Keeping a straight face, I’m going to argue that American popular comedy has lost the virtue of hope, which was retained in the past by even the most severe satire. Hollywood has produced popular comedy in all its forms, including radio, TV, and stand-up. Discussing the most universal and lasting form—the movies—I will ask why hope was lost and suggest how it might be regained.
From the beginning, Hollywood was a Jewish town, and it offered a Jewish sense of humor—the humor of survivors, sometimes bitter but always sustaining. Despite world wars and an economic depression, early Hollywood offered not just laughs, but a hope that arose from the history of the town itself, which was the creation of Jewish immigrants. The men who built Hollywood had found there not only refuge from persecution and worse, but success and security. The golden age of Hollywood comedy, in James Agee’s eloquent postwar assessment, was the Silent Era. The childlike innocence of its heroes, beginning with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, contrasted sharply with the contemporary realities of mass killing and crushing poverty. The screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s, too, ended in classical style with a marriage (It Happened One Night) or reconciliation (The Philadelphia Story), or with the truth unveiled for all to see (My Man Godfrey, Sullivan’sTravels).
Comedy in those decades was Hollywood’s priceless gift to the world. I admit my bias in this matter, for I was born in Hollywood and worked there for more than half a century. Hollywood is my hometown; it is also a myth. Aside from Greek heroes, there aren’t too many of us who can claim a mythological birthplace, but I’m modest about it.
Hollywood’s golden age coincided with the high point of modern optimism. Today, we think of the Russian Revolution as the beginning of a seventy-year nightmare, but among leftists in the 1920s and 1930s (and most of Hollywood’s screenwriters were leftists), the Soviet Union was the vanguard of a new and just society. Utopian dreams were commonplace.
This age of progress, however, plowed right into the Gulag and the Holocaust, Hiroshima and the Cold War. That changed everyone’s sense of humor. You couldn’t do a film like Bringing Up Baby, the most lighthearted and screwiest of all screwball comedies, without faith that all would turn out right in the end. This is why the best and most lasting Hollywood comedy films stopped being produced around the same time the utopian aspirations of modernity took a nosedive (or, better, a pratfall). The old formula of comedy getting us through conflict didn’t work anymore.
Here’s how it used to work. Many of these comedies, though innocent in flavor, were about the very modern condition of sex. They often provided a glimpse of what was happening between men and women, sometimes in the bedroom and even when dressed and standing, as modernity altered traditional sex roles. Urbanization, depression, and war brought women into the workplace, where they mingled with men in ways that raised sexual tensions—just the kind of tensions comedy has played with since the beginning. Consider the titles: The Awful Truth, Nothing Sacred, The Lady Eve, Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib. Not only are these films among the most celebrated comedies of the period; they are, significantly, still the funniest. But what do they tell us?
They tell us that we can weather profound changes in human affairs and still find happiness. However wacky or singular, the women in these films are independent, strong-minded, and fast-talking. They often leave the men in their company lost, confused, or overwhelmed. But most of the conflicts in these comedies are temporary. They lead to predictable and contrived “happy endings.” The films don’t suppress the real changes taking place in male-female relations; they try to resolve them, to accommodate change but reassure us that the deeper values can be preserved. The audience is encouraged to believe that equality between the sexes need not produce the decline of marriage vows and serious commitment, followed by an epidemic of divorce. Modern life could be rendered into a comedy with no rough edges. No wonder these movies were so popular. They and their audiences didn’t yet see the wages of the sexual revolution, after which Hollywood comedy sank into cynicism and puerility.
Once something is too tragic, it becomes funny.” I heard Charlie Chaplin make that statement and, on a separate occasion, heard Buster Keaton say the same thing. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was a young actor eager to learn from the masters and too young to understand that once humans lose hope, they lose reason, too. Faced with too much grief and pain, we laugh in order to cope. Maybe that becomes, for some, a flight from reality. For others, however, those who retain their hope, comedy converts that suffering into meaningful experience. In other words, comedy is an expression of faith. I’ve seen too much suffering in a long life to think that laughter works only as a moment of relief. Much of suffering is God’s way of transforming us, and comedy plays a role in this.
When the world lost its hope, when the utopian dreams of the early twentieth century went sour, comedy became relentlessly secular and, at times, hostile toward religion. The anarchical and antagonistic element that is inherent in comedy as it challenges the status quo, pokes fun at authority, and mocks human pretense made the hopes of the past into a target. To tear down traditional virtues and put nothing meaningful in their place became the purpose of wit. We ended up with some decidedly unfunny comedies.
Skepticism, jadedness, disillusionment . . . They are poor grounds for humor. The cynical outlook that is the mark of late modernity cannot envision a solution to current problems. Are we strong enough to recognize and accept this unhappy ending? More to the point, can we laugh about it?
I see a bright side. The greatest gift we received from modernity was its ultimate failure. The disillusionment of our times is a gift. The loss of an illusion is always a good thing, however painful or inconvenient. And disillusionment has always been a gift at the heart of comedy—as long as there is a redemptive reality to take its place.
The greatest illusion of modernity is that of absolute freedom: We can do what we want and desire what we want, so long as we don’t infringe on anyone else, and no evil will follow. This celebrated freedom is no less pretentious and vain than the old sentimentalities, which makes it ripe for comic takedown. A world without boundaries or limits, one that sets something as narrow as the satisfaction of one’s own impulses as the ultimate purpose, is the very definition of farce. Even the most libertine atheist is vulnerable to the comic once he takes himself too seriously and has nothing to offer but his own irreverence. The atheist is tasked with believing in nothingness—the most demanding faith of all. I’m not sure if there’s a comedy in this or not. Beckett gave it a shot, but this isn’t my problem. I’m still a believer in Something, or, better, Someone.
I believe that some version of original sin and free will is essential to comedy. If we are to recover a comedy that is genuinely amusing and edifying, it will need to begin with these truths. Instead of dwelling, as at present, on the symptomologies of broken people in dysfunctional relationships, it can and perhaps must play on the gap between the human and divine, the fallen and the pure, the eternal and the temporal. One doesn’t need religious concepts to recognize the difficulty people have in being both free and responsible. Even the most skeptical comics can perceive the human condition in its broad outlines. The recognition of this reality, I suggest, is essential if we are to turn nervous giggles into real laughter again.
Comedy, like music, can express insights that mere words cannot. Even in comedy that is highly verbal, something more comes through than the quips. The unfunny comedies of today reflect the end of a historical period, namely, modernity. At such times of crisis, there is a loss of coherent language. To observe this, simply listen to the news and to political speeches—or go to the movies. We need a form of communication that all Americans can understand and trust. Laughter is a step in that direction.
Ron Austin was a writer-producer in Hollywood for more than thirty years.