Did Comedy Die in 2022?

Alfie Bown

May 1, 2022

We know what happened at the Oscars, and no one needs to read another article about it. What matters least about the event is who was in the wrong and whether violence (in the form of a pantomime actors slap) was a requisite response to a dark joke (in the form of mocking an illness), even if it was all the internet could talk about for weeks (even while there was a war going on). What matters most about it is whether it embodies a significant change in social life and in particular in our relationship with comedy. The incident occurred between two men famous for their comedy and it took place on a stage renowned for its ‘roasting’ humor, but it nevertheless provoked personal and social tension among those on stage and off it. We often hear the claim that no one can take a joke anymore, but what if no one can take a joke anymore?

Freud – as is well known – is one of the key theorists of comedy. In 1905 he wrote Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, a book that continues to influence theories and debates around comedy today. There, Freud established what would later be thought of as ‘relief theory’, the idea that comedy serves a critical social function in providing a momentary elevation of taboos in which a social group or individual can derive pleasure.

The Russian Marxist Mikhail Bakhtin developed these ideas in creating the concept of ‘carnival,’ developed in his books on Rabelais and on Dostoevsky in the 1960s. Bakhtin’s redirected Freud’s more psychological emphasis - which had focussed on the psychic processes of the laughing subject - into an explicitly political argument. For Bakhtin, it is wrong to see laughter as apolitical, as a momentary escape from political and social norms. Instead, if humor can be seen as overturning or disruptive, this is only so relationally; laughter’s meaning is inseparable from its political context. In other words, humor can function as a kind of ‘safety valve’ – appearing to be a carnivalesque destruction of norms but in fact serving to allow those social codes to maintain their hold on the social group in question.

Many commentators, in particular Anglophone academics (perhaps as comedy began to change in their own social worlds), read this position as an argument that comedy served a purely conservative social function. By operating as a safety valve, comedy became the ally of the power structures which it kept in place. On the contrary, for Bakhtin and probably also for Freud, laughing together in momentary relief might rather serve as the first connection between people that could well develop. To put it simply, laughing together and at each other might lead to more directly political forms of solidarity and community.

To cut a long story short, we might say that both Freud and Bakhtin saw a kind of universal solidarity that was possible via comedy – that in laughing together there emerges a latent potential for a shared rebellion. In such collective experiences, it is not so much the content of jokes that is political (as it is with the question of whether Dave Chapelle is transphobic, etc, that has focussed our attention so much in recent discussions), as it is of whether it creates a space for this formally transgressive experience of a universalizing shared laughter between individuals.

As Bakhtin put it, carnival laughter “is not an individual reaction to some isolated ‘comic’ event. Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people.” Taboos and restrictions are the foundation of culture – and therefore of cultural differences. When those taboos are crossed, even amid the possibility of offense, the relativity of cultural difference becomes visible and solidarity across boundaries becomes possible. It is precisely because comedy crosses taboos that it can function as an ignition for solidary and for universality.

In the last twelve months, several old comedies were resurrected. In 2021 we saw And Just Like That, a remake of Sex and the City, which initially premiered in 1998. In 2022 there was a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which initially ran in 2000. Comparing the first episodes of their original seasons run with the new seasons, Jela Krecic has argued that the function of comedy in society has fundamentally shifted within the last 20 years. While there was a continuity of sorts in the form of ‘relief’ comedy found in both Freud and Bahktin’s time, something changes between the year 2000 and now.