Monday, June 02, 2014

Knowing the Material for Joke Purposes

"Know Your Material": This is something that should be tattooed on the writing hand of anyone wanting to write comedy. I recently saw a meme on Facebook where someone re-wrote the old saw about how the military was a death sentence to compare it to the Hunger Games. Whereas it would have been great back in the Viet Nam era when warfare was entertainment and the casualty figures were astronomical, it sort of loses its zing in an era where military casualties are so few that we know most of them by name. Suffice to say it fell sort of flat.

Most of Carlin's great stuff was written towards the beginning and middle of his career. Most of the lines and speeches that are constantly quoted comes from this era, and with good reason: It was stuff he was familiar with and had first-hand experience with. Admittedly his military and broadcasting careers were decidedly lack-luster in and of themselves, but it gave him enough first-hand experience to last for decades, and he was able to use that in some of the best monologues against groupthink and for individuality that have ever been performed. However, as his career advanced, well...he should have retired a good decade ahead of the curve.

When he joined the military it was an army of draftees worried about their survival, and everyone performed pretty much the same job; your MOS didn't matter when you came under attack and if someone with the right MOS was unavailable you learned quickly enough. Today's military is one of volunteers and where specialization has occurred to such a degree that virtually no one can do anyone else's job, even if they have a similar skills package. Suffice to say that survival is also not the issue it once was; most recruits will never be any where near a attack, and that's even allowing for terrorist attacks. Suffice to say he was also unable to keep up with technology; odds are pretty good that even the concept of "Arab Spring" would be alien to him.

This is definitely not to be disrespectful by any stretch of the imagination; his monologues are still classics and rightly so. But by the same measure a lot of his jokes are for a different era, and they would fall on deaf ears. The current generation just has different relationships with his chosen targets, and are finding ways of using ways of using what he saw as the enemy as a force for good rather than evil. He always wanted for people to control the media rather than the opposite, and that has happened by and large through vidcasts, podcasts, blogs, and social media. I'm not sure if he would approve but it has happened.

The point here is that humor evolves over time. What was funny even a few years ago may not be today, especially if public opinion has switched on it, and even punchlines have changed; Miley Cyrus used to be the poster girl for All-Too-Sweet Innocence and now she's a wrecking ball. If you're serious about writing comedy, you need to be able to adapt as well or you will be left behind when someone who is more in touch comes along. You can't just float; you need to be paddling slightly ahead of the current.

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