Ugly Betty, Tina Fey, and the cultural mechanics of comedy last night

30 rock II W.C. Fields said

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.

4 thoughts on “Ugly Betty, Tina Fey, and the cultural mechanics of comedy last night

  1. Colleen Wainwright

    Early warning is the death of comedy.


    And that messing with expectations is a delicate thing. Even the pros blow it, as you’ve so beautifully pointed out.

    Love this post.

  2. Stephen Denny

    Grant: I once heard that “comedy is the imposition of the mechanical on the non-mechanical, and vice versa.” No idea where the quote came from, but it’s pretty accurate. We laugh when things that aren’t supposed to be, are – and vice versa.

    I’m sure that 30 Rock is at a crossroads – without the devil, they lack a cause to be. I’m wondering what next season will bring when ‘the other side’ has its turn!

  3. srp

    Colin Martindale, author of The Clockwork Muse, has a Theory of Novelty that he uses to mathematically predict oscillations in the content of high art. His basic idea is that in high art, only novel expressions receive cultural credit. Thus language becomes more allusive, cryptic, and emotional/associational over time in poetry, paintings move away from realism toward various forms of psychological projection and abstraction, etc. He uses the thought experiment of a culture where anyone who repeats something that has already been said or done is ignored; eventually, even trying to communicate “please pass the peas” would become an exercise in indirection and the use of elaborate metaphors and vague allusions. Grant’s idea about comedy is congruent with this.

  4. Andrea

    I wouldn’t take it too seriously as Fey has admitted to disliking her silhouette from a while ago (in Vanity Fair she joked about it and said she was like ‘a behemoth’) so I’m guessing after Leibowitz took pictures of her and she gained a new shape this is her way of having a bit of fun – because she can now!

    But you’re spot on with the part about humour… and I don’t want to generalise but I don’t really want to know when I’ll be entertained when watching or doing something, it’s funnier when you least expect it.

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