Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Thoughts on Thinking

Here’s an article lamenting the “lack of smart in funny”. The idea is that comedy these days has been dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Now, if that’s true, it may or may not be a detriment. After all, comedy is a matter of taste. But the argument could be made that many endeavors besides comedy have seen a similar shift toward the dumb. More and more things in western culture seem to allow for lazy thinking, or no thinking at all, and that could very well be a detriment to our progress.

So as a sort of companion to Carrie’s great AI thread from Sunday, I leave it open to your opinion, dear reader:

Is the current general trend actually toward the dumb? Is popular culture the playground of the unthinking dolt? Do we place enough value on the enterprise of developing the human mind?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. No I don’t think it is. There has always been the humor of stupid and the humor of smart. I think that the quality of humor is as good as it has ever been if not better. Ricky Gervais or Tim Minchin are both smart and funny at the same time. It is very easy to sit and bitch and moan and say “It used to be better but it is all being ruined now.” I think that is lazy and total bullshit.

  2. Yes, Yes and Yes.

    I’d actually go so far as to say that rather than “smart people not breeding” [see all the Eugenics stuff a few days ago] the rise of the idiots can be attributed to a cultural shift (as an aside there no way intelligence could be “bred out” in less than 200 years AND how many posters are university educated but come from families where there was no history of post-14 education? Loads!)

    In the rise of the idiots there seems to be a two-pronged attack;
    1) There’s no shame in ignorance anymore.
    2) A “crass” understanding of equality, i.e. a “mother’s instincts” being equal to the medical establishment.

  3. I don’t think the trend is actually toward dumb, but there are times when I feel like it might be. As much as I like the show “Lie to Me”, I was somewhat saddened to note that the show’s writers felt it was necessary to point out what the Coriolis Effect was.

  4. Is it that there’s a trend towards the dumb, or is it more that smart and subversive stuff often tends to pass unseen and is appreciated more after the fact?

    Sure, network sitcoms and big budget movies tend to go for easy, big, “dumb” laughs, but that’s because they are trying to get a big general audience and don’t want to push too hard in any direction.

    Maybe the smart, subtle humor relies more on word of mouth advertising than the more mainstream stuff. TV marketing tends to try to sell everything to EVERYONE, so often big campaigns fail for more “difficult” shows because they appear too bland for their target audiences. These kinds of things rely on people to spread the word. If they don’t, they get cancelled or fall out of theaters by the time the word gets around.

    Plus, let’s not forget that there are plenty of very smart, very popular funny shows out there. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are both smart, and while it’s easy to take them for granted because they’ve been doing it for so long, they are still much more sophisticated than broad sitcoms or what have you.

  5. I don’t think the trend is toward the dumb. Maybe it is a little, but no worse than in the past. People, even skeptics, tend remember good things better than bad things (except for traumatically bad things), so we tend to have a skewed view of how things used to be. There’s plenty of dumb humor, and plenty of smart humor, and every kind of humor you could possibly think of, now that we have the internet.

  6. I always think of a bunch of whiny old baby boomers sitting around in their easy chairs bitching and moaning about how great everything was in their day. How they were going to save the world and how the gen x ruined it. These questions “are people getting dumber” etc are just the kind of whiny ass thing you would expect from bitter people. Look at what was counted as humor in the past. Full House, Alf, Eight is Enough, Webster, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Caddy Shack. Crap, crap and stupid crap. Try and watch some of that stuff. It is awful.

  7. I think it really depends on where you’re getting your funny. There’s just really a spectrum. Like Expatria said there’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. On the other side, there’s all those annoying bromance comedies that consist of nothing but tit and dick jokes. And then you’ve got stuff like South Park and some of the stuff Will Farrel and Jack Black have done, which has a lot of smart stuff in it hidden among all the tit and dick jokes.

    It doesn’t help that different people find different stuff funny. While I admit that there’s a proliferation of fart and dick joke movies (etc.) out there, I also feel like a lot of the lamentation about the culture being dumb boils down to people being annoyed that not everyone has the same sense of humor that they do, and deciding that it means everyone must be a moron. There are lots of perfectly intelligent (and lots of at the very least not stupid people) who think fart and dick jokes are hilarious even if I don’t.

    And, well, it’s not like fart and dick jokes are anything new to humanity. I imagine we’ve been making fart and dick jokes since the words “fart” and “dick” were invented.

    Added hilarity: Shakespeare is often cast as high culture. Even his histories and tragedies? Fart and dick jokes in them.

  8. Hey whoa! We’re here aren’t we?

    The internet offers every possible variety of stoopid. Stuff we didn’t even know existed 15-20 years ago. It’s overwhelming sometimes. Add in reality TV and pop culture and it seems as if Idiocracy is a mere generation away.

    Hurray for the backlash! Interest in science, rational thinking, humanism and reading is on the rise. Think back to the first days of AOL. What percentage of people were seeking out science articles? Compare that to the percentage of people who frequent the numerous well-written science blogs.

    How many people were at TAM 4 vs. TAM 7? Or skeptics in the pub type events? Do you think P&T’s Bullshit could have gotten made in 1990?

    The other side of the coin is that the stupid and wrong are also gathering together. But skepticism, science, and humanism have the advantage. They’re much better at a rational argument and tend to be funnier. Plus, people tend to see themselves as smart. Ego demands that they align themselves with others who can reflect this view.

    The extremes are the same (worse, the stupid is louder), but the middle is starting to drift towards rationality.

  9. I think Theodore Sturgeon said it best “Nintey percent of everything is crud.” We have a wider access to intelligent humor and entertainment than at anytime in human history. When I was a kid only scientists and high ranking military officials had access to the darpa net. I had three TV channels and they were all fuzzy. Only wealthy people had a VCR. My first computer had no memory. You could buy a cassette tape player and plug it in to act as a slow tape storage. Just because we have crap now doesn’t mean the past was better. I lived in the past it sucked. I listened to the old people when they were willing to honest about the past that existed before I did and it was much, much worse. My mother remembers the lines to get the polio vaccine. She remembers how scary summer was because of polio. Go walk through an old cemetery, look at all the graves for children less than a year old. Many of them in a row for a single family. My daughter has a toy that can pull video out of space and she can carry it in her pocket. Now is fucking amazing. Then sucked.

  10. @Gabrielbrawley: I can still watch Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s, because I can appreciate Chevy Chase and Bill Murray getting out their and doing what they’re good at. The teenage awkwardness scenes in both movies don’t work any more, but that’s because of cultural changes, not any sort of qualitative difference in the comedy.

    That said, I agree with you that there is no macro trend toward dumb. Comedywise, I’m more likely to lament the trend toward simplistic star vehicle comedies (I blame the SNL productions for this, particularly Adam Sandler) and away from ensemble comedy (Clue being the best example I’ve ever seen. )

  11. The Three Stooges were brilliant, not to mention I Love Lucy, epic and sophisticated funny ;-) . Good thing we got away from all that dumb ass Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Few genres of entertainment are more specifically niche driven than humor it seems to me, and if there’s a market for shit, then shit there will be. And due to significantly fewer content restrictions for movies then the crass will be even more so and noticed more.

    I live in a small city of 75,000 where Lewis Black sold out a very large theater a few weeks ago. Also the popularity of The Colbert Report and The Daily show seem to speak to a more sophisticated humor consumer than what’s often indicated by many movies and dumb ass TV shows.

  12. @Gabrielbrawley: Too bloody right, when I was a kid our house was so cold in winter the water in the toilet would FREEZE at night.

    I often think that in 30 or so years when the oil’s run out I’ll be telling my grandkids about how we used to have showers every day and if you wanted hot water all you had to do was turn a tap, and they wont believe me.

  13. @SKrap: I tried watching both last month which is why they were on my mind. They were awful, not at all the hilarious movies I remembered. There was terrible continuity. They just didn’t flow gracefully at all.

    Someone was talking about tit and fart jokes in movies today. What about Porkies (4 of them) or the cheech and chong movies? The past was not a bright shiny pinancle of sophisticated and erudite humor.

  14. “Dumb” humor is easier, cheaper and tends to have wider appeal. “Smart” humor is more difficult and tends to have smaller audiences but it also tends to be more memorable and longer lasting.

    Sure, a lot of what’s out there now is pretty bad but it’s always been like that. For every “Frasier” and “Mad About You”, there’s dozens of bad sitcoms that no one remembers. Fifteen years from now, we’ll be lamenting the comedy of the time, looking back wistfully at “Big Bang Theory” and “30 Rock”.

  15. @russellsugden: Damn, I had forgotten. I used to have ice on the inside of the windows during winter. I had completly forgotten that. Dirt would blow in under the doors and around the window frames when the farmers would plow their fields in the spring. We will find ways to replace oil, there is so much promising research and pilot projects in that area that I don’t worry about it. I look forward to it and hope for a future of cleaner air and cleaner water.

  16. I’ll have to agree with the majority opinion on this one. Humor isn’t trending toward the stupid. Sure, the stupid is more obvious these days, because it is allowed to be less censored (think the Jackass movies), but I don’t think that *most* people preferentially gravitate toward that sort of thing over something like the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. I think I can honestly say that everyone I know appreciates more intelligent humor over the likes of Jackass.

  17. I think it’s also important to note that people are more able than ever to self-select the media they consume. Even if there were nothing “smart” on TV, there are hundreds of “smart” things on the ‘net splintering that audience.

    Heck, I can jump on my Roku player, connect to Netflix, and stream an episode of Monty Python or Yes, Minister or some other “smart” show whenever I want. It’s people who don’t want to/don’t know how to/ are too lazy to do that who make up the live viewing audience for a lot of these “dumb” shows.

    Plus, let’s not forget that the word “smart” is putting a very definite limit on things. Even running with a simple bell curve model, you’re looking at less than 25% of the population. SO why wouldn’t mass media cater to the larger, non- “smart” segment? That’s kind of what mass media does, at least in a consumer-driven system.

    Again, I’m not saying that that’s exactly what’s happening… only that there’d be no reason to be surprised if it were.

  18. Hell now I’m thinking of all the dumb stuff from the past. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and burned in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, 1952, and 1969. Seriously, the river caught fire and burned in 10 different years before anything was done. That isn’t so smart.

  19. @Steve: “The Big Bang Theory” is a great mix of “stupid” and “smart” in my opinion — to get many of the jokes, you have to be at least a little educated. But at the same time they use plenty of “dumb humor” too, and plenty of slapstick.

    And slapstick humor doesn’t automatically mean “dumb”. It takes a lot of skill to properly do slapstick humor.

    @Skept-artist: And it’s not like Gervais and even Jon Stewart is smart ALL THE TIME. Nor is Eddie Izzard. Death Star Canteen, anyone?

  20. Hell, look at the show the author of the article has. Top Gear is incredibly witty, biting, and has moments of great subtlety, but their race car has “Arse Biscuits” on one door, and “Penis” on the other.

  21. @marilove: I remember it as hilarous but I haven’t seen it in 15 or 20 years. So I don’t know. One of the things I have found when I re-watch movies from the 80’s is that they are very disjointed. It feels like there are 6 or 7 jokes that had to be told and the rest of the movie is just taking up time to justify the ticket price.

  22. One thing that does drive me insane with their level of assumed stupidty of humans are direct sales commercials. Think snuggy or slanket. “Opening jars is impossible and dangerous you need the jar opener 3000 for 6 easy payments of $19.95.” “Everyone loves hard boiled eggs but pealing them is impossible and messy and you are much too stupid to do it. You need the egg pealer only 100 easy payments of $19.95” “Are you deaf? Then you need the ear piece 18888 it violates the laws of the univers and allows you to hear what a ref on the football field is saying but doesn’t blow out your eardrums when everyone around you starts to scream, only 88 easy payments of $19.95” “Everyone likes to wipe their ass after they take a crap but it’s impossible and dangerous. You need the asswipe 60000. Only 800 easy payments of $199.99 Order now and we will throw in a second asswipe 60000. No more emabarrasing stink of shit emanating from your filthy unwiped ass. Now you can hold your head up in wal-mart when you are buying your 12 gallon jar of slimfast.”

  23. Know what else I love? Hot Fuzz. It’s a smart satire/parody of ridiculous American action flicks, while also being a legit action flick in its own right, and it also uses some ridiculous humor. It’s got a mix of everything and it’s awesome.

    Same thing with Tropic Thunder, which I thought was *brilliant* while others think it is dumb as hell. Either you love it or hate it.

    Bad Santa is my favorite black comedy. I think it’s smart, others disagree.

    Pineapple Express is my most recent favorite, and while it’s not all that smart, it’s a ridiculous amount of fun.

    I also like ridiculous action flicks. Crank and Crank 2 were FUCKING AMAZING, while also being completely ridiculous. And let me tell you, I love Bruce Willis.

    There is nothing at all wrong in enjoying dumb shit from time to time. We all deserve a brain break sometimes.

  24. Same thing with Tropic Thunder, which I thought was *brilliant* while others think it is dumb as hell. Either you love it or hate it.

    Bad Santa is my favorite black comedy. I think it’s smart, others disagree.

    And you know what, this brings up a good question: What makes “smart” comedy and what makes “dumb” comedy?

    To me, it’s rather subjective. I think things like Airplane! and Tropic Thunder are utterly brilliant, but many people think they are dumb as hell.

  25. I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, you see vapid stereotypes being promoted on TV and in the movies. From their perspective, the scientific community are a bunch of arrogant pricks who don’t do real science and a rational argument won’t get you as far as a two-by-four. Individual scientists can be cool, but they have to be the underdog, ridiculed by all their peers and waiting for their big break so they can prove to the world they were right.

    On the other, intellectualism is making a comeback. There are far more moderates than there are extremists these days. The only bad part about that is that the extremists are getting desperate and… being extremists, they are hogging the spotlight.

    I’m not one of those “It was better in my day” kind of people. My high school was filled with teachers who didn’t know as much as the students. I hear that’s changed. Atheism, general Skepticism (big S, not little s) are both on the rise and the fact that there is more controversy about things like Creationism and GCC means that more people are willing to stand up and say “That’s not right” when they see stupid things happening.

    On the third hand, I hear about whole universities who graduate students who don’t know the basics. The media still dumbs down everything, and if someone doesn’t understand you it’s your fault for not making yourself understood instead of their fault for not understanding the subject. And you’ll still make more money playing football than you will by curing cancer.

    I guess what I will say is that things are currently being shaken up. Smart people aren’t letting the stupid stuff slide as much anymore. However I think the big fight is still ahead of us. Probably more than one.

  26. I love both “high” and “low” comedy. I think Jackass is fucking hilarious, and so is Jon Stewart. I love most of those SNL digital shorts, but also Monty Python.

    It’s not like one “low” comedy flourishes at the expense of “high”. There’s plenty of room for both slapstick and satire in this world.

  27. @marilove: Bad Santa is certainly smart, though I’ll take Death to Smoochy as best dark comedy of the modern era.

    As someone who does stage combat (usually slapstick, but sometimes the serious stuffs) I can appreciate action films, particularly ones with crazy fight scenes. Jason Statham singlehandedly sells a movie for me.

  28. @Gabrielbrawley: I did a Fringe Festival once while there was a production of Spamalot in town the same weekend. One of the performers (who did a one man show which culminated in him playing Jesus back from the dead and pissed about fundamentalism) was trying to talk everyone into working overt Spam references into their shows.

  29. @SKrap: I think it’s smart as well, but many people think it’s dumb. Dark humor is the hardest humor to get, though.

    OH AND DEATH TO SMOOCHY! I almost forgot about that! I own that one too. So gooood.

    But I still loool at, “You won’t shit right for a week.” Because I’m 12.

    Jason Statham is awesome and Crank/Crank 2 are perhaps the best ridiculous action flicks to come out in recent memory. “Let’s make a ridiculous action movie!” Aaaand they did and it was epic.

  30. Ok I think this weekend I’m going to watch Bad Santa and Death to Smoochy.

    Although Bad Santa makes me sad because of John Ritter AND Bernie Mac. Bernie Mac died on my birthday. One of my favorite comedians died on my birthday! I am still sad about that.

  31. OH MAN GUIS. This is either going to be horrible or brilliant. From wiki:

    “On September 18th, 2009 Billy Bob Thornton appeared on NFL Networks flagship show NFL Total Access segment “Celebrity Picks”. He confirmed, after host Rich Eisen hinted, there will be a sequel to the 2003 hit Bad Santa. He also noted he had received the script earlier that day and would be reading it that night.”

  32. @Gabrielbrawley: Never had dirt comming through the door, but certainly had frost on the windows.

    Dumb things from the past: Local chippie used lard for years and the heat from the frier would cause a small amount to evapourate with the moisture from the fish. It condensed inside the chimney over a number of years until the whole of the chimney was solid. The regular heating and cooling caused the lard to re-render into a purer form until one day it caught fire and burnt the place down.

    Smelled lovely though.

  33. @marilove: also the Transporter 1/2 (I haven’t seen the third one).

    As to the slapstick comedy thing, one of the best instances of slapstick I had seen was a Valentine’s day episode of Frasier which featured David Hyde Pierce (Niles) preparing for a date.

    Most comedy related shows I have seen that are really good generally do mix “dumb” and “smart” humor, which is generally necessary for the sake of appealing to a large enough audience to not get cancelled. I generally value the level of creativity and writing imparted upon a show over the how “intelligent” it appears. Oh, and I enjoyed Jackass 2 despite my better judgement. (As well as “Don’t Mess with the Zohan”, and that was a really stupid movie)

  34. In my (very humble) opinion, the Ricky Gervais series “Extras” was probably the ultimate in brilliant/dumb comedy. Especially because of the “show within a show” aspect which directly examines the hi-brow/low-brow within TV comedy. The series finale was AMAZING.

  35. Now, If there’s one thing that actually is getting dumber, it would be pop music. Fake beats, lip synching/autotune, song with lyrics and songwriting about as deep as… er… something really shallow… Look at popular music 50 years ago – you get classy jazz and Big band, and the roots of Rock and Roll. Now, you get “artists” like Lady gaga, emo bands comprised mainly of mediocre musicians and angst, and rap.

  36. @meatyphil: at the time that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Don Wilson were changing the face of music, Doris Day was at the top of the charts with “How much is the doggy in the window.” Pop music has always been trash, except when some quality bands broke through, like the Beatles. We just forget all the crummy hits.

    Also, calling all rap bad music, is equal to people in the ’50s dismissing Jazz and Rock & Roll as garbage. There is some damn good music under the umbrella of Hip Hop.

  37. @meatyphil: When they were the new music they were dismissed as stupid and trash. Every new generation is dismissed as stupid and dumb and trashy by prior generations. I have read translations of greek and egyptian writings from 3000 years ago that lament how stupid the new generation is. Have you read the illiad or the odysey? Are large portion of it is a lament about how the younger generation isn’t what the older generation was.

  38. @meatyphil: as shallow as a kiddie pool. I don’t think you listen to much emo. There are some really good, really competent bands out there in the genre creating good music. The same in hip hop, punk, metal, and even pop. Most of the really good stuff like say the music of Jonathan Coulton (who has done for music distribution what the Beatles did for pop, metal, and country, yeah, you heard right) is largely either underground or made popular by the internet equivalent of word of mouth. The good stuff is out there, you just have to find it (and sometimes, it creeps into the mainstream).

  39. I definitely don’t think comedy is being dumbed down, overall. It’s more that it’s just spreading out. There’s more comedy at every point on the spectrum. If you want smart comedy, watch the Daily Show, Colbert Report, or your country’s local equivalents (yes, you probably have more than one). For people who want dumb comedy, just look for any movie with “Movie” in the title.

    For that matter, I’d hazard to say you can do better comedy with more intellectual arguments than you can with dumb ones. It takes some amount of intelligence to notice ridiculousness, and some integrity on top of that. If you honestly believe in, say, Scientology, there’s no way you’ll be able to mock it. If you don’t, it’s a comic goldmine (which may or may not have be plagued by spirits of those killed by the explosions of H-bombs long before the Big Bang).

  40. “Is the current general trend actually toward the dumb?”

    I suspect the trend is to write material that appeals to the bell curve of the smart/dumb continuum of people. Comedy writers generally are at it to make a living, I’d guess. Writing to a target audience of people in the top 2% of intelligence isn’t going to sell as much material.

    “Is popular culture the playground of the unthinking dolt?

    Yes. I think the bell curve of intelligence distribution among people both demonstrates and necessitates that. By very definition, “popular” has to appeal to the majority of people. That majority doesn’t make up the greatest thinkers.

    “Do we place enough value on the enterprise of developing the human mind?”

    No, we do not.

  41. I don’t believe that ‘dumb’ is on the increase; there seems more variety if anything. To me, the best and most rewarding humour will always be the intelligent stuff, but I’ve got a pretty broad sense of humour (indiscriminate perhaps?) It depends on what you’re looking for, and how you choose to interoperate the jokes, for instance, I adore Family Guy, and it’s the least sophisticated shock-value gags that make me laugh the hardest, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to Tim Minchin.

    It also depends where you are looking, there seems an abundance of intelligent, well developed stand up. Brilliant humour seems harder to come by in TV and movies, but it’s by no means absent.

  42. If you’re dumb, you can only laugh at dumb jokes, if you’re smart, you can laugh at dumb AND smart jokes.

    Under the right circumstances, even fart jokes can have me litterally hurting my sides laughing.
    But the right double entendre or clever innuendo is usually what already has me chuckling in the first place. You can’t just throw in the 6 year old’s material right away, you have to be primed for that to work. Which is why most Adam Sandler movies just have me cringing (particularly the jokes you can see coming three scenes before they occur), while at the same time movies with the exact same types of jokes in ’em will have me ROTFL. They simply don’t spend half the movie building up to a fart joke. The fart jokes are just added in as flavour.

    When you find yourself in an audience at TAM London, it’s perhaps no surprise to hear one of the performers say how glad he is to perform for an audience of nerds. Now he can make jokes about subjects he likes to talk about himself and people will still GET them.

    For different audiences, play it safe and go for the things you KNOW will appeal to almost everyone, rather than risk being boo-ed off because nobody gets it. The lowest common denominator will even have a room full of skeptics laughing. Which it did.

  43. Yes, maybe and no.

    Yes, there seems to be a popular “slouch” towards the dumb. I can vouch that, as far as technical writing goes for the military, we are to write to a sixth-grade reading level. Consider that as you also consider the technologically-sophisticated weapons in use today.

    There are some “smart” comedies out there, like Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons (showing signs of slipping), Futurama, The Animaniacs, etc. The Brits are much better at the more sophisticated kinds of humor, IMHO. You have to be culturally literate and fairly well educated to understand some British humor, such as some of Monty Python’s skits. (A “Summarize Proust Competition?” Really!?!)

    I definitely think we need more intelligent humor. We have plenty of the “lesser” kind. Unfortunately, the market dictates the LCD approach, as Exarch mentioned above, because it is solely driven by profit.

    We don’t place nearly as much value in educating and improving human minds, IMHO. Look at the US education system as a good example. There are bright spots here and there globally, though. Some countries invest heavily in education and opportunity for their best and brightest, as well as the middle range of people of adequate, average intelligence. The US doesn’t and I don’t know what it will take to change it.

    My wife and I had to fight for services for our girls, as the both turned out to be “gifted and talented” in the IQ department. We were pests to the school administrators (their teachers rooted for us in the background) to get them what they needed. We ended up buying PC’s and a ton of educational software like the Dr. Brain puzzle games, Reader Rabbit, Math Rabbit, etc. It paid off in spades, but the kids were still bored at school much of the time. Why does this have to be?

    Rant over.

  44. I think it’s a testament to the quality of education when the average student gets average grades. (and it’s not necessarily bad if number of students are held back because they don’t meet the standard for passing to the next grade, it means that the education is hard, not that the students are substandard). This is what it’s like in Belgium.

    If the average European student gets well above average grades in the US, that’s a sign something is off …

  45. I think that subtle humor is terrible underrepresented in comedy. You see the same thing in mystery. Everything has to be applied with a sledge hammer. Not a lot of comedy requires you to ‘get’ the joke. Most comedians make sure you get it.

    The same with mysteries. There are few mystery stories today (at least on TV and in film) that require much brainwork from the audience. They lead you along by the hand. When there’s a twist, it’s as obvious as a bomb going off, and I never get the sense that there’s something to figure out. I just have to wait and all will be revealed… and that’s if they provide a real mystery in the first place.

    In that sense, society is clearly “dumber” than twenty or thirty years ago.

  46. @swordsbane: at the same time scenes that required quite a bit of setup in older movies now get sort-of glossed over quickly to get to the real story. Not just comedy though, but any kind of movie or show. The pace of the movies is quicker, although the depth is shallower, and the story often too predictable.

  47. QuestionAuthority: “but the kids were still bored at school much of the time. Why does this have to be?”

    Because we’ve just gone through the mentality that brought us “No Child Left Behind” My mother was a teacher and saw it all; social promotion, emphasis taken off wining… somehow teaching children without challenging them. Competition was seen as conflict and we can’t have our darlings work for their grades.

    Thankfully, a lot of that has been pitched in the trash bin, but some of those habits die hard and some teachers today (and school administrators) simply don’t know what to do with a student that gets ahead of the pack because they’ve never been told.

    Exarch: It wasn’t long ago when students WEREN’T held back because they weren’t passing because they felt it would be too hard on the student from a social perspective. That was what’s called Social Promotion, and the system is just now starting to turn that around.

    To use a surprising analogy, it’s the same mentality that says we can’t let the banks fail. The very idea of a free market (the thing that makes it good) is that companies which can’t handle their business right move aside for those who can. We were so concerned with the employees keeping their jobs that we forgot to force the banks to do theirs, and incidentally, the money we spent propping the banks up would have been more than enough to pay each and every one of their employees expenses until they found work.

    As a culture we’re losing sight of why we do things and focusing on what we’re doing too much. We need to stop focusing so much on passing students and more on making sure they have the education to pass themselves. It’s not exactly stupidity, but sometimes it looks an awful lot like it.

  48. Hey all, great discussion on this thread!

    I’m sorry I haven’t been able to participate, but I have been reading the comments.

    In regard to “dumb” comedy, I think the point someone made that dumb people can only get dumb humor, but smart people can get dumb and smart humor is an interesting one. To that point, I’d recommend reading Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. Even if you don’t think Steve Martin’s stand up is/was funny, the book details the process a very thoughtful, intelligent man used to be extremely silly in a standup act that ultimately rivaled any stadium rock tour. It’s a good, quick read.

  49. I don’t think ‘dumb’ people can’t get ‘smart’ humor, although it does require a bit of audience participation.

    The problem is, I believe, that for something to be seen as funny, it must also be seen to be true. I have seen Republicans AND Democrats who don’t ‘get’ Lewis Black because they believe so much in their own party. They will get the joke when it’s on the other party though, because they can easily believe the bad things about them. Again, not exactly stupid, but when reality is SO much removed from generic public thinking, I can easily see how “intellectual comedy” can be stifled. You certainly have to know your crowd. Common Sense isn’t, and “Reality” is too often seen as “intellectualism” I think it has more or less always been that way.

    I remember Mel Brooks movie: “History of the World, Part 1” where comedians were called “Stand-up philosophers.” I laughed at the time, but that is a very good description of what they do, which of course is what makes it funny.

  50. @meatyphil: Wow. Close-minded, much?

    First of all, Lady Gaga doesn’t lip synch. She also writes her own music, and is a producer in her own right. She is a talented woman. Look on youtube for some of her acoustic stuff — girl can really sing. She is also an entertainer, and is meticulous about her shows. She has gotten a LOT of inspiration from David Bowie. David Bowie and she have a lot of similarities. And yet I bet you would say David Bowie’s music isn’t crap. Why? Because he’s not some young female pop singer?

    From her wiki page:

    Playing piano by ear from the age of 4, Gaga went on to write her first piano ballad at 13 and began performing at open mike nights by age 14. At age 17, she gained early admission to the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. There, she studied music and improved her songwriting skills by composing essays and analytical papers focusing on topics such as art, religion and socio-political order. Gaga later withdrew from the school to focus on her musical career.

    How does that make her a talentless hack, exactly? Girl worked her ASS OFF to get where she is. And upon first listen, her music may seem shallow, but she is a fantastic writer, with hidden meanings bellow what first seems like fluff. Did you know “Poker Face” is about her bisexuality?

    And rap? Ugh. Here we are with “ALL RAP IS CRAP!” Whenever anyone says that, it shows me that they have no idea what they are talking about and have never actually listened to rap or hip-hop. Go listen to some old school Common, or find some indie hip hop. Not all hip-hop is 50 cent or Eminem. Though…no, I take that back: you may not like his subject matter or attitude, but Eminem is an INCREDIBLY talented rapper. He is king of Multisyllabic rhyming which is incredibly difficult to do and he is one of the few mainstream rappers that can do it, and do it well. Man can rap his ass off.


    Praying for sleep, dreaming with a watering mouth,
    wishing for a better life for my daughter and spouse, in this slaughtering house,
    caught up in bouts with the root of all evil,
    I’ve seen it turn beautiful people
    cruel and deceitful, and make them do shit illegal

    – “It’s OK” from his Infinite album

    It is highly annoying when people judge music when they clearly have no idea what they are talking about.

    Not all rap/hip-hop is bad. Not all pop is bad. Stop painting entire genres of music with one broad brush.

  51. @marilove – I loved Hot Fuzz! I couldn’t stop laughing from the moment he collared Santa Claus. Simon Pegg is brilliant. Shaun of the Dead was another one that kept me laughing throughout.

    @Gabrielbrawley – I’m a baby boomer and remember those “good ‘ol days”. You’re right in that a lot of that stuff was crap just as a lot of stuff today is crap. Smart comedy does it for me and I’ve seen some of the finest from every decade starting with old silent reels of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle; the Marx Brothers and screwball comedies such as ‘Bringing Up Baby’; Cary Grant; Hope and Crosby Road pictures; Three Stooges; George Carlin; Laugh-In; The Carol Burnett Show; Minnie Pearl (whom I knew personally); Monty Python. The list is endless of smart comedy that included spit-takes and prat-falls.

    There is a lot of smart in today’s comedy from Ricky Gervais, Eddie Izzard, Tina Fey, John Stewart. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.

    The smartest of comedians are those that are fully aware of the world. They don’t just play to one side; they see the humor in all sides and readily point it out. Dumb comedy only sees the one side and plays to that, which is why they are dumb.

    As for as everything else in the world dumbing down – I live in Alabama which is stuck in the 1800’s for the most part. Everything here is dumb. It’s why I come here every day so I can revel in the higher level of intelligence for a little while.

  52. Another thought, to see a mash-up of smart and dumb comedy, watch a Mel Brooks movie. Each one has a brilliant, smart comedy and moments where you just groaned out loud a the bad jokes. It’s that blend of smart and dumb that made his movies so much fun.

    Although ‘Spaceballs’ was more dumb than smart.

  53. @OnlyCheryl:

    You said “smart comedy”, followed by a list including the Three Stooges. Maybe you all can inform me, because to me those two don’t go together. My experience with the Three Stooges was almost entirely when I was much younger, so I may have missed something, but all I remember is lots of these guys smacking each other around in goofy ways. I never found it funny, and certainly wouldn’t have considered it as ‘smart’.

    Is there something underlying the Three Stooges that I missed in my early exposure? I’m open to low-brow comedy (I thought Beavis and Butthead was funny), but I just never cared for slapstick. Is it worthwhile for me to give the Stooges another chance, or does it require an appreciation for slapstick?

    I am a Hedge

  54. Im a Hedge: Slapstick is okay when done right and sprinked very sparingly into other comedy. It’s always very much overdone.. from whole movies being slapstick (Three Stooges) to whole comedy careers centering on Slapstick (Chevy Chase comes to mind) As with everything, good in moderation. I can get into mild slapstick, but the “Ow, my Balls” kind that seems to be popular today doesn’t exactly do it for me.

  55. @Im a Hedge: I’m sure they take appreciate of slapstick to enjoy them, but I think the Three Stooges were brilliant in their own way because they were pretty ground breaking at the time. And of course they were brilliant in the sense that they knew their audience very well, and were very successful because of it. And look at Lucille Ball — she was Queen of slapstick and physical comedy.

    Slapstick and physical comedy is NOT easy, even if it might look easy. It takes fantastic timing to get it right (miss the mark and the joke fails), you have to have an intimate knowledge of how bodies react to even the smallest of stimuli (an annoying fly, an off smell, and on up to pies in the face), and you have to know how to properly exaggerate that reaction to get a laugh.

    Slapstick isn’t for everyone, but it’s NOT as easy.

    Also, I don’t consider “low brow humor” to automatically be dumb. Including Beavis and Butthead. Beneath all of the fart jokes, they had quite a lot to say about society. And they made it hilarious.

  56. @marilove:

    Including Beavis and Butthead. Beneath all of the fart jokes, they had quite a lot to say about society. And they made it hilarious.

    I think Patrick Stuart once said that Beavis and Butthead was funny to very stupid people and very smart people.

  57. New member here – first off I love this website. Figure it’s about time to add my copper to this discussion.

    I’ll try to keep the rambling to a minimum.
    I’ve noticed people bringing up some really smart and funny shows on television but no one has talked about Comedy Central yet.

    Comedy Central has been around for a while – and I guess that is central to my argument ( :D ). I’ve got to see a lot of content and have noticed a definite shift in their strategy. I remember when The Daily Show was hosted by Craig Kilborn and when CC actually put up great comedy by the seasoned pros, including Monty Python. Kids in the Hall was on it too. I used to run home from school to watch it. And that age is no more.

    (here’s a little KitH sketch that sort of sums up the general sentiment – )

    The reason for this is the CC has chosen to follow a certain demographic. You can tell by the horrible shows that are on there now (excepting Colbert Report, Daily Show, South Park!! ) it’s meant for the college age male. And the college male isn’t the brightest crayon in the box. There are a lot of sociological reasons for this but I won’t go into that.

    I don’t know what the company goal is – whether they want to be on the pulse of what is funny in America or they want to follow a demo… CC is a Viacom company – which also owns MTV and MTV shot itself in the foot by choosing to follow the most fickle demographic – teen girls. But that is neither here nor there.

    What’s important to note is the drop off of these genuinely smart and funny things to air things like Secret Girlfriend, Blue Collar Comedy, The Jeff Dunham show (who bravely played The Great Allentown Fair 3 days in a row – those of you from eastern PA, please laugh) and Tosh.0

    I guess I’m a bit stumped – the point is, there are lots of up and coming comedy shows which are clever but not “smart”. The article was about specific cultural and academic references being left out of comedy – being replaced with pop culture, a phenomenon which I think is very real.

    I’m sure many of you already know about it but I still want to recommend The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby.

    It’s not that there’s more low brow comedy – people have already mentioned this – I just think maybe the standard for high brow has been brought down – not just in comedy but everywhere else in our culture. Which, really really sucks.

    hope that all makes sense.

  58. I second that recommendation of Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason. Actually, anything written by her is great.

    She points out that with the rise of the middle-class in the US after WWII, there was a corresponding rise in what she calls “middle-brow” culture: canned music (muzak), romance novels, shows on TV like Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch (she feels TV as a medium contributed greatly to this push toward the middle), along with the denigration of scientific and intellectual thought as “egg-head” stuff, etc.

    TV shows like All in the Family, and MASH, successfully poked fun at intellectuals, but were also subtly subversive and elitist in their own right. You haven’t seen that on (primetime) TV for a while until shows like The Office, 30 Rock, South Park, and Arrested Development.

    I think the Daily Show is the best example of “subtle intellectualism” on TV, right now. However, if all you saw was last night’s show where John Stewart gets all philosophical about Ayn Rand, you might think it was too intellectual. I loved it!

    As Mort Goldman (of Family Guy) once said: “Not John Stewart, he’s our most important Jew!” Comedy gold.

  59. @marilove:

    I think the Three Stooges were brilliant in their own way because they were pretty ground breaking at the time.

    They were interviewing some guy on NPR once who was claiming that the Three Stooges represent some sort of universal form of humor, that you can show a Three Stooges flick anywhere in the world, with or without translation, and people will laugh at the same bits. They are ambassadors to the world.

  60. @pciszek: Exactly! They also transcend generations, and kids on up through my grandfather love them, even to this day (my nephew LOVES THEM). That, to me, is brilliance. It’s not necessarily “smart comedy” but it’s brilliant.

  61. @Garrison22: All in the Family is one of my favorite shows of all time.

    I have a thing for old sitcoms. The Dick Van Dyke Show is my all-time favorite. I also love Rhoda (not Mary Tyler Moore, but Rhoda!). And what about Mama’s House? OMG!! That, too me, is a great mix of smart and low-brow humor. I could go on. I love old time sitcoms!

  62. @pciszek:
    […] the Three Stooges represent some sort of universal form of humor, that you can show a Three Stooges flick anywhere in the world, with or without translation, and people will laugh at the same bits. They are ambassadors to the world.

    I think the same could be said for “Mr. Bean”. It works no matter what language you speak, because speach isn’t used. Although sound IS, because I always wonder how easily people would laugh or find it funny if it didn’t have the laugh track to set them off.
    But then, I remember seeing an episode at a bar a while ago, where they’d simply turned off the sound, and I found myself chuckling quite a number of times.

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