The funniest thing about comedy is that you never know why people laugh. I know what makes them laugh but trying to get your hands on the why of it is like trying to pick an eel out of a tub of water.
This is funny because it's "so true." But it's only true for a second.
We do know why comedy is funny. Most of it anyhow. It's funny because it breaks cultural rules. Most of the time, things aren't funny unless they are fresh, unless they depart from our culturally formed expectations.
Take Dave Chapelle's "baby in the ghetto" as a case in point. We don't expect to find babies in the ghetto on a street corner in the middle of the night. We don't expect them to be dealing. We don't expect them to be bad tempered.
See also Billy Crystal's Buddy Young, Jr. (Mr. Saturday Night) who keeps asking, "Did ya see what I did there?" to make sure we get the cultural mechanics of each joke.
Mostly, comedy is "fresh" or it is nothing at all. And it is fresh because it violates our understanding and expectation.
Which brings me to episodes of 30 Rock and Ugly Betty last night. The former is now reeling from the Obama victory. From it's inception, it was an ideological redoubt in the Bush's presidency, a battle cry, the comic resistance. And now, well, victory is cruel and the show now looks over pitched.
But that's not the real problem. Tina Fey engaged with Peter Dinklage and there were lots of possibilities here but the script went straight for the Fey's favorite (only?) narrative arc: that she's bad with men and screws up even the most promising relationships. We can see this one coming a long way off. Which means that not only does it not defy expectation in any general way, it really doesn't defy expectation within the little "genre" established by 30 Rock.
There were some good moments in this episode, and Pam and I shouted with laughter in a couple of places. "Jack" is funny because we can't tell which way his madness is going to take him. And jewels like "Was that the subjunctive?" demonstrate how rich and interesting is the comedic and intellectual territory Fey has opened up. But unless she saves her own character, we cannot forgive her. When it comes to comedy, Americans are remorseless.
The theme of Ugly Betty last night was Betty's having to choose between career and family. Fashionista, please. This theme is tired on all counts: culture, genre, and show. It's a tired theme in American culture. It's there in The Devil Wears Prada and Ugly Betty, the show, can't leave it alone. Early warning is the death of comedy. We don't want to know where we are headed. Call us addicted to novelty. Call us obsessed with the shock of the new. But this is a show about fashion, which isn't anything if it isn't a departure.
The Fields quote is from Purdon, J.J. 2009. As Oscar Said [a review of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorhous Quotations]. Times Literary Supplement. January 2, 2009, p. 30. emphasis iin the original.