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What determines whether a comedy stands the test of time?


Back in 2008, the world’s oldest recorded joke was unearthed. It came from southern Iraq and was translated as: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: A young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” While I don’t think any of you will laugh your cap off at that, given the language barrier and near 4000 years since its inception, fart comedy seems to hold up pretty well all things considered. However, with laughing matters, that isn’t always the case. 

Last week Far Out HQ was abuzz with a split discussion about the sitcom Friends. Many of us who grew up watching it sprung to its defence. However, it soon dawned that despite relishing the episodes upon release and maybe even endless E4 repeats for a few years after, nowadays you might watch it on a sick day as the sort of television equivalent of soup, but you wouldn’t chuck it on during a Friday night in and chuckle away to it riotously like you once did. 

The Friends finale only aired in 2004 and yet beyond the pathos, nostalgia and culminating stories, the comedy contained within the sitcom seems to have faded. However, the same cannot be said for Planes, Trains and Automobiles that still prises belly-laughs every time the season comes around, or books like Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) published way back in 1889. Why is this?

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Well, noting that comedic reference points become outdated is far too straightforward, and it isn’t the case either, we can make mental adjustments for those. It also goes beyond socially conscious evolutions too. While flagrantly discriminatory or insensitive humour might cause you to turn something off these days, that is not necessarily the comedy ageing badly and more so the context becoming chronically offensive. No, there seems to be something more metaphysical at play when it comes to jokes that once soared suddenly plummeting like lead balloons. 

Well, it would seem that originality has a lot to do with it. When jokes become formulaic you get tired of the same set-up and response. Chandler’s character and his sarcastic tropes have been repeated and numbed countless times so that it now seems like a pastiche. Whereas other jokes from the same period that were unique owing to the fact they were storyline specific may well hold up. 

Take, for instance, the beloved UK sitcom Peep Show. The comedy is always character and storyline specific, avoiding typical formulaic gags. This means that the comedy holds up—it is unique and original and is built on the ever-relatable comedy of the human condition, you can’t really repeat or reuse a joke about barbequing a dog. However, the flipside of this is that usually takes a while to get in tune with. You might love Peep Show now, but if you think back to when you first watched it there was undoubtedly a wading in period. 

Friends was once funny; it has a legion of fans who prove that and would ardently argue the case. And it isn’t that these fans were all people of bad comedic taste either, the list of those citing it as an early inspiration in the world of modern alternative comedy is enormous. But neither is it revisionist to say that is no longer funny. We’ve simply heard that one before. 

Humour, like all art, needs a sense of sincerity—a flash of this will always be funnier than a ‘gag of the time’. The Naked Gun franchise is a great example of this; the jokes might be formulaic, but they are so absurdist and unique that you never get the sense that they’ve been cooked up. An FBI agent rushing into the scene and saying, ‘Give me the full story’ and someone responded by saying, ‘Well, first there was the big bang and then…’ will never not be funny. It doesn’t punch down at anyone or repeat a trope, it’s just a good original joke. 

Unlike music or more emotive forms of entertainment, comedy relies heavily on the surprise element of initial exposure. You can’t put it back in the box. It relies on a cogitative response more so than an emotional one, maybe that is why farts and falls are as funny now as they were in Iraq in 2000BC but your dad’s favourite pun is like a meal that has been reheated for the two thousandth time. 

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