Tuesday, May 24, 2022


The problem with pushing the envelope is you run out of envelope.

Jerry Seinfeld once famously said that resorting to swear words is a sign of weak comedy.  And if you watch his shows or stand-up sets, you realize he never once says "fuck" or "shit" or whatever, but still manages to be funny.  Then again, there are "comics" who resort to swearing to make an unfunny bit try to be funny, or a funny bit funnier.  Often it doesn't work and sometimes it is just awkward.

George Carlin was famous for his "seven dirty words" bit, which at the time was considered "out there" and risque, although Lenny Bruce arguably did it all first and Carlin was a pale imitation of Bruce's edgy humor.  Carlin went on to do political humor  - peppered with swear words which, thanks in part to him, have become part of the lexicon.

Carlin is dead, but much of his stuff lives on, on YouTube and elsewhere, and some of it is still funny, other bits are, well, outdated.  Political humor loses its appeal really fast.  George Bush jokes were hilarious at the time, but fell flat the day he left office.  Topical humor has a sell-by date.  Meanwhile, "Seinfeld" is a staple of cable television and online streaming.  Much of the humor is still funny, although I suppose jokes about answering machines may be dated in this era of voice-mail and text messaging.

Today we have a new breed of "comic" who resorts not only to vulgarity but to racism and sexism and other -isms to shock and try to be funny.  "He's just saying what we're all thinking!" people say, as the "comedian" makes a rape joke.  We've erased the boundaries between decency and vulgarity, and as a result, comics have to "go there" further and further into offensive humor.  Jokes no longer have to be just funny - they have to shock and create controversy.  The Dean Martin roast and Don Rickles insult humor seem tame in comparison to today's "shock jocks" and "politically incorrect" comedians.

I am not sure what the point of this is, only that it is too late, perhaps, to go back to "kinder, gentler" humor these days.  Everything has to be charged and supercharged with political content, insults, and controversy. Controversy is what sells newspapers - or clicks or eyeballs.  Mean-spirited humor, designed to denigrate or offend, is the new norm.   No one today would ever laugh at Jerry Seinfeld observing, "Didya ever notice.....?"

Or would they?

He's still on the air, making lame jokes about answering machines, as his show continues to re-run into a new century - nearly 25 years after it went off the air.  Maybe you don't have to be mean and vulgar to be funny.