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A funny thing happened

Sometime last year, I was at my local dog park entertaining my bouncy labradoodle and happened to be standing next to a pair of millennials who were complaining about their respective fathers' terrible senses of humor.

"He thinks he's so funny, but he's not," the man said. "All he does is quote The Simpsons."

"Oh my God," the woman responded. "My dad never makes jokes, but when he wants to seem like he's funny he just uses stuff from Seinfeld, I can't stand it."

Listening to this exchange, I could actually feel my body begin to wither and age, like the centuries-old villain in the superhero movies who loses his powers and suddenly reverts to dust. How could anyone not find The Simpsons hilarious (and let's be very clear here: I refer only to the first nine seasons of the show, after that, I can't vouch for it one way or the other)? So full of insight and sight-gags and an incredible array of inside jokes ...

And that's when it truly hit me what the problem was, and how, without being the least bit aware of it, my Gen-X brethren and I, with all our defining moments and cultural epochs, were draining so rapidly of cultural currency.

The answer comes in the form of another question: Why is it that comedians only seem to commandeer the cultural zeitgeist for roughly a decade at a time? Think about it: The '80s were Eddie Murphy's to use as he wished, and to a lesser degree, Robin Williams'; the '90s were the time of Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey; the aughts belonged to Will Farrell, Larry David and Dave Chapelle; and now, in the teens, we have Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, and up until last year, Louis C.K.

Movie stars, such as they are, get to be movie stars for decades (unless, of course, they happen to be female, in which case they can remain stars right up until they tip over into their mid-40s); novelists can write until their deathbeds; but comedians have a super-definite shelf life, at least in terms of typifying an era (they can all go on to have perfectly good careers, but no longer in that capacity).

This isn't that hard to break down, if you think about it: A lot of successful comedy has two elements working in its favor, it feels like it's breaking new ground, and it employs in-jokes that only someone keyed into current cultural doings might pick up on. When Will Farrell joked about driving a "Dodge Stratus" in one of his more winning Saturday Night Live segments in the '90s, he was making a joke so oddly specific, you couldn't hear it again from anyone else and not think of his character. When "more cowbell" entered the public lexicon, it came from an once-obscure SNL piece that starred Farrell as the musician holding the instrument of choice for producer Christopher Walken.

You want to seem tired and spent? Try making a reference to either one of those jokes now. Every generation defines what is funny for itself, just as every generation decides what it wants to listen to, and there's an excellent chance what it chooses will be the antithesis of what its parents enjoyed in their youths. By the time I turned 14 -- prime music ownership age -- I had decided I heard entirely too much of Led Zeppelin, the Stones, and the Beatles (my first band love), and needed to find something different, which is how I eventually got into the early British punks (albeit a couple of years late -- I was never that cool), and found my way to the early '80s new wave and indie scene. Needless to say, my parents, whose only venture outside of classical music were single albums by Simon & Garfunkel, and the aforementioned Beatles, had no earthly clue what I was listening to or why. Which is just how I liked it.

What members of our generation found funny, therefore, almost by definition has to seem jaded, spent, and hopelessly out of date by our kids. They have seen all the SNL bits, just as we had watched all the Monty Python segments -- or The Honeymooners episodes for the older crowd) when we were their age; they have been subjected to episode after episode of The Simpsons and Seinfeld and Caddyshack and Trading Places, to the point where they associate that sort of humor and those in-jokes as laughable in the meanest sense of the word: as in, worthy of scorn, such as the dog park pair were suggesting.

What's interesting, of course, is the current generation might only feel that way about their own parents' cultural scene. If you go back to the previous generation's material, or go further back yet, the irresistible siren song of irony might call out to them and make the material seem somehow fresh and exciting unto itself. It is in this way that Larry David might seem totally over, but George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Lenny Bruce, might earn some millennial dap.

As a quick side note: Very little comedy is allowed to transcend its generational box -- especially if it's steeped in cultural morays and flashpoints -- but what does remain endlessly relevant, unsurprisingly, is physical comedy. Not the pie-in-the-face stuff that got so badly overused so as to never be able to take hold again, but the sort of insane stunts and crack timing that made Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin superstars of their era. The fact that you can watch The General and still be absolutely blown away by Keaton's precision and deadpan countenance is a phenomenon unto itself.

There is another property at work here, I believe: the idea that a joke or reference contains with it a certain amount of cultural cache. If, in 1994, you made a sly reference to being "master of your domain" or some other allusion to the infamous Seinfeld episode, you were flashing your credentials as being hooked-up and savvy. By contrast, any mention of such a thing now only makes you seem that much more pathetically dated and out-of-touch.

Like fashion, this kind of humor is of the moment, and when that moment has passed woe betide you if you attempt to cash in on it again. Like the unintentionally funny bit in Wall Street where Gordan Gekko (Michael Douglas), the uber wealthy and of-the-moment trading tycoon, calls his young protege (Charlie Sheen, pre-winning) from the beach early one morning from a cellphone (!) at the time, a plaything of only the most rich and techno-hip, only it's roughly the size of a loaf of Wonder Bread and looks completely ridiculous (to say nothing of Daryl Hannah's shoulder pads).

The ratio might roughly work like this: The amount of cache a given comic moment is granted in its time is exactly equal to the amount deducted by its reference for the future generation. You want to make a There's Something About Mary reference to Cameron Diaz and her unwitting use of hair gel, you will have those cache points directly omitted from your account. Thus, you can maybe make a different sort of reference to that film -- "You're gonna fry!" -- you might get away with it, but anything instantly recognizable will only earn you further contempt. And that formula is jacked-up many times over in the internet era, where a meme that was fresh at 12:13 is absolute, mockable garbage half an hour later.

For that matter, even the hallowed Simpsons can be dicey territory. Recently (to my absolute joy), my 12-year-old daughter has taken to watching old episodes with me. She greatly enjoys them -- particularly loves Lisa, as a fellow vegetarian and conscientious sort -- but easily half the jokes go whizzing over her head. I have to pause the episode, try to explain how this sequence from "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song" is actually taken from Full Metal Jacket, which is a Kubrick movie about war and identity (and, by the way, the title comes from an early '70s flick by Mario Van Peebles); or how the clever take-down of the Newton (where Dolph attempts to type "Beat up Martin" only for it to translate to "Eat up Martha") was in reference to an awful Apple product put forth by the Steve Job-less version of the company back in 1993 (to which my now thoroughly bewildered daughter blinks her eyes and asks who "Steve Jobs" is -- sigh). She can enjoy them anyway, of course, but once you start having to unpack the cultural references and in-jokes that seemed screamingly clever and on-point in my 20s and 30s, it becomes something more of a slog.

Recently watching A Futile and Stupid Gesture on Netflix, about the comedian Doug Kenney, one of the original founders of the National Lampoon as well as one of the writers for Animal House and Caddyshack, I was again struck by how the humor that Kenney and his ilk brought to bear in the early '70s, subversive and dry, with a deceptively deadpan style that allowed a lot of the jokes to hide in plain sight, unless you were hip enough to get them made it seem as if comedy, like music, was almost a weapon to bring to bear against your parents and their generation. A way to differentiate yourself from them, to be sure, but also a cannon shot across their bow. The humor dared to be offensive and off-putting -- and that was the entire point!

Watching Animal House now, you can still feel the quivers of iconoclasm and subversion at work: If Omega House, pristine, orderly, and almost utterly soulless, was a stand-in for '50s-era suburbia and parents who followed all the rules because they knew the path to material success; then Delta House was their progeny: unruly, unkempt, disrespectful and filled with venom and hilarious spite. Delta's climactic victory during the chaos of the town parade they utterly destroy is a victory by one generation over the other. That the film's most outrageous and libidinous character, Bluto, (unforgettably played by John Belushi), is the one who will eventually go on to become a senator is the last and best gag: None of these guys played by their father's rules, but they will go on to seize power all the same.

So subversive is the message, it has sustained itself from generation to generation. It has never ceased to be funny, in part, because the humor it presents is specifically designed not to call so much attention to itself. There isn't a punch line, so to speak, only a boxer's message any generation might feel for their hopelessly out-of-touch parents: We're coming for you!

MovieStyle on 03/23/2018


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