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Channel surfing can sometimes have unintended consequences. For instance, incessantly flipping between Sunday football games can lead to your wife contemplating . Channel surfing between late night infomercials can lead you to buying the wrong “ ” product. And perusing random cable channels can lead to forced reminiscing. Case in point, I happened across an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air the other day, and it got me thinking about how far comedy, that is, what we as a culture perceive to be funny, has come. Will Smith playing a street-wise fish-out-of-water used to make us all laugh like a stoned baby watching a YouTube clip of itself. Now, our tastes have changed. I’m sure we would love to believe our collective sense of humor has become more , but in truth, it’s just different. What we laugh at today doesn’t seem foreign or strange to us in the moment, but would the younger versions of ourselves understand our humor at all? I doubt it. What we find funny today is a product of who we are as people and as a society. What we found most funny in any given period from our past, says more about who we were at that time than any of us might care to admit. To prove this to you, I will take you through my own personal comedy lineage to see how my own sense of humor has been from through the present. Each stop along the way will be a movie, TV show, or comedy special that changed, expanded, or flipped my sense of humor on its ass. As you read along, you’ll no doubt get to know the many people I have been over my 26 years on this Earth. My hope is that somewhere along the way, you’ll discover someone you used to be as well. It’ll be a long journey, so be sure to bring your ShamWow-Snuggie, lots of popcorn, and a laugh track.
1990 – Big (on VHS)
My first comedic memory. Though I was way too young to get all the jokes, this movie made me laugh from beginning to end.
: Carefully eating tiny baby corn. Even now, whenever I find baby corn in a salad or I clearly shouldn’t have ordered, I pick it up and nibble on it as an homage.
1991 – Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
One of my first, and still most embarrassing memories, is rapping along to the opening credits in front of my whole family. Thank God there was no YouTube then, or I would have never lived this down. It seems weird to think that Will Smith on this show. His transformation from rapper/wholesome sit-com star to full-fledged is truly unbelievable and definitely superior to Mark Wahlberg. Fresh Prince was the first sit-com I was ever addicted to. I say addicted, because that’s what my love of TV comedy would turn into in the coming years. They say admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, but screw it. Rehab is for quitters, Fresh Prince marathon!
1992-1995 – TGIF on ABC
Full House, Family Matters, Step by Step, Dinosaurs, and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. Once upon a time, TGIF was my . Some of my fondest family memories are being curled up on the couch with my Mom and Dad watching the most gentle comedy imaginable. Sure the canned laughter and wholesome family nature of all the shows was a little hokie, but at the time, I didn’t care. Those shows made me happy, and they protected my fragile sensibilities from the pain and suffering of the real world. No child should be exposed to the reality of how terrible people really are by watching .
Highlight: There were a lot to choose from. Urkel, Michele Tanner, The Artist formerly know as Uncle Jesse. But in my mind one clip stands out among the rest.
1996 – MADtv
For those of you with confused and/or judgmental looks on your faces right now, I can explain. When I was a child, my bedtime was 8 o’clock. This was sometimes massaged to 9 or 9:30 on Saturdays, but either way, I had to go to sleep before 10. This obviously prevented me from watching any Saturday night sketch comedy in the living room, but I had a secret weapon. A 5 inch portable TV. I could turn the volume way down to the point where only I could hear it, and scroll the UHF/VHF bands until something good came through clearly. There was only one problem. I couldn’t tune in NBC. I only got Fox, CBS, and . That meant Saturday Night Live was out of the question, and thus, I watched MADtv. Trust me I would have rather watched SNL, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
Highlight: Alex Borstein as Mrs. Swan.
1996 – Unknown Midget Commercial
There was one fateful evening when my parents stayed out really late, and thus I was able to watch Saturday night TV, in all its colorful, full volume glory. As MADtv ended, a commercial came on. I have no idea what it was a commercial for, but the sounds and images that played out before me will stay in my mind forever. "Eye of the Tiger" was playing as the camera panned to a football field. At one end of the field stood a midget in a cowboy costume. The camera cut to the other end of the field. There stood another midget, dressed as Superman. They started running towards one another. As the music intensified, both tiny men were running as fast as their little legs could carry them. As the song crescendoed, the midgets collided in the middle of the field. They didn’t brace for impact or lower their shoulders; their faces and tiny abdomens smashed together as if the collision itself was unexpected. They both fell to the ground, seemingly unconscious. THE END. That was it. The screen went black for a moment before the next ad for Jack Furrier’s Western Tire Center came on. I sat there stunned for at least a minute. Then I began to laugh. My laugh turned into a full body cackle. The cackle turned into an uncontrollable giggle that made my face hurt and lasted until my parents got home. Had I been older than 11, they would have thought I had gotten high while they were out, but instead they simply told me to go to bed after I was why I was laughing so hard. This was the moment when my love of humor was born.
1997-1998 – Adam Sandler Movies (and 1 album)
Before he made unbearable travesties of film like Grown Ups or Jack and Jill, Adam Sandler was a comedy god to teenage boys everywhere. , The Wedding Singer, and The Waterboy were to me what Airplane and Caddyshack were to my parents. Now I won’t debate the merits of those two films against the , but I will say that these movies were the funniest thing around in their time. It’s also worth mentioning Sandler’s comedy album What the Hell Happened to Me is ten times funnier than any of the three movies above. I’m not saying that to impugn the movies, I’m just trying to covey how hilarious the album really was.
1999 – Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
My parents pulled the most dastardly of all parental maneuvers to keep me from seeing the original Austin Powers. They had all of their friends over for dinner. I was enjoying myself and making conversation with the grown-ups. Then Mom and Dad sent me to my room because the movie was “inappropriate for children”. Well I sulked in my room until their friends left and my folks fell asleep, then I watched the movie with the volume on low,
. What was hilarious is that by the time the second movie had come out, Austin Powers had become tame compared to everything else out there at the time, and my parents took me to see it in the theatres. The first Austin Powers bridged the gap for me between the crude or angry humor of Adam Sandler movies and the pervasive sexuality that came to dominate comedy films such as the next stop on the journey.
Highlight: “Baby. The other other white meat. Baby. It’s what’s for dinner.”
1999-2003 American Pie Movies
As cliché as it sounds, I was totally coming of age as these movies were coming out. The over-sexualized plots of these movies were probably not great for a "high school kid really hoping to graduate without any kids" to be watching, but what’s done is done.
Highlight: There are no highlights. All three movies are blurred together to the point where I can’t think of a single scene or line that stood out from the rest. I can't believe they're making a fourth one.
2003 – Van Wilder
I watched this movie before I went to sleep every night for the entire summer before college. No surprise, I didn’t finish in four years. In retrospect, it probably was not the best idea to subconsciously condition myself to follow in Van’s footsteps. Yay for Pass/Fail classes and Summer School!
Highlight: The whole movie from start to finish is a highlight. If I had to choose I would say Tara Reid because the movie is the last known footage of her looking like a human.
2003-2005 – Old School, Dodgeball, and Wedding Crashers
I grouped these flicks together because they’re most likely on everybody’s list. I saw each of them more times than I can count. They’re important to me from a comedy perspective because they ushered in the current era we’re in now, where comedy plots are dominated by man-boys who don’t want to grow up. I’m not pointing that out to say the business has gotten stale. I love these movies and all the movies they paved the way for like: 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and The Hangover.
Highlight: The confused and judgmental look Owen Wilson gives Vince Vaughn as they were walking away, nude portrait in hand, from the house in Wedding Crashers.
2004 – Family Guy (on DVD)
Family Guy is important for two reasons. First, it showed me that just because a show is cancelled or no one watches it, doesn’t mean it isn’t . Second, it revealed to me the joy that is watching a full season of TV straight through. I must have watched Family Guy Vol. I&II twenty times each my freshman year. Later, I would use TV on DVD as a way of spending time with the Spectawife-to-be without spending any .
Peter: “Lois, Who’s the Boss is not a food.”
Brian: “Swing and a miss.”
2004 – Super Troopers (on DVD)
I forced my wife to watch this with me as for this column. I still think it’s absolutely hilarious. She accused me of being stoned. That about sums up Super Troopers.
Highlight: The snozberries taste like snozberries.
2005 – Dane Cook - Retaliation
Don’t even hate on it! You were here too. We all thought Dane Cook was funny once upon a time. That is until we figured out he’s an . Still, we can’t choose our memories, so he makes the list.
Highlight: Watermelon is the only good flavor of Jolly Rancher candy. If you say Sour Apple, I’ll stab you in the jaw. Don’t believe me? Look for me after the show. I’ll be the guy in the lobby stabbing jaws.
2006 - Arrested Development
Before I profess my undying love for this show, I must thank our perpetually sticky editor from the land of maple syrup for introducing me to this show and multiple times. With that out of the way, I have no problem saying this is my . Though I was anything but intelligent at the time, this show opened a whole new part of my brain. A show could be hilarious and incredibly intelligent at the same time. This new found awareness led me to shows like 30 Rock and Community down the road.
Tobias: “I'm afraid I prematurely shot my wad on what was supposed to be a dry run if you will, so I'm afraid I have something of a mess on my hands.”
2006 – Ron White – They Call Me Tater Salad
. My Mother is from Wichita Falls, TX and my Dad is from Cheyenne, WY. So, on some level I was supposed to like redneck comics and Blue Collar Comedy. I , but I do think Ron White is freaking hilarious and this special is the pinnacle of his talent. This is an important stop because it allowed me to connect with my comedic roots while my sense of humor was really evolving into what it is today.
2006-2007 – Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Grandma’s Boy, and Clerks II (on DVD)
I’ll give you one guess what I was doing a lot during these years. Don’t judge, I don’t anymore.
2008 – Tropic Thunder
This movie is on this list because it shook up my comedic sensibilities. My comedy life had been dominated by stoner flicks and Judd Apatow movies throughout college until Ben Stiller and came along. Like Downey’s great line: “I don’t read the script, the script reads me”; this movie read me like a book. Every note, every unexpected cameo, and every satirical detail was pitch perfect. Other than Derek Zoolander and Tony Stark, Tugg Speedman and Kirk Lazarus are the best roles of Stiller and Downey’s respective careers.
Highlight: All the fake commercials at the beginning, every scene with Les Grossman, and this:
2008 – Daniel Tosh – Completely Serious
Before he got his own show, Daniel Tosh exploded my brain and made me laugh so hard my sides hurt in this hour long special. His “douchebag with a big friendly smile” style resonated with me. Clearly I wasn’t the only one as his clip show, Tosh.0, is still going strong. He reminds me of Dennis Miller in that he talks down to his audience and isn’t afraid to tell jokes that they won’t get. This special reawakened my love for standup comedy and led me to the next guy on the list.
Highlight: “Have you ever wondered why there are storm chasers [in Nebraska]? An hour in Omaha I’m looking for a tornado to take me any place. That’s why they’re all obese. So they’ll stay on the ground.”
2010 - Aziz Ansari – Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening
Not since Robin Williams’ Live on Broadway have I laughed so hard from start to finish during a comedy special. Aziz is the best comic working right now. Hands down.
2010 – Archer (on Netflix WI)
Proof of what an American James Bond would be. This show is the n right now. I can understand not watching it if you aren’t a huge fan of misogyny, but otherwise, this show needs to be on your DVR. If you find you can stomach this show, The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are as well.
Highlight: The “Skytanic” episode.
2011 – The Lonely Island and SNL Digital Shorts
I’ll end with what I believe to be the pinnacle of comedy in our society today. I cannot remember anything that has resonated with our communal sense of humor like The Lonely Island. From "Lettuce" and "Lazy Sunday" to "Dick in a Box" and "Mother Lover" to "Jack Sparrow" and "Shy Ronnie" every clip or song is hilarious from start to finish. What’s even more interesting is that people of all ages find this hilarious. Usually humor is extremely segregated by age, but not this stuff.
Highlights: Each clip is a highlight of its own. Here’s my personal favorite:
So as you can see, I have come a long way as a comedy fan. From family friendly sitcoms and popcorn flicks, my sense of humor has “evolved” into a dual appreciation for both witty, intelligent humor (Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Community) and grotesque portrayals of the worst human beings imaginable (Daniel Tosh, Archer, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). I think this double edged sensibility is something we find in society as well. We like to think our tastes have advanced and become more intelligent, but we still laugh our asses off at a YouTube clip of a blind kid shorting his jump into the pool. Williams Shakespeare was a master because his plays spoke to the nobility through incredible prose AND the peasants through “16th century dick and fart” jokes. The only difference between then and now is that we are each of us peasant and noble. We each have an appreciation for both high and low brow entertainment. At the outset of my own journey, comedy was neither overly smart nor overly vulgar. As I have grown up, so to has comedy, becoming more intelligent and more adult. This split nature exists to serve the appetites of society at large.
So what does our current comedy climate say about us? I believe it says we’re finally being honest with ourselves. We are for the first time, willing to admit what we want. We’re willing to admit that we want intelligent niche comedy that not everyone will get. At the same time, we’re owning up to our love of being childishly adult. I believe we are on an all-time comedy high because of this honesty. How long will it last? I can’t say. But so long as we can be honest with ourselves about where we’ve come from and where we are now as appreciators of comedy, this funny journey will continue. I cannot wait to see where it heads next. In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be watching hours upon hours of sitcoms blissfully uninterrupted thanks to my ShamWow-Snuggie and a wife that understands.
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