Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From Anarchism to Advocacy

Comedy of the late 1920's and early 1930's changed with the coming of the motion picture. Few of the traditionally comedian-centered performances styles made it onto the big screen. 


The Marx Brothers, a comedic team loyal to vaudeville traditions were popular from the 20's to the late 40s. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo exemplified the anarchist style of comedy in their last film with Paramount studios in 1933: Duck Soup. 


Duck Soup is considered their finest film, and for good reason. It's a satire of blundering dictatorial leaders, Fascism and authoritarian government. Some of the gags were taken directly from Groucho and Chico's early 1930's radio show Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel. In this type of comedy, the comedian is always in the foreground, taking center stage, because it's the actor that counts. 

Eddie Cantor's early films revolved around plays on ethnicity and regional stereotypes, and didn't garner much success outside of those regions and stereotypes. In those days, social barriers were just starting to break free in the United States. The Great Depression gave people a lot of time to think about their problems, the problems of the world, and the man who could save them!


Cantor's movies actually started a trend of de-semitization, "diverting attention from his ethnic background" by placing him in relation to a different group. His films took "normal" people (the audience) and transplanted them "from the everyday world to a more exotic realm." (Jenkins 179). By taking the focus off his own ethnicity, he broadened his appeal to larger audiences. Unfortunately, Cantor's denouncement of Hitler predated the US entry into WWII, and he lost support of many of his sponsors who wanted to appear politically neutral. 


While we as a global community are suffering the ill-effects of the war on terrorism and the simultaneous economic fall-out, I'd like to think that this era has the capacity to mark a change in social attitudes. The thing about comedy is that it is a reflection of social opinion. While comedy can certainly influence public opinion, it really is dependent on laughs, and if the audience doesn't agree with the opinion of the comedian, no one laughs. 



My own brand of humor is directed more toward advocacy, which I believe has a clearer, more distinctive voice and can be heard above the crowd of complaints. For me, it's not the comedian that counts - it's the shared laughter.


We went from anarchist issues (comedy) to complaining about them. I realize it's instinctive for us to poke fun at leaders we choose to manage social ills, but I think there's room for a higher-level of comedy. Today, the most popular comedic acts involve poking fun at controversial ideas, the list is lengthy and ranges from religion, death, and politics. Trash-talking politicians are the meat and potatoes of late night television. 


The problem is that like past comedy, idea topics (like a person's politics and ideologies) don't translate well from one region to the next. Given that we live in a global community, I think there's an open pathway from comedy of the past that divided people to a comedy of the future that unites us in our common struggles, which really are food, shelter, clothing, nice cars and new iPads. 


In my ongoing research into humor studies, I am more and more convinced that the next funny wave of the future will have us laughing together rather than having us standing on opposite sides, pointing fingers, and laughing at each other. 



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