I remember the first time I laughed.
It’s not a completely clear memory, obscured by too many shades of gray that only grow hazier the older I get — it’s true what they say: memories are the first to go. To be fair, I’m sure I’ve laughed before this exact occasion, but I remember a specific time where my stomach ached and my constant stream of laughter was only interrupted by occasional gasps for breath and the obligatory knee-slap.
It was when I first saw “Modern Times” starring Charlie Chaplin, a film that my father promised me I would adore, regardless of the lack of sound or dialogue. And as I watched the film — one that was, in its own right, far too layered a story for my young self to comprehend — I was hit with the brilliance surrounding Chaplin’s zany antics.
The film itself, a sprawling satire about the bloodthirsty battle for efficiency in a rapidly industrializing America, was one that I only enjoyed for its surface value; Chaplin would attempt to do something and fail, often resulting in his tumbling around. He would then attempt to do something else and fail, commencing the tumbling once again.
It was indeed a simpler time. And looking back on my fond memories with Charlie and his shenanigans, I now see a decline in our culture’s comedic consumption, with one particularly interesting issue having reared its head upon my trip down memory lane: I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed at something funny.
In recent years, the comedic world has delved into uncharted territories, claiming the surge of ‘Awkward Comedy’ as this generation’s defining footprint. And the cringe-inducing credo has proven to be prevalent the more our mediums develop. Websites like Fmylife.com have garnered a following for their unbridled enthusiasm regarding the more shirt-collar-pulling moments of daily life, while shows like “The Office” manage to deliver punchlines in their reactions, not just their jokes.
Still, I find myself wondering where the substance lies in our comedy of choice. The slapstick of the early film era took advantage of the sudden advent of sound, filling every available moment with a complimentary “BOING” or “POP.” The sex comedies of the early 1960s served as an escape from the sexual alienation of a culture devoid of sharing what goes on behind closed doors. The spoof-heavy subculture of the 1980s spoke volumes about a generation too dazed in its own excess to bother with any semblance of originality. And the romantic comedies that filled the 1990s were not without their edgy cynicism during a time when displacement became hip.
Perhaps our sudden obsession with slow-moving comedic subtext is a sign that we have simply moved beyond the need for actual jokes, and instead found solace in subtlety.
Comedy is undeniably a reflection of our social spectrum. And perhaps our more layered and intricate comedy — “the thinking man’s funny” as many have deemed it — means more than we realize, or perhaps want to realize. In turbulent times, comedy reaches its pinnacle of importance; according to the Nielsen Rating Scale, in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks, sitcoms saw a viewer increase of over 17 percent per week. The nation turned to the confidence of its comics as a relief from the realities of our culture’s insecurities.
But now, as America nears a future that even analysts have deemed unpredictable, perhaps our comedy is reflecting that very ambiguity, an inability to hit a punchline without the nervousness of outsider perspectives. We lack the assurance about our culture’s next step, and our comedic elements lack any sort of confidence as well. In an attempt to ignore the blunders at home, we laugh at those we watch, not with them.
The jokes are no longer what make us laugh — it’s the idea of what they mean, what they’re indicative of. Our refusal to self-reflect on all that we have done can only be cemented by our sudden love of watching others fail. And within those stilted silences that we deem hilarious, our own culture waits nervously to see the punchline of what our own awkward mistakes will leave us with.
And in the end, maybe that’s why memories of my first encounter with Charlie Chaplin strike me as still consciously relevant. I find myself not witnessing the same subgenre of comedy, nor do I find that today’s comedy even bothers to attempt that connection. But Chaplin’s work remains cautiously timely, regardless of where our comedic compass points us. Because there is no denying that tumbling and failure may, sadly, still be a reflection of our modern times.