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Friday, February 24, 2006

Comedy Unnatural Disasters

America is a country blessed with an abundance of humor. Look to the Midwest to see amber waves of comedians fattened on childhoods spent in stupefying boredom, ignorance, and oppression—perfect for incubating shame, resentment, and a driving will to escape which are perfect ingredients for humor. The big cities that fringe the shining seas of the east and west coasts hatch comedians like salmon and cod. Being the class clown is a survival technique for skinny geeks locked up in maximum security urban schools.

America didn’t invent humor. Aristophanes was making jokes about passing gas over 2,000 years before the South Park kids became obsessed with the topic—flatulence is a field of comedy that has never lain fallow. Shakespeare still makes audiences laugh with material that is over 400 years old. No, America didn’t invent humor, we haven’t raised it to new heights or lowered it to never-before-imagined nadirs, but jokes for us are a natural resource as abundant as soy beans or corn.

In these flourishing years we take for granted the bounty of our humor harvests. We tend to remember the prosperous times: the novels of Mark Twain, the Marx Brothers, Bill Cosby, National Lampoon, Airplane!, Richard Pryor, SNL, and The Simpsons. The depth and breadth of our joke history is like an impenetrable fortress that protects our country from the forces of literal-minded zealots and the humor impaired. We have often enjoyed decades of uninterrupted prosperity in wittiness and laughter.

It is human nature to forget the worst of times. Just as modern Oklahomans have forgotten the horrible dust bowl era, today’s consumers of comedy have repressed the memory of some of the most crippling American comedy natural disasters. Some of the minor catastrophes are easily overlooked: the short and painful Paulie Shore career, Carrot Top, Police Academy III-XXII, Gary Coleman in middle age, and funniest home videos. In the early 1970s we endured the comic famine of crappy sitcoms and Johnny Carson’s nightly monologue. These were some of our bleakest years when comedy was buried deeper than any West Virginia coal miner or any Philippine village yet we persevered with polite laughter and the hope that we would reach better times.

It is a sign of our collective strength that we focus mostly on the happier times of our comedy history but there is one date that is branded into the minds of every adult. No one who lived through it can ever forget the tragedy of September 11, 1992. This was the release date of the Katrina of American comedy, the Nagasaki and Hiroshima of humor, the Whoopi Goldberg film Sister Act.

Plot Outline: When a worldly singer witnesses a mob crime, the police hide her as a nun in a traditional convent where she has trouble fitting in.

At least she wasn’t retarded. Or was he?

I never even saw the movie but I was subjected to the preview when I went to see Reservoir Dogs. I tried to escape to the lobby but I saw enough to be thoroughly traumatized for a long time. In fact, I may never fully recover. The negative comedic effects of Sister Act would be felt for years to come. It was truly a humor Chernobyl and I wish that I could say that we can all look back on that sad time now and laugh but not nearly enough years have passed.

Sister Act left a devastating wake of destruction. The movie rotted the souls of an entire generation of comics. Many of our most promising comedians gave up on the profession and pursued careers in juggling, ventriloquism, and magic—pursuits that are the polar opposite of humor. It was a time when American humor was as gangrenous as any foot in a Hemmingway short story and many felt that we should amputate. The United States could always abandon comedy and concentrate on making airplanes and automobiles. After several years of utter tedium a few courageous souls braved the devastated landscape. Someone told a joke, and after a very tense, very long pause, someone laughed. American comedy would survive.

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