HA HA HELL
Are We Killing Our Culture With Comedy?
Today, everyone's a comedian, from politicians to preachers to ad writers, but while we’ve always been taught that laughter is the best medicine, are we in danger of overdosing?
In March, The Daily Beast reported that billionaire futurist Elon Musk is poaching writers and editors from the satire website The Onion for a secret comedy project of his own. “It’s pretty obvious that comedy is the next frontier after electric vehicles, space exploration, and brain-computer interfaces,” Musk said. His tongue might have been planted slightly in cheek, but what if he turns out to be just as right as he was about rocketry and electric cars? Science fiction has predicted all manner of looming dystopias, from grim, totalitarian police states to sybaritic pleasure gardens, but this new possibility seems to have eluded everyone. What if the future is, above all else, funny?
This might sound like a surprising prediction, given the fact that so much of the news today is flagrantly un-funny. But take a closer look at the cultural landscape: the pace, abundance, and influence of humor in our culture is sharply on the rise. We are, in fact, living in a time of unprecedented comedy saturation.
Political candidates now hire comedy writers to pre-write little zingers for their stump speeches and debates. Advertising, a field once kept strictly humorless by scowling Don Draper types, has, since 1960, slowly become such a non-stop barrage of anarchic absurdity and winking irony that the average American now sees 188 funny ads per day. The pace of sitcom jokes has almost doubled since the ’80s. Every crack of modern life, from license plate surrounds to airline safety videos, is filling with a storm surge of little gags rising from a seemingly bottomless comedy aquifer.
It's not hard to see the cultural trends that could be pushing us toward a Comedy Singularity. Technology is a big one. There was a time when your funny photos or home videos would be shown to only a handful of friends, and most of your mildly amusing thoughts shared with no one at all. Today, the internet gives us all immediate access to a global audience every time something cracks us up, and every sufficiently funny joke is now guaranteed to reach millions of eyeballs. And the short attention spans wrought by our new tech are a perfect fit for jokes, the only art form (except, perhaps for haiku) where brevity isn't just a virtue but a necessity.
And don't forget secularism. Historically, organized religion has generally opposed merrymaking of all kinds. But religion's declining influence has opened the field to other systems for making sense of the universe—and comedy is an appealing option. Instead of explaining the randomness of life as God's Unknowable Plan, why not lean into the absurdity? Why not laugh when you can? Even the churches have figured this out, replacing the scriptures on their marquees with squeaky-clean one-liners like "Son Screen Prevents Sin Burn" and "God Answers Knee-Mail."
The increasing—and cynical—comedy savviness of big organizations is probably the most obvious reason for the comedy glut. Here it's all about the bottom line. Once ad campaigns and political campaigns discovered the power of "affect transfer"—if laughing at a funny message made you feel good, you'll associate that good feeling with the product or candidate as well—there was no going back. An ad that tugs at the heartstrings or a politician who sticks dully to the issues feels like an anachronism, and nobody gets anywhere by seeming old-fashioned nowadays. Even during the testosterone-fueled Super Bowl, funny messages now outnumber "straight" or inspirational ones almost two to one.
Our conventional wisdom since at least the Renaissance has been that humor is an absolute good, laughter the best medicine, and the more of it the better. But we might want to take a closer look at that assumption. We're now starting to see some of the effects of our comedy-first culture, and not all are hopeful.
We've studied the generation that gets lots of its news from comedy shows and found that this makes them 23 percent more likely to feel cynical about politics. We've seen the alt-right use the veneer of irony to lend plausible deniability to the worst kinds of racism and anti-Semitism. (The mascot of neo-Nazism is no longer a skinhead or a goose-stepping soldier; it's a smirking cartoon frog.) And we've all seen the "hedonic treadmill" at work: such an onslaught of jokes coming at us every day via advertising, binged TV, and social media that we no longer derive the pleasure from them that we once did. We might type "lol," but we're not laughing out loud. At best, we're briefly thinking, "OK, that's pretty funny" before clicking away.
We've had to grapple with political candidates and powerful institutions using larger-than-life clowning to distract from their own shortcomings. In 2016, Donald Trump's rambling rallies and insult comedy were so popular with crowds that a visibly uncomfortable Marco Rubio tried adding spray-tan and penis-size jokes to his stump speech. It was difficult to watch without cringing.
I get the same queasy feeling when I see people interacting delightedly with the jokey online accounts of their favorite multinational brands. "Oh man, did you see how Wendy's just roasted me on Twitter?" Satire used to be the little fella's weapon against the powers that be; now it's been co-opted. Even the CIA has a winking Twitter feed where it can post ironic quips and memes about its own secretive reputation. "We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet," @CIA deadpanned when making its 2014 debut.
If we are indeed heading for a Comedy Singularity, then the thing that distinguishes the century to come might not be our technological advancements, but our comic sensibility. A funny future might be one in which endless amusements distract us from looming problems, and a thick layer of ironic reserve encourages us to snark at rather than solve them. The performative pose of the class clown might replace more genuine interaction. Every form of human expression will start to feel strangely inert without a constant barrage of jokes, so comedy might become commonplace everywhere: in instruction manuals, on tombstones, in legal decisions.
Humor is a notoriously hard problem for artificial intelligence to solve, which makes it the rare field that can't be automated anytime soon. So joke production has the potential to become a boom industry if demand continues to rise. This is, perhaps, the future that Elon Musk is hedging against with his new comedy venture.
How will the unfunny among us cope in a hypothetical joke-based future economy? I hope Musk provides them with comedy re-education tools along with the thin, nourishing gruel and sleep pellets he delivers to their relaxation pods. But I'll see the rest of you in the joke mines.