What do you think the first joke was? It was probably something like, “How many Neanderthals does it take to start a fire?” or more realistically a series of grunts followed by a fart. It’s impossible to tell, but I would be willing to bet any amount of money that people have been laughing for as long as they have been talking. Humor is a part of our daily life. It forms and keeps together friendships, it helps us flirt with strangers, and most importantly it helps us get through the day. Our society and lives would be lost without it, and while it has been a constant in society for centuries, the ways we have taken it in have varied.
In America, mainstream comedy arose with Vaudeville shows. Performers would travel around the country performing shows with multiple acts, several of which were comedic in nature. In fact, according to VirtualVaudeville.com, “many of the ethnic stereotypes prevalent in television and film — Jewish, Irish, Italian, African American — derive from the ethnic caricatures that were a mainstay of Vaudeville comedy” (http://www.virtualvaudeville.com/hypermediaNotes/WhatIsVaudevilleF.html). Neat! Thanks Vaudeville!
Vaudeville remained popular from the late 1880’s to the 1920’s, when it fell off in popularity. Comedy was not gone with it however, as new silent film comedians like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin entranced and entertained audiences with their outrageous physical comedy and stunts. Soon films would have sound, which would open the door to a world of possibility in scripted comedy. Comedians like the Marx brothers would jump to the chance of this world of sound and craft quick witted dialogue that remains hilarious to this day. Comedy would remain one of the most popular genres of movies until the present day, while even serious movies were often not without comedic relief.
Another major outlet for comedy was radio. One of the first major comedy radio shows was Amos n’ Andy, a show about to black men that was voiced by white actors, reassuring the American public that racist caricatures did not die out with Vaudeville. Regardless of subject matter, Amos n’ Andy was a hit with its audience at the time. Radio shows and silent film proved that comedy can exist even when key elements of performance are missing.
Also since this is a class about mass media I feel like I should mention books. Comedy has been around in books for as long as books have been around.
Jump cut to today. Comedy is readily available anywhere. I can pull out my phone and find a twitter comedian and laugh at his tweets. I can pull up a video of a sketch comedian on youtube and laugh at their sketch. I can pull up a podcast comedian and laugh at their words. The point is that laughter is never more than a few clicks away, and that is kind of amazing. However, even a few years ago this was not the case. Although we have seen that comedy has always been a part of society, it may not have always been as prevalent as it is in the internet age.
Just before the internet, let’s say the mid 90’s, the main form of comedy for most Americans was television. Shows like Seinfeld and Friends were in their prime, and NBC had its fabled Thursday night comedy lineup. Late night hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno were broadcast every night. Comedy Central was still in its infancy as a channel, but growing fast. What was different then that is no longer true now, is that back then you needed to prove you were funny to someone before people could see your work. You needed to write a pilot, audition, interview for a writer’s job, etc. An aspiring comic needed to go through any number of channels before they could reach the mainstream audience they desired. Now, you can just tweet. I can tweet right now. I can post my own video to youtube.I can make a vine. I can post anything I think online, and people can see it. Granted it doesn’t have the same immediate audience as say appearing on The Tonight Show, but it has freedom and it has potential, two things that weren’t readily available back then.
In fact, it is not uncommon for comedians to find work from their twitter pages. Bryan Donaldson, a writer fro Late Night With Seth Meyers, was hired based on his twitter page (http://www.vulture.com/2014/04/guy-tweets-his-way-from-peoria-to-30-rock.html). People are becoming “Vine Stars” and “Youtube stars”, and while these may not be respected titles in the field of comedy, they are people making money entertaining people.
In looking at the difference between the comedy of a few decades ago and the comedy of today, a big difference stands out, and that is authorship. A scroll through one’s facebook feed will see a series of pictures with words on them, or memes. Memes really have no distinct author, they are just seemingly part of the internet. They appear somewhere on reddit or a similar site, and soon they have been posted so many places that the author becomes indistinguishable. If we compare this to traditional forms of comedy, it seems like an entirely different world.
In the mid 90’s people would generally watch comedy on TV or see it live. In both instances, there is usually a distinct author. On a television show an episode’s writer will appear in the credits, while in the world of stand up comedy, most performers write their own jokes and stealing jokes is a mortal sin. However, many of the ways people take in comedy today are bite sized. They are brief and anonymous, which is a far cry from the world of yesterday. Recently, instagram comedian The Fat Jew, came under fire for stealing the work of other comedians and posting it on his instagram account. The Fat Jew, “writer” Josh Ostrovsky had garnered millions of followers by posting jokes that were nearly identical to those posted by other comedians (http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/the-fat-jew-joke-theft-victims-speak-out-20150820). It seems that the anonymity of the internet does now allow for a world in which the brotherhood and codes of honor that serve in the stand up comedy world to dictate what is posted and not posted. This raises interesting questions regarding property, anonymity and other issues that were not as prevalent before the internet.
I would also say that the taking in of comedy used to be more deliberate. If one wanted to watch a movie, a TV show or live comedy, they would have to make a decision to do so. Nowadays however, comedy seems to appear out of the internet wood work. Facebook and twitter are part of many of our daily lives, and they are teeming with comedy (at varying levels of funniness). It has become much easier to stumble across comedy than it was in the past, due to the fact that many of the places we get our news and information are also riddled with dumb pictures with words on them.
While viewing comedy is less deliberate on the internet, it is also paradoxically more in our control than ever. Watching comedy has never been easier. Youtube is filled with comedy videos, posted by amateurs and professionals alike. Netflix instant stream has an abundance of comedy shows and stand up performances available to watch. In fact, Netflix has produced 26 original comedy specials since 2012 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_original_programs_distributed_by_Netflix#Stand-up_comedy). Before the internet viewers were at the mercy of television programming and whatever was at the local video store, but now we can be laughing hysterics within moments thanks to our computers. This readiness and availability of comedy is perhaps the biggest difference to the comedic world of the pre-internet age.
Although we now take in comedy in all sorts of new and interesting ways, the idea remains the same. We want something to take us away from the stress and problems of everyday life, and we turn to comedy. Whether it be on our phones, our computers, or on the television, comedy will always cheer us up and make us look at the world a little less seriously.