Early comedy film was one of the powerful ways to psychologically energize and briefly escape from the world. Christian moralizing began to infect Hollywood in the 1930s and totally drained life out of comedy
Comedic movies were some of the first ever created. Arguably, pornographic films are the first considering some of the earliest nude photographs in existence were shared by soldiers on the battlefields of American Civil War. When we think of cinema from the 1920s, the first images that often come to mind involve jittery characters with caked make up who are trying to be amusing.
Comedic effect can be accomplished by a wider range of audio and visual tricks compared to those used to induce sorrow, fear, anger, or sexual excitement. Since there are a multitude of different human personalities (with physiology specific comedic sensibilities), the possibilities to mix and match to combine are endless.
The silent films of early 20th century relied on slap stick and satire of major capitalist and authoritarian powers of the day. The so called greatest generation of Americans and their fathers consumed the greatest amount of sadistic cathartic visuals as well as vicious satire. They laughed it up at people on the screen getting repeatedly smashed, punched, taken advantage of, or otherwise undergo situations that would normally create horrendous bodily injuries, death, and life reversals. This was a healthy release of pent up frustration at the end of a long blue collar day. It was an escape from stifling puritan morality and the seriousness of demands from the boss, government, children, and spouse.
Even cold boring individuals like Thomas Hobbes recognized the power of the comedic effect. Hobbes mentioned, although in marginalizing tone, that "the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly." That is very similar to Nietzsche's conception of laughter as sudden involuntary feeling of power.
Seeing a refined gentleman getting a pie in his face on screen brought an involuntary comparative feeling of superiority for the audience. Nobody on screen was spared from being the target of absurd situations which often involved people surviving Tom & Jerry levels of physical damage. The cathartic illusion of one's influence briefly rising in the world had tremendous psychological benefits. Seeing Charlie Chaplin imitate Hitler or poke fun at Fordist assembly lines revealed that behind the masks of purposeful seriousness, the secular powers that be are irrational and as devoid of meaning as the church.
That is not to say that laughter was always slave morality being expressed through seeing someone powerful slip on a banana peal. We saw movies and cartoons poke fun at conquered ethnic groups in distant lands as well as domestically. Weak, old, and incompetent were just as big a target as the rich and the powerful. The iconic characters of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were totally amoral and changed personalities like gloves to trick the gullible. Chaos and irrationality won the day. Cartoons like that released the audience from the demands imposed on them by the life draining Christian influenced world. Cartoons back then had more adult nuances and themes that really created an experience for the whole family.
Lets skip forward in time to the last twenty years and look at some trends in modern American comedies. Tiresome moralizing and slave morality has thoroughly penetrated the genre. We see:
1) Endless underdog to success stories
We see unlikely, flawed, lovable, and quirky characters defeat the good looking, privileged, wealthy, and arrogant antagonists. The pattern is endlessly regurgitated to children, teens, and adults from Mighty Ducks to Little Giants to of course, Dodgeball. The latter pokes fun at the genre while thoroughly reaffirming it. The rugged group of kids are eventually led to victory over the black clad aryan nazi-esque sadistic teams. Yes, of course they have the mandatory reversal, moments of doubt, and imperfect team cohesion but they pull through in the end. Work hard and be yourself and all shall be well. How is this marketed as a comedy for the whole family? It's a tiresome lecture and a repackaging of the protestant work ethic.
The underdog plot just transforms in movies marketed to teens and adults. In movies for older audiences, the goal of self esteem is reached with similar acceptance of who one is. Self acceptance is not rewarded by acquisition of friends and a superficial sports victory however but through acquisition of the object of sexual desire. The attractive sadistic nazi does not hold the hockey stick this time around but he does stand in the way of acquiring the girl. The lovable anti-hero is encouraged to not even try to compete in willfulness, strength, and healthy confidence (since it is shown to result in failure) but to specialize in what he is good at. The undersexed underdog of course is good at sentimental quirkiness, endurance, and reliability which saves the day. The hero at first, doesn't understand what 30 years of the same plotlines requires of him to succeed. He tries, with disastrous results, to get help from a more promiscuous friend or guru. All seems lost but then, amusingly, the underdog's friends who are even weaker than him, tirelessly labor to help their stronger friend get laid. All ends well as the girl finally realizes that the cost benefit analysis of having an adoring slave boyfriend outweighs the excitement of interesting sex life. The audience gets what it expected and all go home.
Something feels wrong to them however. That wrongness is complete lack of humor in the movie just seen. Did they just watch something meant to elicit a brief feeling of power or were they just in church? Yes, they saw a few moments of slapstick shown in trailers and some awkwardness to which they can relate. That, on the whole, was completely not the escapist release from reality, rationality, duty, and preaching. Not only did many men get the message that they will always need to bend over backwards for female attention but teenagers received a message of just giving up forceful self transformation. The supposed "comedy" informed them that "being yourself" while still taking a chance at a scrappy project will lead to rewards. The rewards in turn will provide genuine transformation and self esteem. Not even the occasional flashes of nipples and toilet humor can redeem the broken expectation of being amorally uplifted throughout the whole experience. Even if there wasn't a message of psychological stagnation the movie would still fail since the audience is not really encouraged to laugh at something in comparison to themselves. Rooting for somebody to win, pity, and sympathy perhaps should be found in dramas and thrillers but not in supposed "comedies".
One might argue back that Bugs Bunny and Charlie Chaplin were often involved in underdog plotlines. These characters are qualitatively different in that the audience always knew Bugs Bunny was always more powerful and that Chaplin was satirizing the system rather than trying to get sex or some big score.
2) Promotion of marriage and family life for amoral characters
Perhaps the most insidious way that religious morality snuck into being accepted as "comedy" is the story of an amoral character transforming into a neutered moral one. It starts out as an over-bearing, fun loving, liberated, often promiscuous character who eventually sees his/her life as empty and devoid of meaning. That meaning, of course, is found in marriage and having "the one" or even children. These types of movies are the height of adult comedy. Wedding Crashers is a solid example of this. The main two characters start out as amoral fun loving individuals who just use weddings for sexual gratification. However, one of the characters who is more sentimental begins to fall for "the one" against the advise of his comrade. Eventually the meaningless of existence is filled with a soul mate. The soul mate doesn't exactly have to be traditional but the end result has to end in marriage. Comedies oriented to a female audience combine the preaching of the underdog story with getting the right guy to agree to settling down within a marriage. Often, that involves properly making the promiscuous bachelor realize the error of his ways.
The real nauseating taming involves former slapstick comedians who now do better paid marriage/family promoting films. Nothing on screen is less funny and more pathetic to see than a former slapstick actor like Jim Carrey having to show moral discomfort and occasional timid liberation. The oldest possible adult audience are presented with films where main characters are already married but realize that they have to just work through it (after some "humorous" stumbles) instead of getting a divorce. Town and Country is a good example of this as the director even got a formerly hyper promiscuous Warren Beatty to play the main actor. The protagonist sees that outside of marriage there is nothing but unsatisfied life and nihilism. Self sacrifice is the only result and the credits roll. The audience cannot believe they have actually wasted their time for a hope. A hope that the movie they just finished watching would not turn out exactly like the last one. Like gamblers they continue to watch thinking that one day they will see something structurally different instead of just gradually increasing amount of sexual moments and toilet humor.
With time, the unhealthy moralizing filth will be purged from comedy as the youtube generation grows up and produces new directors. It is just unfortunate that American movie studios have grown so large that the pressure of playing it safe and providing something for everyone creates muddy regurgitated disappointments. Hopefully, internet piracy will increasingly make such mediocre product more expensive to make and lead to regional movie studios instead of the Christian McDonalds sitting in Hollywood today. This is not an appeal to something sophisticated, high brow, or meaningful. This is an appeal to re-imagining the roots of what made comedy one of the first genres to be greedily consumed. There must be a re-imagining of comedy's origins for the 21st century so the audience can be provided with a clean healthier product. One wouldn't put transfats into an organic dish. One would find ways to take the unhealthy out and augment the existing healthy ingredients. The moralistic prudishness and self censorship that began to infect Hollywood in the 1930s took a long time to drain the industry and lead to the present state of affairs. The people are thoroughly sick of it and subconsciously crave something else. It just needs to be shown on the big screen.
THE FUTURE IS RUSHING UPON US
We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.