Bing Crosby’s dulcet tones set the mood for joy and family as he sings “White Christmas.” His sound represents the classic, traditional values of the “Greatest Generation.” Before Watergate, the War on Drugs, and the chaotic bombardment of data during the Information Age, simpler times prevailed.
These assumptions cloaked a menacing hegemony. Within the larger mythology of America’s growth as a superpower after 1945, music, movies, and television influenced pervasive ideas about manhood, sexuality, race, and religion. Humor is one of the major features of the entertainment culture that illustrates the transformation of American society over the last seventy years.
Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra dominated the entertainment landscape at the beginning of this period. For Hope, lines like “A James Cagney love scene is one where he lets the other guy live” reflected the ideas about violence as the basis of masculinity. Martin defined the stress and escape of the social scene provided with lines like “You’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on.” Sinatra built on these ideas to become the sound of Cold War optimism by saying “The best revenge is massive success.”
At the same time, performers like Redd Foxx, Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball, and Bill Cosby began to subtly change the comedic narrative. Introspection and aggression combined for Foxx when he said, “Beauty may be skin deep, but ugly goes clear to the bone.” Diller accomplished the same kind of reversal with “Housework may not kill you, but why take the chance?” Ball brought new degrees of personal honesty to the stage when she said, “I work better with an audience. I am dead, in fact, without one.” Cosby connected the personal and public more than anyone before him with lines like “Sex education is a good idea, but I don’t the kids should be given homework.” The tone, content, and innuendo in their careers became more strident as women and African Americans gained greater opportunities in the society as a whole.
Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, and Eddie Murphy tore the doors of comedy of their hinges. Past assumptions about formality and authority collapsed. Pryor’s contribution on this point was “I struggle because I had the chance to be white, and I refused.” Goldberg offered the stark “I don’t have pet peeves; I have whole kennels of irritation.” At the top of the list of grievance comics is Eddie Murphy. He once said, “I’m sadistic. I go to grocery stories to watch mothers lose it with their kids and beat the [omitted] out of them.” The shock, audacity, and unpredictability of both the content and the comedian’s style had come to the center of the stage.
Today, John Stewart, Tina Fey, and Dave Chappelle are the global voices shaping how millions of people find laughter. Stewart’s recent synopsis about the ridiculous debate over the appropriate race of Santa Claus and Jesus brings an intellectual perspective that relies on the absence of journalism in today’s news media. He said, “Who are you actually talking to? Children sophisticated enough to be watching news at 10pm, yet innocent enough to believe in Santa Claus, yet racist enough to be freaked out that he isn’t white?” Yet, none of the news networks have become more serious over his career with “The Daily Show.” They continue to accelerate their descent into entertainment without a basis in evidence. Fey became a celebrity through her political humor about Sarah Palin, revealing the scandal of trusting elected officials whose main qualification was their refusal to engage serious governance. Her line – “I can see Russia from my house” – remains the singular indictment of political ignorance from the last decade. Chappelle combines these forms in his stories and sketches ranging from “The Mad Real World” to “Wayne Brady’s Training Day” to skewer all forms of popular media. One of the most powerful is the suggestion that “Wayne Brady makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X.” The layers of the jokes stretch back over fifty years of African-Americans in the media to indict the efforts to replicate the simple assumptions of “White Christmas”.
Laugh loud and laugh long this coming year, but remember to think and reflect, too.
Dr. Walter Greason is the executive director of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).