When you looked at him closely at the Oscars, beneath the Botox and blackface, you could tell that Billy Crystal was at one point a funny man. There remains in his persona a semblance of the sarcasm and endearing snark that made him a top-grossing comedic actor. But as the host of the Academy Awards a few weeks ago, as everyone knew would be the case, he was predictable, desperate and out of touch.
You could rightly say that this was right up the Academy’s alley. It’s well documented that they’re the whitest, oldest organization this side of the Harvard Board of Directors. For the rest of us viewers — and there were about 38 million of them — Crystal just wasn’t very funny. He fell into that gray territory between the SNL realm of “somewhat amusing” and Jay Leno’s kingdom, “downright painful to watch.”
So what causes this? Why do funny actors lose their ability to induce laughter? We’ve seen it happen with Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase and Adam Sandler. Unfortunately, it may be happening to Will Ferrell, although he’s still a hot little potato and it’s definitely too early to crash his funeral.
The standard argument goes that as these actors become celebrities, they lose touch with what real people find funny. There’s a good deal of truth to that. In the same way that a white comedian can’t really get to the bottom of race, someone who has a personal driver can’t make jokes about traffic. The funniest comedians still act like human beings. This is why people love Louis C.K. and worship Jon Stewart. They’re stars, but they’ve retained their normality.
The others, those who allow themselves to reach a certain level of celebrity, soon find that their audience can no longer relate to them. They become parodies of themselves, has-beens. Reinvention is always a possibility (see the cases of Alec Baldwin and Danny DeVito), but for most comedians it remains elusive.
There’s an additional aspect to this argument, however, and it concerns the nature of power: Powerful people generally aren’t funny. Mitt Romney pretended that a woman at a diner in New Hampshire pinched his butt. Obama had a cringe-worthy line about spilled milk in his last State of the Union. You could argue quite validly that the reason they aren’t funny is because they have more important matters at hand. Namely, getting elected president and being president. Yeah, the media tears them apart when they say something awkward in an attempt at humor, but the criticism is underlined by the knowledge that these politicians have other qualities that compensate for their one shortcoming.
So that’s what’s happening in the present. What we’re going to start seeing in the future, though, is an increasing prevalence of humor in our national discourse: Politicians are going to get funnier.
It’s already happening, slowly. Nancy Pelosi did that video attacking Stephen Colbert; it wasn’t uproarious, but it was a good effort from a woman we don’t often associate with lightheartedness. Jon Huntsman’s daughters made a video mocking Herman Cain’s strange smoking ad. In the next few decades, we’re going to see more jokes and movie quotes in the State of the Union. Sure, they’ll be about two or three weeks behind the rest of pop culture, but it’s gonna happen.
What will it look like?
In 2017, after consolidating his thirty-year third term, Ayatollah Obama will quote classic SNL bits at a press conference: “I AM IN CHARGE OF 500 MILLION AMERICAN CONVERTED MUSLIMS. I AM VERY IMPORTANT. I DRIVE A HYUNDAI SONATA, AS DOES EVERYONE IN DETROIT NOW.”
In 2030, following a coup by the rapidly deteriorating Sarah Palin and the vestiges of the NRA and Tea Party, swiftly accompanied by the end of women’s suffrage, an elderly Rick Santorum will crack wise: “What’s the best thing about a blow job? …. Ten minutes of silence!” And people will chortle, because obviously blow jobs are illegal. And then they’ll go back to having unprotected missionary sex during ovulation.
In 2043, President Bieber will make fun of Speaker of the House Lohan, Senators Ansari and Jonah Hill, and Vice President Biden, who will confusedly ask his aides to wheel Ol Joe out to the White House driveway to finish washing his Trans Am.
America, this is your future.