Thursday, May 7, 2009

On Humor Through the Ages: Simpsons and Shakspeare

Last night I was thinking about timely and timeless humour. Simpsons jumped to mind immediately, with their recent venture to mainstream/core video games with their episode on Halo.

Specifically, last night I was chuckling to myself, as I do every night in preparation for my inevitable rise as a world dominator, over the Lieutenant LT Smash joke from the Simpsons episode about sub-liminal Navy recruitment. The evil need to find things to laugh about aside, I wondered why such an old joke is still funny.

When learning about Shakespeare, one of the things that is often discussed is how the bard's tragedies are timeless while his comedies are less so. In fact, what is defined to be comedy way back when is different that the accepted definition we hold now. While this makes some lick of sense, I can't help by think that I really do enjoy Shakespeare and it's usually for the humour.

One could argue that what I'm enjoying is the modern interpretation of the literary and the layer of directoral comedy that is super imposed on top of a performance. However, when reading the plain text, I still perceive lines as humourous. Whether this is intrinsic in the writing itself or another figment of my personality appearing in my personal interpretation of the tome is left to be determined.

Perhaps we could look at another artist, such as Chaplin. If you would recall from Shakespeare in Love, the playwright has to compete with things such as extreme slapstick and cock fights, which explains partially why there are often vicious combats sequences in his plays. Signs point towards timeless comedy as we can still slapstick sticking around at least until Chaplin's era.

However, I personally don't see too too much merit in ol' Charlie's movies these days. Then again, maybe I haven't been watching the right films. Those that derived their work from Chaplin, such as Jackie Chan and Rowan Atkinson, I find funny.

I guess the big question is, how much does novelty play in humour? There are some jokes that are extremely funny because they are timely. It's the "funny because its true" genre that loses its context over time as people forget how their predecessors lived and the social influences of the time. For example, Bush jokes are a laugh a dozen, but only for the last decade. Wait until a present day newborn is of age, and she'll probably not find it funny to talk smack about a former president.

On the other hand, it is not fair to label the entirety of comedy as timely and incapable of withstanding the test of time. There are some things that ring true always. As well, comedy evolves, as slapstick did and the evolution does wonders in helping people appreciate and connect with prior work.

So, while there may be some jokes in Shakespeare's work that we will never understand, we can find relief in knowing that some of the things that we find funny now will still be funny in centuries to come.

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