Stop Them Before They Joke Again
Why does everyone try to be funny these days?
The white-collar temple IBM is usually not a source of pop-cultural memes. But this reputation may be receding, thanks to a trio of comedic videos topping the charts on YouTube. Shot in the mock-doc style of The Office, these parodies of internal training videos feature a group of sales executives as they pump themselves up with canned corporate wisdom and hawk million-dollar servers by cold-calling random names from the phone book. In other words, they make fun of IBM at its stodgy core. And while Steve Carell's job is probably safe, what is interesting about these shorts is that they were made by IBM using actual company executives, not paid actors or comedians.
Whatever one's opinion about the content of these videos—making mainframe servers funny is a challenge, no matter how much comedic coaching you buy—this scenario raises some interesting questions. Must everybody try to be funny these days? Are we now compelled, as a culture, to be comical, no matter the setting or the endeavor? And if so, what on earth gave rise to this troubling idea?
One possible culprit may be corporate America itself, where being funny is now seen as a valuable asset. Fortune 500 companies dole out big fees to comedy consultants who offer humor seminars and improv workshops—all in the name of improved productivity. But how exactly are funnier employees better for business? According to Tim Washer, a former improv performer who is now a communications executive at IBM, funniness helps foster team-building and, of course, learning how to "think outside the box." Never mind that, as Washer suggests, being funny can't really be taught. "Humor is binary," he says. "You're either funny or you're not." Still, thanks to coaches like Washer, when Joe BlackBerry leaves the office after a day of training, he goes out into the world armed with a PowerPoint primer on comedic timing and the notion that he's funny. And, at some point, he's going to try to prove this to you.
Another possible contributor is television and the fact that we mimic what we watch. There is more comedy being broadcast today than ever before, thanks to the full flowering of the Seinfeld effect (everyday existence is funny) and the comedic explosion inspired by the show. An endless array of cable offerings now besiege the populace daily with comedy in the form of hackneyed sitcoms (both rerun and original content), predictable stand-up routines, and clichéd cultural commentators in love with decades of the late 20th century. "So what?" you might say. "People are experiencing more comedy. It beats a kick in the teeth." But just as reality television blurs the line between entertainment and actual life, this avalanche of televised humor may be giving the viewing public the misguided idea that comedy is easy.
The comedic personalities garnering the most airtime tend to be regular folks (Who doesn't love Raymond? Or Kevin James from King of Queens?) speaking in a universal language of baseline observations ("Men and women often have different approaches to situations, especially when they are married!") about the most pedestrian aspects of life ("Hey, I fight with my spouse about the laundry/kids/in-laws as well … my world must be equally hilarious"), which makes comedy seem like an endeavor that the Everyman should undertake. The end result? The guy standing next to you in line at Starbucks sounds like a nondescript sitcom actor that even your TiVo can't stand.
A related cause could be the contemporary avoidance of sincerity. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter's post-9/11 declaration pronouncing the death of irony is, five years later, the misstatement of the millennium. From sneakers to cell-phone ring-tones to rain on your wedding day, everything is ironic. Or, more accurately, everything is sarcastic, the less-literary stepcousin of irony. Unlike irony, sarcasm can be printed on a T-shirt or written into every tenth line of an ESPN newscast with the generic (and easily aped) voice of mocking detachment that is so prevalent today.
What is the upside of being funny? Well, apart from getting noticed, it's safer to hide behind the mask of humor, especially in a culture skeptical of intellectualism. Andrew Stott, an English professor whose academic treatise Comedy explored the philosophy of humor, sees it like this: "Being funny is a means of avoiding scrutiny. It's a deeply concealing activity that invites attention while simultaneously failing to offer any detailed account of oneself. The reason humor is so popular today is that it provides the comfort of intimacy without the horror of actually being intimate." Thus, schlock-jock Opie & Anthony clones rule drive-time America while truth-tellers like Bill Hicks linger in relative obscurity.
This is not to say that avoiding honest discourse via humor is always a bad thing. When David Letterman came forth with his pitch-perfect Midwestern droll in early 1980s, the voice was a refreshing change from the Johnny Carson boy-that-President-Carter-is-indecisive school of joke-telling. But the Letterman tone has grown so prevalent that the comedic effect has long since been lost, leaving only the grating noise of a million imitators, all sounding like a tired Top Ten list.
If you've ever been at a party where some guy trying to tap a keg chimes in with a quip about how "it's all ball bearings nowadays" (a line stolen from the most over-referenced film of all time), then you have had firsthand experience with this crisis. Still, up until a few years ago, these situations were relegated to the realm of the interpersonal, which one could limit by sitting at home in the dark and avoiding all human contact. But this luxury no longer exists. For, as the IBM example illustrates, we are now mired in an era of instant mass self-expression. And, for all of the democracy the Internet engenders, it is possible to have too much vox populi, especially when the populi seem intent on using such tired punch lines and hacky premises.
The only solution is for some of us to voluntarily retire from the humor game. Let me be the first to forge a new reality by pledging never to try to be funny again. I can only hope that the executives at IBM read this and follow suit, if they're not already busy filming a sitcom pilot for Fox on some back lot in Studio City.
Photograph of comedy mask on the Slate home page courtesy Digital Vision/Getty Images.