Once in a while, an old comic line from the 50s hits my brain: Why-y-y-y-y Not?? What the hell was so funny about that? Yet we fell off our couches laughing I watched an old Laugh In once and thought how we lost our dinner laughing so hard at Sammy Davis Jr. doing “Here come the judge. Here come the judge” and all he did was walk on in judicial robes. What was funny. But we died.
So thinking about why not? I thought about Steve Allen on whose show that why not? guy appeared. Steve Allen was a Phoenix boy like me. He was not edgy but he was funny, the sort of host of a show that, if I am not mistaken, led to Jack Paar and Johnny Carson and all the late night shows we have now. Allen’s show had skits and stand-up and singers, etc. Over it all was Allen’s gentle humor, totally out of place in today’s world.
Three guys I remember from his show: Louie Nye, who, I believe, was the why not? guy. Tom Poston who shtick I don’t remember but I can picture him. And Don Knotts, who was so nervous he jumped at everything and couldn’t talk for stuttering but went on to play Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith show, probably one the top ten characters of television sit-coms.
Again, what was so funny? Watching Knotts on Andy Griffith you can still laugh, but those were scripted shows with context where Knotts could play his character out and you could see just how much trouble he was going to get himself into. Yet, similar to Steve Allen, his intentions were good and sincere if overwrought. It may be revealing that despite its locale in the South there were no Blacks in the show that I know of.
What was so funny about Ally McBeal? I recall being on the floor on all fours trying to breathe. That show was on over the turn of the century, Y2K and all that with 9/11 staring us in the face and the debacle of the hanging chads. Anyway, I suspect I would find it funny now, even 20 years later, and would definitely find Portia de Rossi otherworldly (and Ellen Degeneres got her!) in her gorgeousness. But every line in that show struck me and every trope: John and his clean bowls (automated), Barry White in Ally’s bedroom, Fish stepping over every red line and breaking every norm as he dismisses it all with a “Bygone.”
So, deep cultural question: what makes humor funny and then not funny? Why does the passage of time effect the dying of the laughter?