Americans Are Funny Too, They Are Just Going Through A Grumpy Patch.
A little while ago I wrote about how the British can be quite amusing. All those great movies, TV, records, books, live shows filled with that very British sense of humour. We have of course been very particularly blessed in Australia by having at first a strong British heritage of humour and then, like most of the Western world, having USA culture, including their comedy wash over us from the mid 20th century.
Still funny but often so so different, USA humour is like the country; basic, more robust and physical and as you would expect in a nation of immigrants served with a large doses of cultural appropriation, race pride and racism.
More situational and less anecdotal, slapstick and violent and often served with a touch of cruelty there is not a lot of gentleness or pathos and fuck all surreal in USA humour. And of course cinema has been one of the USA’s gifts to the world but I think American comedy is at its best and of its purest essence when on the TV.
I believe only an Englishman could have invented The Office or The Mighty Boosh and conversely Seinfeld is USA through and through. And not just USA but Seinfeld is the most successful of that ever-popular sub genre, the NY apartment/ borough comedy that Australians were first exposed to in the 1950s with Jackie Gleeson’s The Honeymooners. Since then we have had in no particular order, Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, All In The Family, Welcome Back Kotter, Will And Grace, How I Met Your Mother etc. etc.
All different but with common themes and content; The costs of living in New York, the trends and fashions, the accents, the brash openness, the multiculturalism, the food and the possibilities of being in a city that is still the centre of the world. I am a little bit biased here because I have always loved New York and nowhere else does a city both help form and star in an entertainment like NY and comedy.
Other cities or to be more precise identifiable regions have also helped to shape US comedy. The recently rebooted, cancelled and now rebooted again Roseanne could only be set in the Midwest. Ditto with The Simpsons and The Drew Carey Show and Donald Glover’s right now classic, Atlanta needs a big city with twin axis of race and wealth to really land it’s punches.
The open spaces and bright sunlight of California were/are important if not critical to The Brady Bunch, The Beverley Hillbillies and Modern Family. The Deep South sensibility is vital to comedies like the Golden Girls to The Andy Griffith Show to The Dukes of Hazzard [I think it was meant to be funny]
Regardless of location all of these comedies are variations of the sitcom, the form where US comedy really makes its home. No League Of Gentlemen weirdness here, more the usual stereotypes that the Simpsons have brilliantly refined, nagging wives, nosy neighbours, bad bosses, smalltown characters and annoying family. When it is done badly, like anything by Ray Romano for example I just find it degrading and insulting and not funny. But something that is as well written and contemporary like Modern Family is another thing all together.
The sitcom of course works across all demographics, cultures and social economic groups. The exploits of the well off and pretentious brothers in Frasier, the pop culture riffing from the study group in Community, the behaviour of the cops in the squad room on Brooklyn 99 are all sitcom golden moments. And the sitcom can explore so called difficult topics with grace, daring and humour over many episodes. I think shows like The Cosby Show with a black central family, gay characters in Will and Grace, life as a senior citizen in The Golden Girls, unusual personalities like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory have all helped awareness, acceptance and understanding in the real world. This is something that American comedy does exceptionally well given the country’s position despite glaring issues, as the leader of democracy, capitalism, free speech, equal rights and immigration history.
Needless to say there has to be an inherent contradiction here. And in North America, a country built on violence and conflict it is hardly surprising that from The Three Stooges through to Funniest Home Videos and Epic Fails there are plenty of laughs in seeing people get embarrassed and/or injured in countless ways. You don’t even need to be the bad guy/girl to come unstuck. Americans love it if even the hero/heroine gets the pie in the face or falls down the stairs.
The sitcom also rules the roost when it comes to children and teenager comedies. Obviously largely driven by Disney and Nickelodeon these shows pump out a lot of talent who, if they are lucky, get to make fortunes as singers or gossip magazine fodder once their age or behaviour renders them too old for the market. We all know Brittany Spears, Lindsay Lohen and Miley Cyrus. A lot of the shows are better than you might expect depending on the sitcom premise, writing quality, acting skill of the star and the commitment of hard working character actors in the cast. Given the subject matter and script have to work within the confines of the age group it is a good way to see the sitcom genre’s conventions clearly at work. And sometime the jokes rise above the level of a Bill Shorten zinger.
American comedians also love to take their standup routine and expand characters and make a loose variation of sitcom comedy out of it. The previously mentioned Drew Carey Show being a sound example. This is also largely an American thing and while in Australia we have had fine examples in the past like The Paul Hogan Show or The Norman Gunston Show I don’t think it’s really our comic bag. I would say that Shaun Micallef could do it but he spreads his big talent over many formats.
There are a couple of other formats where the USA comic style has been exceptionally suited. One is the collaborative skit format made famous by Saturday Night Live and which of course has localised versions in countries around the world. Like the club circuit’s obvious value for developing standup skills these ensemble shows are obviously great incubators of talent both upfront and in the writer’s room. This is largely because unlike Britain where talent like Monty Python was nurtured in university review shows it is the stand up circuit and privately run troupes where comedians really learn the ropes. Saturday Night Live introduced large audiences to now household names like Bill Murray, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey and still runs today, more than forty years later.
So US comedy is like the country. A mass of contradictions, brash even insulting but warm hearted, derived from many different cultures but often uniting, sometimes corny, stiff and old fashioned but also innovative, individualistic but most often told through like minded groups and self aware but strangely ignorant. On the surface it can all seem same same but dig deeper and there is a huge variety of style and content, a long history and of course some piss funny moments.
We all know the pinnacles like The Simpsons and Seinfeld and comedy is of course very personal but I do recommend you check out an episode or two of the following.
I Love Lucy
Mork And Mindy
How I Met Your Mother [better than Friends if you ask me]
Freaks And Geeks
And from Disney
Liv And Maddie
Good Luck Charlie