Watching the Thanksgiving episode of the rebooted Murphy Brown on CBS, where Murphy decides to cook dinner with easily anticipated and well-worn results, it struck me exactly why I don’t find the show very funny. And why I really don’t find any of the CBS comedies since the 1990s very funny: Idiot Clowns.
In general, it’s why I don’t find a lot of comedy very funny. Idiot Clown comedy requires an idiot clown — someone so stupid they are unaware of basic reality, a blindness forced on them to enable a (typically) lame joke. I find it cheap and easy and without much value.
More to the point, I just don’t like idiots or clowns in my entertainment.
Here’s why: To me, misery in the world has two main sources: Evil and Idiocy.
Hanlon’s Razor distinguishes idiocy from malice (incompetence from intent), but both of them suck for those who must endure them. That the other party didn’t mean it doesn’t mitigate the damage.
So I can’t fathom why people would want to watch idiots for entertainment. I just don’t understand what anyone could get out of it. The jokes are ancient, there’s usually an injured parties, and the offenders aren’t generally likeable, so what’s the attraction?
Comedians vs Clowns
It’s not that I don’t love comedy.
My list of ‘Ten Most Important Things In Life’ starts with Laughter. It’s one of the most amazing things about being human. (There is even a theory that language sprang from our desire to tell jokes.)
But while I love comedy — and therefore comedians — I don’t find much value in slapstick and clowns. I find the humor childish, cheap, and often based on pratfalls (which I’ve never found funny).
Laughing at someone’s misfortune is kinda fucked up, no?
Better comedy — smarter comedy — comes from incongruity or from finding the universal human flaws we all can laugh at ourselves over.
Anyone can stick their foot in a bucket of something.
Consider the lack of slapstick in anything George Carlin ever did, for instance. (Or Sarah Silverman, who I’ve always thought was Carlin-class. Or Dave Chappelle. Or any of a bunch of top-class comedians.)
Even high-energy “clownish” comedians, like Steve Martin, Robin Williams, or Tracy Morgan, operate at a level far above slapstick. All good comedians work with ideas. Standup comedy outgrew vaudeville long ago!
(FTR: Steven Martin’s LA Story is, I think, a nearly flawless, highly intelligent, beautifully magical, very special romantic comedy. It’s in my Top Five Faves Movies of all time.)
But clowns — as in actual circus clowns — never did anything for me.
Even as a child I found them boring and without interest. (I’ve never found them creepy, let alone scary. I don’t really understand that phobia.)
Part of it is the costume and makeup (and hair). It all seems silly to me. Which, I know is the point, but to me it comes off as silly-silly rather than silly-funny.
I’m the same way with rock bands that are into costumes and makeup (and hair). It just seems kinda silly to me. The music ought to stand on its own.
One thing I liked about bands, such as Springsteen and crew, was the lack of fancy show. No costumes, no elaborate sets, just kick-ass rock and roll. (I do enjoy a decent light show, and there is thematic and narrative rock, which obviously requires the element of “let’s pretend.”)
(Call me a total nudge, but to be honest, even costume parties and the Renaissance Faire (let alone Halloween) seem like things you outgrow as an adult. Maybe something tasteful and subtle to be in the spirit, but it’s been decades since I could really get into it. Says a lot about me, I guess.)
I find actors like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler to be the equivalent of circus clowns. The characters they play are frequently serious idiots, which causes me to think of these (no doubt very talented, not idiotic) actors as idiot clowns.
I rarely go for their movies (and mostly stopped trying; life’s too short).
On the other hand, on similar grounds, I generally don’t care for Seth MacFarlane movies, either, because I find often find them crude and infantile. But MacFarlane himself sounds like an awesome guy.
One thing about MacFarlane is that he’s a Star Trek fan, and his take on it, The Orville, has been a lot of fun. (I’m not 100% on it, but I’ve enjoyed it.) I also enjoyed his last movie, A Million Ways to Die in the West (in part because Sarah Silverman is in it). OTOH, I hated Ted, and I’ve never seen anything to commend his animated TV comedies to me.
In contrast, the only Adam Sandler movie I ever liked was Spanglish, and that was strictly because of Paz Vega, who really spun my wheels. The one with Drew Barrymore, 50 First Dates, wasn’t too bad, either.
What’s telling is that Sandler only acted in those two. He had nothing to do with the writing, directing, or producing. (Spanglish is a James L. Brooks film!)
True (telling) story: I love baseball, and I love movies, so naturally I love baseball movies. Nearly all of them are at least pretty watchable; a few are outstanding.
Except for one, The Benchwarmers, that I took a real dislike to. Because idiot clowns. Then come the end credits… “Happy Madison Productions” … Wait a minute, I know that name… Isn’t that… that golf movie with Adam Sandler?!
(In fact, no, but I’ve never seen (nor wanted to see) Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison, the movies his production company is named for. I’m pretty sure I can live with that.)
But there ya go. The only baseball movie I’ve ever disliked turns out to be an Adam Sandler production. And the reasons I didn’t like it are exactly the reasons I don’t like Sandler in the first place.
(Kinda neat how it was a blind test, though. Seems my taste is consistent. And accurate!)
Will Ferrell is highly regarded by fans and by fellow funny people, so I feel bad not liking him.
He was on Sarah Silverman’s Hulu show, and she clearly adores him, but the bit they did seemed tedious and boring, because it was exactly his kind of humor.
As with Sandler, I like Ferrell okay when he’s not being Ferrell. The more he plays a non-idiot, the more I like him okay.
But I look at his stunts in the baseball world, and shake my head. Gee, a baseball, clown. (Although, certain aspects of the whole thing were pretty funny, like teams trading him for silly things.)
My clown/comedian divide includes Melissa McCarthy.
Who has frequently played, not just an idiot clown, but a fat joke idiot clown, which I’ve always found seriously not funny. In part, yes, because I do take it a bit personally, but also because of its persistence as a personal character trait we can insult freely. (Humor that attacks personal traits, names, and so forth, always seemed inferior to me.)
But then I see her in something like St. Vincent and think, “Holy shit! This woman can really act!”
I love seeing her play real people; she’s really good. Playing the idiot clown, not so much. It’s a waste of her talent.
Lastly, an old example that’s always stuck in my craw…
There once was a very good show, a one-hour comedy on CBS, named Northern Exposure. It ran for six seasons, five of which were excellent.
The last season suffered two fatal flaws: Firstly, the loss of the central character (Joel), whose viewpoint defined the surrealism of the series. Secondly, the telling of stories that seriously didn’t fit the characters established through five previous seasons.
That second problem led to some very disconcerting episodes, where characters suddenly had a crucial character trait never seen before and never to be seen again.
It was as if they were using scripts for some other show.
In a sense, characters developed a case of single-episode idiocy. They forced round characters into square plot holes. Reality was warped to serve a poorly fitting story.
Idiot clown humor is exactly the same thing. Plus pratfalls.
I want to close with something important: I’m just expressing my personal taste here!
If there’s no accounting for taste, sense of humor is the more unaccountable tastes (for instance, I love South Park).
So to be clear, because sometimes I am writing prescriptively, or with regard to what I see as norms, this isn’t one of those times. I have absolutely no concerns whatsoever about anyone else’s sense of humor!
I personally just don’t think clowns or idiots are funny.
And I really don’t like them combined.
December 12th, 2018 at 11:49 am
I’ve never been a fan of idiot clowns where the humor relied solely on those characters. The most prevalent example I can think of is Family Guy, which is developed by Seth MacFarlane. That show has a cast of revolving idiot clowns depending upon the episode. Considering his body of work, his western was a surprise success, probably owing more to the people who performed in it more than his own comedic ability.
Although, to be completely fair, I went from not liking his work to hating him and his work ever since he animated Marge Simpson getting raped by Quagmire.
December 12th, 2018 at 2:16 pm
Yeah, I’m already really conflicted about MacFarlane and didn’t know anything about this. MacFarlane’s animated comedies are completely off my radar. As I mentioned, nothing I’ve ever heard made them appealing, and some things I heard made them turn-offs. This one is a pretty big turn-off!
Certainly his western had some good people in it, but he directed it and is the first named of three writers (and first named of three producers). Maybe he’s growing up a bit? The Orville has a lot to like, although it’s the more “MacFarlane-ish” stuff I like least.
I like the idea, especially in my stories, that people can rise above and be better. I don’t like the modern trend of bringing everything and everyone down to the level of that asshole buddy you hang out with at the bar sometimes.
It’s as if culture has decided being better is hard and inconvenient, so fuck it, let’s not even try. Embrace your inner dickhead. (And besides, look at POTUS45. Shining example that he is.)
December 20th, 2018 at 2:27 pm
I share your dislike of the Murphy Brown show. I tried to watch it twice and the most I could stomach was five minutes. In an interview, Candice Bergen said there would have been no reboot if Trump hadn’t been elected. I despise Trump, but I get no comic relief from Murphy Brown.
Perhaps a redeeming feature of Murphy Brown is that it offers some moral support to a news media maligned by Trump. However, to borrow your word, the show does this in such a clownish manner.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy clownish shows per se. For example, I’m a huge fan of such clownish shows as The Three Stooges, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres. I’m happy to explain the redeeming qualities of these shows to any skeptic. More recent examples are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, clowns that parody real-life clowns.
Now, if you think Murphy Brown is bad, I’ve GOT to ask what you think of another CBS sitcom, The Neighborhood. I find it offensively bad, and not because it violates my PC sensibilities. It’s the only TV show in my entire life that I watch solely because it’s so incredibly bad and I enjoy yelling at it, literally, in front of my wife. My wife doesn’t understand why I do it, but she indulges me. I think that The Neighborhood is the dumbest TV show ever, by far. Scientists tell us that temperature can’t get lower than −460 degrees Fahrenheit. Well, if dumb could be measured by temperature, The Neighborhood is −999 degrees. I truly can’t understand how such a dumb show is possible. It seems to violate fundamental laws of physics.
In any case, I’ll probably stop watching The Neighborhood. Being addicted to crack cocaine would probably be healthier. 🙂
December 20th, 2018 at 4:54 pm
“Perhaps a redeeming feature of Murphy Brown is that it offers some moral support to a news media maligned by Trump.”
That’s a good point. It tends to be preaching to the choir, which is the other thing about shows like this (especially the news satire ones). The people who need to see it most are the ones least likely to watch.
The episodes of Murphy Brown since the Thanksgiving episode have all swung at important topics. Frank got beat up at a Trump rally, for instance. But the clownish stale sitcom sensibility really robs it of any punch.
I’m old enough to have watched both The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres when they originally aired. I enjoyed them — was a regular viewer — but I can’t say I ever saw them as great comedy.
I was more into Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie when it came to basic sitcoms. (As a life-long science fiction fan, my tastes always were towards the fantastic.) Or for that matter, Burns and Allen more than Jackie Gleason or Red Skelton, although I loved all three.
Or Carlin and Silverman over Gallagher and Williams. I’ve just never really gotten slapstick.
“I’m happy to explain the redeeming qualities of these shows to any skeptic.”
I’m happy to listen!
“I’ve GOT to ask what you think of another CBS sitcom, The Neighborhood.”
Never seen it, so I don’t have an opinion. FWIW, I haven’t liked a CBS sitcom since 1995 (see: Reboots). I looked at the Wiki article describing it. Meh; not my cup of tea.
Oddly, I sort of lived it. My family moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in the 1960s, and there was a serious case of culture shock that took years to grow into. Then I moved back to Minnesota in 1984 and got culture shocked all over again! (I lived in New York City until I was five, so I’m basically a city mouse who loves the country.)
December 24th, 2018 at 9:07 pm
“I’m happy to listen.”
If you enjoyed watching Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, that takes all the fun out of redeeming them. I’ll say this much: Both shows poked fun at the materialistic values at the top while poking fun at romantic notions of people living a simple life close to nature.
I agree it wasn’t “great” comedy, but they weren’t trying to be. Both shows managed not to be preachy. Interestingly, a sister show of Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, was annoyingly preachy and morality-laden. I couldn’t stand Petticoat Junction, even though I had a crush on the redhead. 🙂
December 25th, 2018 at 10:40 am
I quite agree they weren’t great comedy, but BH and GA have lasted all this time and still have fans.
PJ much less so. In my case, I had a huge crush on Meredith MacRae! That whole swimming in the water tower thing…
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June 1st, 2022 at 8:42 am
A question that’s been on my mind for a long time now is, What the hell happened to Sarah Silverman? I said in the post that I consider her “Carlin class” as a comedian, but I no longer think so. She seems to have sunk out of sight into the morass of off-the-shelf Hollywood wokeness. The last sighting seems to be some piece of shit unfunny social effort with that stoned idiot Seth Rogan.
Alas, Sarah! You had so much potential.
Get woke, go broke.
Seriously. Keep this woke shit out of our entertainment and focus on telling good stories!
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