There are few things that are more sensible to the changes of time than humour. Last year, the comedian Harald Eia, long the epitome of Norwegian television comedy, was accused of elitism, sarcasm and bullying for making the exact same jokes he made ten years ago. In the past Eia hid behind the conceptual veils of irony and relativism. In the past also, his transgressions were quickly forgiven (after all, he made us laugh). This time round however the Norwegian viewers were surprisingly vindictive. Suddenly it seemed that the viewers realized bullying cloaked as irony was still bullying. People stopped laughing, the show’s ratings dropped and the show was taken off the air. The joke wasn’t funny anymore.
What appears to signify a shift in the Norwegians’ taste in humour is not solely a Norwegian phenomenon. The Norwegian humour debacle bears many resemblances, for instance, to Steve Coogan’s attack on Top Gear’s bigoted Mexican jokes. These words by Coogan could just as easily been written about the de-throned golden boy of Norwegian comedy:
It’s not entirely their fault, of course. Part of the blame must lie with what some like to call the “postmodern” reaction to overzealous political correctness. Sometimes, it’s true, things need a shakeup; orthodoxies need to be challenged. But this sort of ironic approach has been a licence for any halfwit to vent the prejudices they’d been keeping in the closet since Love Thy Neighbour was taken off the air.
Yet this shift in taste is evidenced most manifestly in American television comedy. The new golden generation of American sitcoms – Community (NBC 2009-present), Modern Family (ABC 2009-present) and Parks and Recreation (NBC 2009-present) – represents a markedly different tone of humour from postmodern shows. Indeed, if we compare these new critically acclaimed ‘buzz’ shows with the comedy greats of the late 90s and early 2000s, a subtle shift in tone becomes apparent. Instead of the blank parody in shows such as Family Guy (FOX 1999-present), or the cynicism and harshness of shows such as Arrested Development (FOX 2003-2006) (that featured, probably, the most evil mum in television history), or the self-conscious superficiality and resentment in shows such as Seinfeld (NBC 1990-1998), these sitcoms encompass, without wanting to sound like one of George Bluth’s corndogs here, something akin to a heart, and are characterized by a sincere yearning for meaning. There are still plenty stylistic and formal similarities, and it is not like the ‘new’ comedy can’t be parodic, resentful, or cynical, let alone superficial – they still appear though, to signify a distinct change in the overall tone in humour. American television critic Alan Sepinwall acknowledges the similarities between Community and Arrested Development but he also states: “Community” has a warmer, more humanist spirit than “Arrested,” which was an incredibly funny but also incredibly cynical show.”
But what does this new tone of television humour entail? Community, for example, is about a group of extremely different misfits attending Greendale community college. The show’s self-reflectiveness and referentiality is not unlike the parodic eclecticism of Family Guy. Their improbable friendship is not unlike the somewhat unrealistic friendship dynamic in Seinfeld (the only thing that seems to bring Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine together is their shared resentment of other people.) Community can also at times, be as cynical and harsh as Arrested Development. However, Community balances its many and frequent pop cultural spoofs and cynical behaviour with a real sense of, well, community and human warmth. However stereotypical they may seem at first, the too-cool-for-school lawyer Jeff (Joel McHale), the overachieving, young girl Annie (Alison Brie), the political correct idealist and buzz-kill Britta (Gillian Jacobs), the stupid jock Troy (Donald Glover), the divorced housewife turned student Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), the old, racist pig (Chevy Chase), and the borderline asperger, pop-culture geek Abed (Danny Pundi) all ascend into fully fleshed people trying to achieve real human connections.
Take an episode such as ‘Contemporary American Poultry’ (S01E21). The entire episode is more or less a spoof on Goodfellas, from the (freeze) framing and camera movements to the doo-wop music and the voice-over. The plot centres on something as silly as chicken fingers. The student-cafeteria’s chicken fingers are immensely popular, and run out fast. Goodfellas-style, the study group takes control over the production and distribution of the chicken fingers, turning it into a neat black market operation. As Abed, the borderline asperger pop-culture nerd, states in his voice-over: “The entire campus is controlled by our group. Our group is controlled by chicken and the chicken is controlled by me.” However not everyone is happy with Abed obtaining so much power as the chicken finger cook/mob-leader. Jeff, the study group’s unofficial leader starts to sabotage Abed’s operation. In the inevitable comedown between the two, the episode takes an unexpected turn. The episode is suddenly revealed to depict something as real and raw as Abed’s struggle with his un-diagnosed asperger. Abed and Jeff share an incredibly sweet moment deepening the characters’ relationship and emotions for each other. As such, what at first seemed like just another Goodfellas pastiche transcends into a character-developing vehicle for Abed and highlights Abed’s struggle to connect to other humans – to put it more abstractly, from the postmodern, another modernism (which we call metamodernism) concerned with connection, affect, and sincerity emerges. Indeed, the episode also resonates on a more general level, as it exposes and thematizes the struggle to make genuine human connections and communities. Again as Sepinwall points out:
[I]t’s the show’s commitment to its characters, and also to showing how a community works (here with the chicken taking on too much currency) that makes it something far richer and more interesting than just a live-action “Family Guy.”
The shift to a warmer more humanistic humour should not be confused with the trivialities and (forced) niceties of the more “traditional” and popular sitcoms tracing their genealogy from sitcoms such as All In The Family (CBS 1971-1979) and Family Ties (NBC 1982-1989) to Two and A Half Men (CBS 20 jk03-present) and The Big Bang Theory (2007-present). By all means these old fashioned multi-camera, laughter track comedies have their own crowd-pleasing function. They have and will probably always exist, more or less, without fundamental changes in tone and style. The critical darlings and cult favourites Community, Modern Family and Parks and Recreation on the other hand, have the same freshness and ingenuity that for example Seinfeld and Arrested Development had in its glory days. They offer original, multilayered and intelligent jokes in an often, innovative style. But where these sitcoms really are pioneer in, are their balancing acts, constantly oscillating between parody and sincerity, between superficiality and meaning, between mockery and heart. The shift in tone in these inventive shows, as well as the numerous debates about comedy, could thus be an indication that there is a changing sensibility in our understanding of what is funny, and what is not.