I've long been confused about why comedy television is so much funnier than comedy movies are. And YouTube is funnier still. This should surprise (and maybe even worry) you.
Here's why: YouTube being funny, and specific people being consistently funny, dramatically reduces the cost for finding funny people. And you only need funny scripts and funny performers. The Office famously hired K-Strass The Yo-Yo Guy because of his, frankly, world-class series of deeply awkward local news interviews under various assumed names. This guy was making me laugh hard as could be, and then a network show, caring about their comedy, hired him on. It used to be they had to go to The Comedy Store and wade through bad comics, but even better: this way, they found someone with their same sense of humor. This tone doesn't work very well in standup, and so they'd be extremely unlikely to find someone who could match the tone they wanted.
And, because they had a pretty limited number of world-class comics on staff, they frequently doubled up as writers and performers. These people are hard to find. That's a critical difficulty in the industry.
And it all got much, much easier, with YouTube and Twitter comedy . So why are comedy movies so unrelentingly unfunny?
Well, Kyle Smith makes an interesting point. What if comedy is inherently social, in a way that most genres aren't? Action and romance and drama are things we understand, without much cultural context. But comedy needs that context. And it thrives on it – you need people laughing along with you, even if it's not a literal laugh track.
But, if culture splinters, and we all have little tiny-cultures, the big box-office hits are impossible. Anything that could appeal to that many people would have to draw on the most broad, generally shared stuff and those jokes are tough. Tougher still when you can't be extremely edgy in any meaningful way (which is common enough for studios to ask for).
Great comedians are still pushing boundaries, but the silver screen's economics just don't warrant the kind of investment they'd need to be funny. Even these relatively cheap pictures are going away, because their audiences are evaporating – or more likely, going to the very specific YouTube creators and TV shows they like, which are all different from each other.
It used to be that essentially everything was shared with the people we saw regularly. Don't get me wrong, if blockbuster movies were hard to make funny because local communities were alienated from each other, and we lost a shared context and sense of humor, that would be a strange loss to the world – but probably better for humanity's collective mental health. The whole world laughing in unison sounds like something out of a creepy dystopia, and variety is the spice of life.
Luckily, our humor is not quite so creepy. What seems to have happened is that local communities are alienated from themselves. The splitting of America has happened along thousands of different, extremely minor, cultural lines, largely in people's spare time, and has led to a lack of the more important elements of what culture is supposed to provide. Some of this is the secondary groups like the bowling clubs people have been worrying about for a long time. I'm less concerned about those, because those relationships weren't supplying a lot of the core value from communities, just the casual connections helping people cast a wide net in their communities. As far as I can detect, the internet has actually done wonders for those types of low-commitment connections in the two decades since Bowling Alone was published. But another strange fracture in American culture is the damage done to important pillars of local communities across the nation – churches, mutual aid societies (which got atomized into unions and became hardly worth protecting), real honest-to-God neighborhoods – and some of the difficulty of modern America is that normal conversation has been becoming harder no matter where you are. Can we speak about sports, or the news, with strangers? They're likely as not going to be put off by the topic.
For instance, I've seen a weakening common sense, and a more universal failing of the straight-talk distinction between good and bad. I'm not saying we should all agree on a deep moral philosophy or rubric. Our culture shouldn't provide universal answers, that's for the philosophers, but within a community, the answers should be obvious. Obvious enough, at least, for people to make routine ethical decisions without needing to think about it, and get general moral desserts from how their community understands their actions. We all know each other, so our value systems have a feedback loop. If you're a good person, that gets recognized.
This happens, now, but less than I'd like, and (seemingly) a lot less than it did before.
In the modern era, we've seen the rise of two other ways for people to get moral feedback, a self-looping moral system and more broadcast moral systems. They are both less-than-great, but in different ways.
I shouldn't have to explain why a pre-teen learning to be a Logan Paul's MAVERICK is unhealthy. But I will anyway: best case scenario, we have no idea if that is a healthy way to live. When we do learn, the answer is, no, it definitely isn't, because healthy ways of living are hard to find. As David Foster Wallace explained:
Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Of course, a totally self-centered ethical system at least sort of works. Your own personal search for meaning can keep you steady through a lot in life, and may be necessary if you live in a concentration camp or the high-powered business world, where there is no common endeavor, no group success or failure to help determine. When everything is taken from you, Stoicism is a meaningful refuge – that's why an Emperor invented it. If you have no peers, you can find meaning in yourself. But I don't think you should be surprised to learn: outside of a concentration camp, better options are available. Ideally, Man's Search For Meaning is extremely short. Be a good person, good member of your family, good member of your community, be useful, and put in the effort. Fill in all the other details with the stock-answer from your local church, and assuming that church is a real church and not a cult, bingo. You've got a pretty good, time-tested meaning there. Learning how to fulfill those roles is quite the task, which is why communities take the time to build those habits – but the meaning, the core system, should be found borderline-instantaneously. It's a tremendous gift, and I'd advise against turning it down when offered, unless you're really sure your idea is better. It probably isn't.
When we talk about etiquette, we talk about that system, how we treat people, and how we anticipate being treated. The system has built-in assumptions about risk and reward, good and bad. When you should be embarrassed, and when you shouldn't. Some people assume being polite minimizes embarrassment, but that can't possibly be true. It's a shield, against those who would make unreasonable demands, who would scream and degrade you. Being polite means walking away, and we all know you have no obligation to them. It protects us from those demands, from aggressiveness, and many other things – by embarrassing those who break the rules.
Etiquette is the high-frequency lower-impact way to train ourselves to be better people. In every community, it normalizes around a distinct, but functional, equilibrium. Just like you can't choose what you worship at random, you can't choose etiquette at random, or lack etiquette completely. Almost all of those systems would be degenerate, not fit for sustaining human life. They wouldn't encourage people to thrive.
Knowing that, we should all be deeply frightened that the internet is not known for being a very polite place.
One sort of interesting element of modern atomized internet culture is how well it supports the pursuit of excellence. If you want to be very good at Tetris, or Rubik's Cubes, you'd think you'd want to be alive when they were at their most popular. They had a cultural critical mass, for a time, and everyone could contextualize what that meant, and understood what excellence looked like. Almost everyone gave it a shot, which meant that a huge portion of the world would be able to notice their skill, and could choose to develop it.
But that community understanding and wide pool to draw talent from, that was all very weak. The modern online communities for Tetris and Rubik's Cube are better at those tasks than people used to believe was even humanly possible. The atomized communities had extremely limited focus, and were able to cultivate extremely developed skill sets. Something that pointless is unlikely to achieve that level of dedication any other way. Even things that really matter frequently don't warrant that level of effort.
I think people who say "there are no atheists in foxholes" are (1) intentionally being a dick, but also (2) missing the entire point of whichever religion they might favor. To engage in prayer, a desperate request to something, anything – that's a specific and valuable process, an expression of total vulnerability. To admit when you've run out of means and friends, when no simple trade will suffice and chance will destroy you. We should probably not use as a conversational football, trying to spike it in the end zone of people who disagree with us, trying to score points. But more importantly: it atomizes the nature of religion.
If you think the primary benefit of religion is that your prayer works, you've actually just invented a store. Or begging, I suppose, if you prefer not to tithe.
Prayer, and the process of admitting vulnerability in the face of hope, is spiritual precisely because of what it asks of us, not what we might get out of it. Consider a blessing, an expression of our most fragile hopes for someone else. It is a vulnerable process as well, but whether you can make the blessing come true isn't the critical thing (although, of course, you should try your best). The process is important beyond the transaction, beyond the atomic trade implicit in its literal and nominal structure. If it was just begging God for something, or wishing someone good luck, it wouldn't have that critical (and fundamentally secular) component.
I think it degrades religion to say that people who are afraid to die are trying to hedge their bets at the last minute. Desperation can harm the soul as well as help, and we need to see the grace people find in desperate circumstances as a valuable process, secular or no. We should hear those prayers, and understand what they mean for everyone not with them. It's not an easy task – understanding and compassion in the face of vulnerability never is.
We need service to each other, in combination with requests and wishes. We all owe each other a lot. That's the structure that makes this big dumb blue marble work. But if we forget about the essential nature of these processes, religion is just a social club with different outfits. It can be extremely effective at justifying itself, providing all this explicit value. But is it toxic? How does it treat the people, and the group, who rely on it?
I'm thinking of making a shirt, black, with the words (in white, bold impact) "THINK LESS SHIRT MORE". For some reason, t-shirts (and merchandise in general) have become a meaningful portion of the new internet's funding model. For instance, noted mega-popular YouTubers PewDiePie self-described as a hat retailer, because it made so much more money than other revenue streams. The merch plugs in Jake Paul &co videos are incessant. This isn't as bad as normal fashion – it speaks to how people spend their time, instead of just being a parasite. But it also implicitly impacts how they relate to the people around them. It infects your identity, or at least shows it – this is something you spend time on, think about, and are willing to sacrifice (at least a small amount of money) for.
Atomic society requires more tightly closed-loop value systems. Identities are built around fragile but simple ideas and people (sometimes complete D-bags like Logan Paul), and their longevity is tied to how desperately they self-justify. Hence "THINK LESS SHIRT MORE" – anything to make people commit to a system being worthwhile, to delay the inevitable collapse. They don't (and can't) know what will make someone flourish – it's almost impossible to guess right. Even small tweaks to existing, workable systems can fail – just ask cult leaders, who are overwhelmingly unsuccessful, despite mimicking success reasonably closely.
Many people try to tighten the loop even further – instead of relying on a single person to inform them, they try to find their own meaning. I think contemplation can be healthy – if you know how to do it. With rising rates of anxiety and depression, I suspect most contemplation, at the margin, is not particularly healthy. Why do we think we're so close to enlightenment that we could approach it with a ten-thousandth of the dedication of a monk, and get remotely similar results?
It's a tired and lazy philosophical cliche, but there is a deep sense in which religion attempts to answer questions that aren't questions of fact. Unfortunately, all modern religions do so with a tremendous volume of 'collateral fact' – that's the easy target for internet atheists, but also not a particularly important part of the main thing at work here. It's not (and probably will never be) clear which parts of those collateral facts are essential to the societies it supports to work. But we can guess parts – prayer and blessings, for instance. Being basically honest with each other.
Most of being honest is (again) about vulnerability. You might be surprised how little your personal vulnerability impacts how hurt you get. But that capacity for hurt is the medium through which we develop wholeheartedness. You have to share something sincere and possible to reject. When you give someone the ability to reject you, when you open up to that, you don't just let people say no, you let people say yes.
And there is an issue with wholeheartedness in an atomic society. Purely transactional parts of live cannot support your whole heart.
But more obviously: you can't be vulnerable alone.
"Atom" comes from the Greek 'atomos', meaning indivisible, or unable to be cut. Vulnerability means allowing division to exist. It means being separate from others, letting them walk away. It means allowing yourself to be cut.
We live in a society where we don't ever have to admit or allow that vulnerability, and many people have stopped. They experience pain and take efforts to avoid feeling that way again.
Institutions, frequently too large and strange to comprehend, mediate almost all unavoidable elements of life. Everything else is constrained (by design) to not provoke the intense discomfort of vulnerability, even many churches and religious structures. I'm not sure that's a good direction for society to go. Forcing vulnerability is extremely bad, but if you don't make space for it, real, costly space, time, attention, and understanding, then it'll never become a part of your culture.
I'd like to know how to behave, how to fit into a culture and society that I know will basically work, and lead to full, flourishing humans – if I work for it. I want to put in the effort to have a real society, not just places where people clump and speak the same language. Not just covered by an organization someone nominally administers. A real community.
I want to sacrifice my pride if it means being offered something I've never quite had – a place to belong, instead of just fitting in.
Plus I make some crazy good fudge for potlucks.
I'd like to be vulnerable with you – and I'd like to find a place we can share ourselves without worrying about being overheard.