Thursday, June 15, 2006

Why Isn't Comedy Central Funny?

[The following is not medieval nor literary, but I've had too much ice tea and can't sleep.]

I love the idea of a network devoted to comedy. Waaaaay back in the day, there were two comedy networks -- The Comedy Channel, and Ha! I used to watch them both. As I recall, one had mostly old sitcoms, and the other had strings of stand-up. I liked the fact that I could turn on the TV and, if I had only 5-10 minutes to kill before doing something else, I could watch a stand-up routine.

Then they merged into Comedy Central. Now, the parent channels were nothing to brag about -- they swung wildly between very funny and very lame -- but Comedy Central seemed dedicated to the proposition that mediocrity is hilarious. We're probably 15-20 years into Comedy Central's life, and they have thus far only had two funny series -- Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which required viewers be both relatively smart and relatively well-versed in pop culture, so it wasn't for everybody), and Chappelle's Show (which, to be fair, died from no fault of their own). Except for those, they've had a few shows that were mildly interesting or slightly droll (like Battlebots) and some non-original programming (like The Critic, Futurama, Monty Python, and The Tick), but Comedy Central seems mostly dedicated to running hip but unfunny shows -- rather more like MTV than a channel devoted to comedy.

Let's consider their three big earners:
  • South Park: I used to complain that South Park wasn't funny -- then came Family Guy. Then I would say things like, "Well, it's not funny, but at least it isn't Family Guy, a show apparently aimed at audiences with severe head injuries." Then came American Dad, the airing of which should be considered a violation of the Geneva Convention. So, putting it in perspective, it is no Simpsons, but as long as the Family Guy group of adult cartoons continues to be aired, South Park will seem funny by comparison. And, unlike the other two big earners, South Park has occasional funny moments. It is at its best when it is being satirical, and at its worst when we're supposed to laugh at singing turds and kids saying bad words. Yeah, that stuff was funny ... when I was six years old.
  • The Daily Show: At one time, The Daily Show was mildly amusing, waaaaaay back when Craig Kilborn was the host. It wasn't laugh-out-loud funny, but some of his bits were good enough to make the show something to watch if there was nothing else on and you really didn't want to get off the sofa. Then Jon Stewart became the host, and the show immediately got dumber. Actually, for a show to get dumber after Craig Kilborn left it is an achievement of sorts, I guess. In any case, Jon Stewart is apparently the love-child of Dennis Miller and Keith Olbermann. He combines Miller's style, which is to pander to people who like to think they are smart because they are smart-assed, and Keith Olbermann's smug stupidity. I'll watch The Daily Show about once or twice per season, in the vain hope that something funny might happen (hey, I'm an optimist). It never gets any better, only worse and worse as Jon Stewart's sycophantic studio audience tries desperately to laugh in the hopes that they too will be considered cool and hip some day. In their worst seasons, Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" was funnier than Jon Stewart at his best. The only way to save the show would be to exile the cast and writers from planet Earth, burn the set to the ground (and salt the earth to prevent it from ever growing back), and hire the writers of The Onion. Political humor ought to have some, well, HUMOR.
  • The Colbert Report: I remember well that moment of watching my first episode of the Colbert Report. I remember it in the way one remembers being in a car accident -- everything is in slow motion, all screams and tears and terror. The first 3-5 minutes were a little funny, as I recall. "Hmmm, he's parodying Bill O'Reilly. That's a little funny." Then, we return from the first commercial break, and he's still parodying Bill O'Reilly. Now it is like a sketch comedy routine that has gone on too long. Uncomfortable, and not funny. Thirty minutes later, I'm huddled in the corner in a fetal position. Now, a year later, he's still parodying Bill O'Reilly. Hey, Stephen, let's hit the punchline and move on to another joke, shall we?
So there we have it -- the big three on Comedy Central. Why, then, isn't it funny? The common thread here is that their shows that are making money do so by convincing viewers that to watch them is to be smart and cool. Ironically, by forgetting to be funny in the process, the shows actually reveal their fans to be a little slow-witted and lacking in humor.

Guess it just goes to show that Mencken was right about how not to lose money.


  1. The Daily Show was mildly amusing, waaaaaay back when Craig Kilborn was the host.

    Ugh, you liked The Evil Preppy Tool from Hell?? Talk about smug. And a sexist, leering lecher on top of it. Gahhhh.

    That's it. I have to stop reading this blog. (OK, not really. Still, there's no accounting for taste.)

    Though I agree with you about the Colbert Report. The trick is to watch until/for "The Word" bit and then turn it off. There's a little bit of interest for me, though, in constantly thinking, "How does he keep a straight face?" and also "How is he not dying inside?"

    OK, I'll stop hogging your comments now.

  2. Of course Kilborn was an "Evil Preppy Tool from Hell" -- but I think he was trying to be. I also liked the "Five Questions" bit. As for being a "sexist, leering lecher," well, I've really got no room to talk there, do I?

    Just to clarify, I didn't say I liked Craig Kilborn, but the show was "mildly amusing" -- not to be confused with "funny."

    What really irritates me about Colbert is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Syndrome. Remember back when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was supposed to be an over-the-top parody of cartoon heroes? Then it got successful, and became that which it beheld. Colbert plays O'Reilly as an idiotic, kneejerk demagogue ... but really has become an idiotic, kneejerk demagogue himself.

    Sadly, I find that most of my students get their news from the fake news shows on Comedy Central. The bitter irony is that they would be better informed if they actually did get their news from populist demagogues like O'Reilly and Olbermann.

  3. When it comes to the South Park/Family Guy/American Dad style of show, it seems that the writers have confused shocking with shockingly funny. Not that I actually find any of these shows (okay, well maybe South Park) shocking, but it appears to me that they are attempting to be "cutting edge." The problem with trying to stay ahead of your audience is often that your comedy lacks the necessary irony to make it funny in the first place.

    The opening monologue in the Acharnians, now that's funny.

    DICEAOPOLIS:...Therefore I have come to the assembly fully prepared to bawl, interrupt and abuse the speakers, if they talk of anything but peace.

    Irony...funny. Shock value sometimes funny.

    I don't tend to like comedians who present themselves as "smarter than thou," especially when they aren't.

    As for Stephen Colbert, since he actually attained some of the alien technology in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, I can be pretty forgiving.

  4. Wow, we have TOTALLY different thoughts on TDS/TCR. Especially about Jon Stewart. I think that, like Dr. Virago, I have to leave now... *hehehe*

    I will say I agree with you, to a degree, about South Park. Sometimes it just shocks to shock. At other times, though, it's amazingly smart. And I will admit that I had some misgivings about TCR at first. The character is a bit much to take sometimes and I do wonder if they can sustain it over the long-term.

  5. I always thought that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was what you got when artistic Frank Miller Daredevil participated in a little reefer madness.

    Seriously, they were created in the same accident that created Daredevil. The Hand...The Foot...Splinter...Stick...Elektra's Sai...Raphael's Sai...(oh, man did I just geek out or what?)

    Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Ftaghn!

  6. Should read "artistic Frank Miller Daredevil fans"

  7. I take it as a point of pride that my commentors feel free to have Cthuloid exclamations without the need to explain the reference.

  8. Just to clarify, I didn't say I liked Craig Kilborn, but the show was "mildly amusing" -- not to be confused with "funny."

    Right. Sorry. But really, I just wanted to seize an opportunity to rant about the Evil Preppy Tool from Hell. Ooh, how I hated him. (Though I agree "5 Questions" was mildly amusing.) Te-hee.

    And heh -- I like the Mutant Turtles analogy.

  9. Wait, we were supposed to bre paying attention to what Kilborn SAID? Rats. I thought he was just there for decoration. Did he say anything interesting?

  10. I find it equally telling that a commenter can make a D&D reference, and nobody asks for an explanation. Though I must say that Colbert apparently didn't hae much luck with the tech charts at the back of the module. Or maybe he was just allergic to helms of intellect.

  11. Heo,

    He said things, but these were mostly about his hair, and as I have none, I paid little attention.

  12. Anonymous9:35 PM


  13. Anonymous12:52 PM

    Comedy central standup isn't funny. Those amateur comedians nobody cares about or remotely find funny