Why “anti-comedy” is here, and what it means

An excellent article in the latest issue of Harper’s, about the current cultural significance and historical context of animated comedy television for adults, from the Simpsons to Family Guy to the latest one, Archer. Charles Bock delves deep into the brilliance, depravity, and ubiquitous cultural presence these shows have produced.

The same year “Cape Feare” aired, David Foster Wallace published an essay in which he commented on how irony — formerly a weapon of the avant-garde — had been co-opted by corporate America: Isuzu winking at itself with a lying salesman named Joe Isuzu, so we’d remember the name. “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching,” Wallace argued. “Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”

Wallace sensed that undercurrent wherein smart young adults who’d grown up on popular culture, and who now considered it their canon, were not simply aware of and charmed by and fluent in its forms but also exhausted by those forms, distrustful of them. Which didn’t mean slackers were going to stop consuming, commenting on, or making references to pop; and they assuredly weren’t discovering the golden hues of the sincerity for which Wallace eloquently pined, or eschewing any kind of ironic anything. The Onion’s deadpan generic AP-style headlines (“Death Star to Open Day Care Center”; “Scissors Defeats Rock”) were finding an audience in cities and college towns (though the paper was not yet successful enough to pay its writing staff salaries); Seinfeld had devoted a chunk of its fourth season to a plotline in which Jerry and George develop an NBC pilot for a show about nothing. And in 1996, pop’s ironizing self-consciousness cranked into high gear with Scream — a movie whose masked killer consciously employs tropes of teen slasher films in order to slash teens.

In New York City, meanwhile, on Monday nights at the Lower East Side’s Luna Lounge, cast members of Saturday Night Live, MADtv, and MTV’s short-lived but seminal sketch-comedy show The State — and such emerging comedians as Janeane Garofalo, Marc Maron, and Sarah Silverman — were performing stand-up and skits for audiences in semi-organized evenings that the New York Times called a reaction to “the tyranny of the punch line,” a kind of collective striving for honesty and originality in a profession glutted with mediocre cable-TV stand-up and ossified by jokes about airplane peanuts. There was one rule at the Luna Lounge: no previously performed material allowed. Nobody got paid. Sets were freer (obviously); their lack of form could lead to rambling and, often, to a kind of searching: Maron was described by Times reporter Neil Strauss as performing “ideas as much as jokes,” Silverman as attempting “to salvage a difficult night by delivering her neurotic monologue with her pants around her ankles.” One recent arrival was the now ubiquitous Zach Galifianakis, who’d performed for the first time at the Lounge just two weeks earlier; the young comedian was quoted as hoping to see a fusion between alternative and mainstream comedy.

“Anticomedy” was a term that got tossed around.

In anticomedy both comedian and audience implicitly acknowledge the traditional, tyrannical set-it-up/knock-it-down mechanics of a joke. Only now the joke’s punch line sabotages its setup, and this subversion ends up getting the laugh. The joke, again, is on the joke itself. Anticomedy often involves dramatic leaps of logic and can venture into unsettling territory. Forerunners include Andy Kaufman’s almost-performance-art pieces; David Letterman’s early, monkey-cam-loving, bowling-ball-off-a-building-tossing late-night years; the affectless stonerific one-liners of Steven Wright. You can consider This Is Spinal Tap as anticomedy.

Joke:

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
Finding half a worm.

Antijoke:

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
The Holocaust.

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2 comments
  1. Big Chairs said:

    I don’t get it. So anticomedy is joke on a joke or a joke with no punch line or just simple bathroom humor?

  2. kipp said:

    It’s a joke that, among other things, requires a great leap of logic and assumes a certain level of literacy on the part of the audience. Read the article in its entirety, and you will understand.

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