Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It's hard to laugh at what used to be funny

Conan O'Brien debuted as the host of the Tonight Show last night. I've been watching Conan since early high school, probably only a year or two after he got his own show, and I used to adore him. My best friends and I worshiped Conan, much like we did the Simpsons: because they were hilarious, but also because they took risks with their mainstream platforms.

This is before the Internet became the entertainment fixture it is today, and so it literally was a different age, in some ways more similar to the Major Network era of the 50s and 60s (ABC, CBS, NBC and nobody else) than to the media landscape of today. True, there was cable, but that really only meant that the number of corporate-controlled outlets for entertainment was somewhat larger; it didn't mean anything was really different.

(To give you an idea of what I mean: I was watching a few episodes from the first season of the Simpsons the other night, and in the audio commentary of one, they mentioned that FOX flagged their use of the word "groin" as being potentially offensive. Imagining, in this post-Family Guy/South Park world, that the word "groin" was problematic so recently really makes me marvel at how quickly social mores can change.)

Anyway, what we loved about Conan back then was that he used his mainstream platform to make a different kind of show. He had recurring characters like the Masturbating Bear, for instance, which was just a guy in a bear costume pounding away at his crotch while wearing a diaper. Or the Potato Judge: an actual potato that fought in Vietnam and came back home to administer some hard-edge justice in a court of law (like sentencing a kid to life in prison for stealing a bicycle). Conan couldn't be compared to anything else on television back then.

Except for the Simpsons, and Monty Python reruns. The Simpsons was also totally different: an animated show that didn't talk down to anyone, that wasn't afraid to be totally absurd ("McBain to base: Under attack by commie Nazis!"), and that, quite often, wasn't funny (it's not a risk if it never fails...) All of the above applies equally to Monty Python, which I have to believe laid the groundwork for the Simpsons and Conan (who used to write for the Simpsons, of course).

And the thing about a risky, groundbreaking show is that, a few years down the line when the ground has been thoroughly broken and what was once risky is now tame and cliche (or worse), it just isn't as funny. Watching Conan last night, I smiled a few times, and maybe laughed out loud once. And watching these early Simpsons episodes (and I know it gets better after the first season, so I still have hope) I'm more amused than rendered helpless with glee, as I once was.

I'll always love Conan, the Simpsons and Python for being there, taking risks and doing something truly different just when my sense of humor was being forged. I can't think of a better time to grow up than during the golden age of one of the greatest TV comedies of all time (if not the greatest). But, as I inevitably rewatch those shows over and over, I'm sad to think that what once provoked laughter will now only inspire bemused smiles.