carried around a picture of the kid who came with the wallet. One year they made Rodney the poster boy for birth control.
You get the idea.
One suspects that Dangerfield would have found all this respect business a little problematic. Sure, everyone wants to be loved and admired. But comedy always works best when it’s coming from the place of the underdog.
So enjoy all of this new respect for our professional funny people -- but let’s not be afraid to knock comedy around a little as well. The whole idea is to not take things so seriously.
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Top image: Rodney Dangerfield Instagram