Humor 2.0: What Will Be Funny in the Digital Era?

In the world of new media, for all the developments it has brought about, there are no new techniques for humor, only a refinement of the old ones.
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Some would say that any attempt to guess what humor will look like in the future is pretentious and doomed to failure. On the other hand, betting on future economic developments is equally futile, and yet it is done all the time. Omri Marcus shares his two cents on what he's betting humor will look like in 30 years' time, and how new media will change what makes us laugh.

Perhaps the best way to ascertain what will make us laugh 30 years from now is to consider what made us laugh 30 years ago. To do so, let us use two completely random and very different examples: two comedy television shows that were broadcast in dozens of countries around the globe, exactly 30 years ago, in 1980. The British "Benny Hill Show", which was broadcast on ITV, and the American "Three's Company" which aired on ABC.

A recent British documentary attempted to answer the question, "Is Benny Hill still funny?" A focus group of 20-year-olds was seated in a screening room and watched a compilation of scenes in which the dirty old man chases young women. Sorry for the spoiler, but the result at the end of the movie was, yes, Benny Hill is still funny. Big time. The obvious conclusion is that seeing a man in a suit taking a surprise whack to the face with a frying pan will always be funny.

Watching the charmingly naive "Three's Company" on the other hand, barely induces a smile. The punchline rate is less than one per minute, and when they finally do arrive they are completely predictable. The enjoyment to be had from watching the show is like Suzanne Somers' bosom: You'd rather remember how fun it was to see in 1980, and not spoil it by watching it today.

The difference between the two shows is the motivation for laughing. With Benny Hill, the laughter comes from a timeless place, devoid of cultural context. It's schadenfreude, which seems to transcend time and cross cultures and generations. The man in the suit stands sure of himself (he could be defined as the setup for the joke) and then something happens to him, which was completely unexpected (the punch), and he gets whacked in the face with a frying pan. Classic slapstick comedy. You don't get to know the guy. There is no need to get to know him, no prior knowledge is required to understand the joke.

"Three's Company" is rooted much more deeply in the conceptual and cultural world of early '80s America. A viewer in his 20s, who wasn't alive at the time, will have a hard time connecting to the plot setup, such as Jack being stuck in the house for days because he's waiting for a phone call, not to mention the comic engine driving many of the series' episodes: how and why is it so significant that the landlord thinks his tenant is gay, when in fact he is straight.

The purpose of these examples is not to praise "The Benny Hill Show", or to criticize "Three's Company." In 30 years' time, when we look back at "Two and a Half Men" we won't necessarily see why it's funny. The question is, what trend does it indicate? What transcends time, and what is only transient?

The Technique:

"Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas and how he got in my pajamas I'll never know."
--Groucho Marx

Some things have not changed so far, so it's safe to assume that they will remain unchanged. The laws of the classic joke, a setup that brings you into the world of the joke and preps you in a certain direction ("I bought some batteries...") and a punch which surprises the listener and in fact lets him understand that the assumption he had made upon hearing the setup was incorrect ("...but they weren't included so I had to buy them again" -- Steven Wright). It worked for Shakespeare, it worked for Chaplin, it worked for Seinfeld--and it will probably continue to work in the future. The fact that it used to be clowns who told "jokes" or "stories," whereas now they're called stand-up comedians and make "observations," hasn't actually changed the basic technique. In the world of new media too, for all the developments it has brought about, there are no new techniques for humor, only a refinement of the old ones.

The techniques involve filters of sorts, through which reality is projected in order to make it comical. To clarify, here are two examples:

Extreme magnification or diminishing of an event: Whereas once the cartoons of "Mad Magazine" showed a man at a restaurant being served a plate with a microscopic portion on it, today Peter Serafinowicz utilizes the exact same technique in a sketch dealing with the phenomenon of ever shrinking computers.

  • Another technique is to bring together two objects, whose interaction is unimaginable: In the '80s on the British show "Spitting Image" they built a scene where Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan make out, with the result being equally surprising and horrifying. (Link) The example from today would be the YouTube sketches, in which Adolf Hitler rants about such issues as Conan O'Brien being fired. (Link).

The Topics:

"Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else." --
Will Rogers

The topics too are likely to remain unchanged: interpersonal relationships, identity, romantic relations, parents, children, work environment. Obviously, the physical expression of these issues will change according to time and location, but then, too, the new images will pass through the filters of humor as soon as we start developing an emotional relationship with them. If we add the issue of new media into the equation, it becomes clear that in a society that is becoming ever more technologically oriented, humor will also increasingly deal with the mediums themselves. This is especially true when the medium itself becomes much more than a channel of information and turns into a status symbol. When Apple made the platform as meaningful as the content that was being transmitted over it, humor too turned more to the platform. (Link)

The Audience:

"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people."--Victor Borge

From a psychological standpoint, laughter is a social experience. Canned laughter is a testament to this fact. The concept of attaching audience laughter to a joke is as daft as it is effective. For years, the convention that reigned supreme was that in order for an audience to laugh, it had to be told where to laugh, and to be made to feel that it was OK to do so. Humor, as has been stated on the American networks, is like that tree falling in the woods: If no one heard the joke, is it really funny? On the other hand, in recent years, in the transition from classic sitcoms to comedy series such as "30 Rock" and "The Office," there is less and less use of canned laughter. In Generation Y, the consumer implements the social element by forwarding the sketch through his social network, and by doing so, he effectively creates a community of sorts, who are all in on the joke.

Viral humor reflects another interesting phenomenon: the niche market-ness of humor. Whereas once, traditional television required vast resources in order to reach masses of viewers, today, any 10-year-old can film his cat jumping onto the fan, upload it to YouTube, tag it under LOL and make millions of people smile in their office. The increasing accessibility of technology and the creation of a multitude of platforms for performance, will also amplify the new, alternative voices of artists who audiences would have had no chance of being exposed to. The Japanese weirdo peeling a banana with his bottom is hilarious to a high school student from Copenhagen, a pensioner from Ohio, and the one man in Haiti with internet access.

Comic Conventions:

"They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. They're not laughing now." --Bob Monkhouse

This is especially true for comedy sketches in the new media. Generation Y, the primary consumer of comedy sketches on mobile phones and online, has grown up into the convention that the punch must be clear and funny enough so as not to require indication. The indication isn't always provided after the punch. On many series, the indication has shifted to being between the setup and the punch. On series such as "Family Guy" and "Scrubs," oftentimes the indication is a retort given by the main character (setup), cut to another scene which constitutes the actual punch. (Link)

The Pace:

"The shortest joke in the world. Two words: Midget shortage." --Jimmy Carr

Speaking of Generation Y, all studies show that the patience level of its members and their concentration, are significantly lower than those of the previous generation. Therefore it is safe to assume that one of the things that is bound to change is the pace. While in the American sitcoms of the '70s whole minutes go by without one single punch line, by the '90s, in series such as "Friends," the audience was demanding, and receiving, a punch once every 30 seconds, 20 seconds and even more frequently.

Comedy sketches on sketch comedy shows will get shorter, and the jokes will be tighter and less sophisticated, so that the consumer won't miss them.

In a world with so many options, and with the fear of consumers hitting the remote being so great, no one is prepared to take any chances. News stories are getting shorter, the mail we read is getting shorter and even politicians are delivering shorter speeches. There is no reason for humor to lag behind. (Link) Bottom line, it's interesting to think how far we could go with increasing the pace. How far will it go? A joke a second? From a cognitive standpoint, scientists will have to ascertain how much irony the human brain can absorb and process per minute.

The Boundaries:

"Putting the laughter back into manslaughter." --Unknown

As mentioned, humor is reflexive and reflects the society in which it was created. When a society becomes increasingly violent and less tolerant, its humor mirrors this trend. The violent stand-up talk, which used to be fringe and got Lenny Bruce in trouble back in the '60s, is becoming more and more mainstream. Today, no stand-up comedian uttering the seven words that made George Carlin famous, these being Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker and Tits, would spark the least interest from the audience. On the other hand, throughout history, many comedians forged impressive careers by finding ways of shocking listeners. What's taboo today is likely to change in the future. We can see budding examples of this in Dane Cook's humor, which depicts brutal physical violence, or in Jimmy Carr's funny and appalling jokes on rape and pedophilia. Here's a random example: "I bought a rape alarm... because I kept on forgetting when to rape people." Another intriguing question is whether 30 years from now a wave of riots will be ignited by a cartoon drawing of the Prophet Muhammad. It seems you need to be a prophet to know.

Prior Cultural Knowledge:

"I dreamt last night that I'm a 'Word' document. I can't remember much because I woke up before I pressed 'Save'." --Omri Marcus

Aside from it being more violent, the society in which we live also has less of a reverence for knowledge and curiosity. Monty Python and Woody Allen base a substantial part of the comedy in their sketches on knowledge shared by both the creators and the audience. Quotes by Freud, Bergman and Plato are a layer of humor that goes by completely unnoticed for people who are not familiar with their writings. As society puts less of an emphasis on the importance of such a single cultural core, we will able to see these influences in comic writing that will be less intellectual. It is important to emphasize that this writing will not be less cultural. The vacuum will be filled by other content, largely commercial or processed. This, by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing. Here is an excellent example from the guys at College Humor who made a parody of Disney's "The Little Mermaid". I'm not sure Hans Christian Anderson would recognize his creation, but hey--it's funny.

The cultural reference is simply different. Here's another example, a parody of the "2 Girls 1 Cup" video, in which Kermit the Frog and Rowlf watch the clip together. The cultural knowledge required here comes from the field of hardcore porn, no less.

Another cultural change is the intensity of the news and the spread of reality television. The popularity of reality TV has first of all influenced news broadcasts, which cover more human drama and less of the big picture. The cultivation of "heroes for a moment" has changed many comedy shows. With the aim of addressing the common denominator of what viewers are familiar with, shows have become a carnival of impersonations and parodies about the situation, instead of a platform for extracting more abstract situations out of life. This is evident when you watch an SNL episode from the '70s, compared to a current SNL episode. In the '70s they were looking for good comic actors, however today there is the added consideration of who they can impersonate. At times, Tina Fey's immaculate impersonation of Sarah Palin in the recent elections became an issue in its own right, further blurring the boundaries between reality and parody. (Link)

Another aspect of the reality genre's contribution is the type of humor seen on the screen. In programs such as "Jersey Shore" and "The Hills" the humor is clearly derived from the viewer observing the freak show and laughing at the stupidity of the people on screen. This is shameless humor which stems from malice, a sense of delight at the misfortune of others, and internal validation that there are others in the world that are dumber than us. In a world that is becoming increasingly competitive, we can assume that the pleasure derived from watching others fail will only increase.

And one final remark. All of the above has not taken into consideration China's increasing dominance in the international arena. Anyone who's been watching Asian television, be it Japanese game shows or Chinese comedies, understands that they involve a motivation for laughter which stems from a completely different source. Their economic or technological dominance can lead, in a relatively short period of time, to the Western world getting used to Asian cultural mentality, including Asian humor.

In conclusion, when attempting to guess what humor will look like in the future, it seems that the techniques will not change. The reflexivity of humor as a reflection of our lives will also endure. The pace will be faster, more violent and more blatant, and the cultural knowledge required will be of much more modest proportions.

What I've attempted to do was to cast some light in the dark as regards the future of humor. This analysis is no more than an intellectual point of departure, when pondering what the future may hold. To paraphrase something Groucho Marx once said, we can sum up and say that today, to make an audience laugh, you take an actor and dress him up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair and shove him down some stairs. In the future, to make an audience laugh, you'd shove an old lady down the stairs.

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