“There’s a thirty percent chance that it’s already raining,” she said.
Her friend chimed in, “They’ve done studies. Sixty percent of the time, it works every time.”
“So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
“You’re killing me, Smalls!”
You might think I’m just quoting movie lines—because I am—but only secondhand. The above is a brief snippet from a recent car ride from Chicago to Kalamazoo during which I thought about evacuating out a window. I’m actually quoting real live people, the sort with brains of their own, who were themselves parroting every film they’d ever seen.
This excessive quoting, the sort that serves as foundation for inside jokes and intimate family fodder, was almost painful at first. So incessant. So disconnected from coherent conversation. So repetitive. I cannot tell you how many times I heard “Inconceivable!” and “You go, Glenn Coco.” Quite possibly, I could recite for you the entire script of Mean Girls after this single trip. I know, at least, that “fetch” is never going to happen.
For the first twenty minutes—or ten thousand Finding Nemo quotations, whichever came first—this episode in surrogate banter threatened to do me permanent brain damage. Until, of course, they started in on movies I knew. Dumb and Dumber; Wedding Crashers; The Sandlot; every pre-Pixar Disney movie. Now I could contribute. Now I was getting laughs, reeling off one-liners and whole scenes from Hollywood rom-coms and Bill Murray ribbing. Now we were talking.
But, actually, we weren’t talking. We were vomiting, regurgitating all the pith and wit and stupidity Rotten Tomatoes told us we needed know.
We laughed a lot. It was, somehow, hilarious to use what was once scripted in an unscripted game of word-associations, where every lyric on the radio ordered up a movie reference and every line recalled another.
After three hours of Bad Boys II exchanges and 8 Mile reenactments, they dropped me off and, before I knew it, the whole thing started up again with my siblings. Some different material—Tommy Boy. Indiana Jones. Davy Crockett. Adventures in Odyssey—but the same technique.
It struck me in a way it never had before that Hollywood has infiltrated the American troposphere so completely as to steer our daily conversation. Humor has become the raft that connects the big screen to the real world—we can’t have the action, the adventure or the romance, but we can have the jokes.
But do we really want to laugh vicariously? Do we want the craft of comedy, rolling along on the waves of trends and late-nite satire, to be hijacked by a few screenwriters, commandeered by the Coen brothers, helmed by James Cameron? How shallow are we? Where did our creativity go?
In the current milieu, when it comes to what’s funny, life is truly imitating art.
* * *
What do I have against comedy writers? Nothing. Give them more money, Joan Rivers! And why have I forgotten about genuinely funny people? I haven’t. There are quite a few hysterically clever people out there. But even they, for the most part, have been sucked in to the cinema stream, oft-reciting Oscar-worthy humdingers or meme-generating kneeslappers.
Perhaps it has been this way for generations. Our grandparents liked slapstick. Our parents liked it a little drier, a little more Monty Python. But our generation? We go for nonsensical humor. Jim Carey and Chris Farley and Dwight Schrute hooked us on ridiculous banter, impossible violence, absurd insults.
But if we lean on pop culture’s deluge of TV and movies, what did people do before the 20th century? How was anyone ever funny before the invention of the movie camera?
Surely there were funny people. I’ll bet George Washington could crack a joke, or Dickens. Some of the writers were amusing, but literature rarely lends itself to read-out-loud humor. We don’t resort to Twain for our sidesplitters—though Shakespeare gave what he could. Even The Onion is better read than recited.
For better or worse, movies are selling us hilarity for the price of a ticket and popcorn, and we’re buying it.
This centralization of humor, created by Hollywood elites and dished out on a silver screen, might not be all bad. Movies teach us to be funny. They add jokes to our repertoire, comebacks to our quiver. They teach us timing, delivery, facial expression, what we should do with our hands. No one with Netflix is ever without material.
But I think it’s also made us dumber, slower, less innovative. Movie lines come to mind faster than our own ideas. Many people who could be funny aren’t actually funny; they simply say funny things. We’ve outsourced our ability to entertain to actors and directors. It might be better if we crowdsourced instead, or just invented the jokes ourselves.
The question is no longer, Can you be funny? All you need to be funny in our society is to recite lines from 90s B-listers or last summer’s blockbusters (with a little presentational flare, of course). The question has become, Can you be original?
After a few years spent correcting grammatical errors and writing subtle, clever headlines in a Chicago newsroom, Griffin Paul Jackson (’11) now does aid work with refugees in Lebanon. He writes about that, God, and, when the muse descends, Icelandic sheep. Read him here: griffinpauljackson.com.