A man walks into a bar. Ow! It’s an old joke, but still a funny one. Even if it only elicits a groan on reading it, it is an amused one. I remember reading about the writers’ room for the most successful comedy of the nineties, Friends. It was said that most of the writers, who were generally in their twenties, could not continue much beyond thirty. It seems that like top level sport, mirth-making is a young persons game.
Comedy, aural or visual, can take many forms. Wordplay with double entendres, satire, misunderstandings, pithy put downs, caustic insults or just plain tomfoolery. Physically there is slapstick, inconvenient aches or pains, pratfalls, inventive fights, grimaces, bad dancing and accidental injury. Great comedic serials or films will utilise many of these elements.
Back to the subject; is comedy writing better if borne from a youthful mind? Obviously, there is writing and comedy that is of its time, so to be of that time can definitely be helpful if not necessarily relevant. Still, the silent comedy of Harold Lloyd and Chaplin still bears up generation after generation, as does that of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx brothers and Hope and Crosby offerings. Perhaps it is a transatlantic thing. Here in the U.K. It probably only in the last couple of decades that the voice of new comedy talent could be heard in terms of comedy writing, especially on television. The pull of any ‘new’ comedy back then was that it had to be penned by someone who had already given you a successful comedy. Hence we ended up with a multitude of comedic offerings not too dissimilar and, unsurprisingly, feeling old and dated.
This is not different from any other genre when it comes to writing and the human condition. We like to know what we’re getting ahead of time, so as not to waste time or to avoid disappointment. Conversely, we want to be surprised and entertained by something different. You know; the same but different. Those in charge of the content, the output, also want to be confident of their product. Putting confidence in the unknown is risky. This risk is particularly acute when it comes to comedy.
With any other genre the written word, on the page, it is relatively easy to follow and imagine. It is one of the reasons so many books get made into films. Not comedic books though. Comedy is special and easy to get wrong. Joseph Heller’s classic book, Catch 22, is a hilarious book. The film is not. That’s not to say that every book not based on a non-comedic film is good. Far from it, it’s just that the transition from book to the screen of a non-comedic book is definitely easier, as agreeing the direction of serious fair, creatively, is possibly far less challenging.
Still, the subject of age, when it comes to comedy, is a delicate one. As one gets older, especially in terms of changing generation, the urge to keep up with what is current is not only overwhelming, it can be misguided. Observational humour is timeless, something any writer of comedy is bound to be a student of. Comedy that is of its time is a different beast. Part observational, part modern commentary, comedy that is of the present, is probably best written by those young bucks who are waiting hungrily to inherit the Earth.
So is comedy better written by youth? Who knows. A man walks into a bar…of chocolate. Yum!