I have a terrible confession to make: I don’t love Lucy. Uncle Miltie makes me want to cry Uncle. And Charlie Chaplin…well, I can’t think of a clever quip here, but I just think he sucks.
Long story short: I hate old comedy. Call me an MTV-bred Philistine. Cluck your tongue at my snot-faced ignorance. But please don’t ask me to sit through another eye-glazing pre-Technicolor ”comedy.” (A rule of thumb I find handy: Black and white is okay for WWII documentaries and Scandinavian films about alienation. For humor, you need color. And lots of it!)
To me, wit was invented sometime around the debut of Saturday Night Live. Or perhaps when Monty Python was formed. Or maybe the first time Woody Allen made a shrink joke. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. But go back any farther than, say, 1965, and the funniest thing on the pop-culture landscape was Clark Gable’s mustache.
Now, I’m not insane enough to assert that all of modern comedy is hilarious. That argument could be dismissed with one phrase: Pauly Shore. What I am saying is this: The best of today’s drollery — your Seinfelds, your Simpsons, your Farrelly Brothers canon — kicks ye olde comedy in what they used to discreetly call the derriere (more on butts later). Herewith, the irrefutable proof:
Old jokes are just so… old
I know, I know. They weren’t old then. At one point, a pie in the face must have been brilliant! A tour de force in pastry-based humor! A great leap forward over last year’s pie in the chest. But nowadays, unless the face belongs to the CEO of Microsoft, there’s nothin’ funny about it. In fact, most slapstick is just a heavy-handed, lowbrow vestige of simpler times. It takes an innovator like Jim Carrey to make physical comedy funny again. Buster Keaton never talked out of his buttocks, now did he?
When old jokes aren’t cliche, they’re worse. They’re obscure. I was watching Road to Bali the other day and Bob Hope made a crack about rumble seats. Rumble seats? I barely remember the DeLorean. Why would I guffaw at an allusion to a Coolidge-era car accessory? I’m sure my grandkids won’t laugh at the Mike Tyson jokes on The Simpsons. Fine with me. They can write their own essay about how The Simpsons sucks.
The pacing’s all wrong
I recently saw a W.C. Fields movie (well, some of it anyway; I got bored and flipped to Letterman). Anyway, that guy should have been arrested for beating a premise into a bloody pulp. He was shaving, you see, and his daughter was in the way of the mirror. And then she kept on being in the way — for what seemed like the length of a really bad whiskey hangover.
These alter kockers from the age B.R.C. (before remote control) just didn’t know from timing. Take Jack Benny. Please. He’d stare dolefully at the audience for, like, minutes to hammer home some mannered joke — usually a play on his pounded-into-the-ground rep as a miser. Ah, but you counter: What about those frenetic Marx Brothers? I’ve got two words for you: harp solos. The vaudevillians ruined their brisk flicks with deadly musical interludes. (How did pre-war audiences find the time for all this? Didn’t they have coal mines to work in?)