In a movie trailer for "Bad Teacher," a beautiful and talented American actress throws a basketball at a boy's groin. In a recent remake of the movie "Arthur," a respected English actress says to the actor playing her son Arthur, "Wash your winky." A television commercial has two women eating yogurt and trashing marriage. In another TV ad, a man sitting behind the wheel of a new minivan in a car dealership, makes a crack about the van being so good it almost makes you want to have children; young children play and shout in the background and the man, sneering slightly, repeats "Almost." In these failed attempts at humor there is a strong element of mean-spiritedness, notably toward children. I am not talking about satire. Satire needs to be unkind. Moliere pokes fun at hypocrites unkindly and hilariously. Insinuating an automobile is more rewarding than parenthood isn't satire; it is a mean and rather vapid comment.
A former television comic amasses a fortune by cranking out movies apparently targeted to twelve year olds crazy about bodily function jokes. Proving greed is not limited to corporate executives, extremely gifted actors opt for yet another comic book movie franchise. Apparently, it really is "all about the money." If only it were about the craft -- whether writing or acting -- once again. A television commercial from years ago that was funny had an elderly woman in a fast food restaurant open her hamburger bun, look inside and ask, "Where's the beef?" In today's comedy, where is the wit? Where are the sight gags? Where are the puns?
Comedy is more difficult than tragedy as it is easier to be weepy than witty. But what makes a book, a play, or a movie funny? Why are fart jokes in "The Canterbury Tales" and "Blazing Saddles" so funny and so un-funny in contemporary sausage factory cinema? Why are Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, the Marx brothers, Peter Sellers, Steve Martin, and Woody Allen always funny? What's so funny about them?
In her wonderful book "The Craft of Comedy," the late English comedienne Athene Seyler reveals three elements of comedy -- opposites, exaggeration, and surprise. Recall Oscar and Felix in Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple;" the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" during the crucifixion scene in Monty Python's "Life of Brian;" Woody Allen's character in "Sleeper" cryogenically preserved for two hundred years, along with his horn rimmed glasses -- in Reynolds Wrap; and, any scene in the 1938 classic comedy "Bringing Up Baby." I don't want to sound like Deuteronomy in the musical "Cats," always pining for the old days, especially since "the old days" aren't even mine, they belong to my parents. But you only have to watch the old comedies of filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges to see what we are missing in the new ones. Paraphrasing H.L. Mencken's "One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms," one horse laugh is worth ten thousand mean-spirited and failed attempts at humor.